The Habs Will Break Your Heart

I’m of a generation that grew up without religion, so I was a late convert to the Church of the Montreal Canadiens. I grew up a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, so I knew disappointment at a young age. Following years of Leafs failure, my hometown Ottawa got an NHL team, and naturally I became a Senators fan, which was kind of like breaking up with your girlfriend to date her younger, less damaged cousin. The Leafs and the Sens formed The Battle of Ontario, and each spring we’d gather in seedy watering holes to watch the NHL version of a cat fight. The Sens would annually disappoint as well, and following the 2004-2005 lockout I found myself in need of a new team. Now living in Montreal, I fell hard for the Habs, told them I loved them after our first date, introduced them to my parents, gave them a key to my apartment. It was a torrid affair, filled with drunken fights and make-up pucks. But in the last few days I’ve come to realize something about the Habs that no one tells you going in. That they’re inherently flawed. That they’re more concerned with aesthetic than happiness. That they’re vain, and led astray by an all too influential French media. And I realized that the Montreal Canadiens, like a poem or a woman, will break your heart.

By most accounts Randy Cunneyworth is a good man. Cunneyworth was hired early Saturday morning as the interim head coach of the Canadiens after the club dismissed Jacques Martin. Cunneyworth is a hockey lifer. He lives and breathes the sport. He was a good NHL player, and following retirement he went to the AHL as a player-coach in Rochester for the Americans, and was soon elevated to the position of head coach.  He was considered for several head coaching jobs in the NHL over the past few years, but always seemed to come up short. And so one must feel for Cunneyworth in that though he has realized his potential by becoming an NHL head coach (and of the estimable Canadiens, no less) he is doomed to failure. Not because he isn’t a good coach, just a few games in we don’t know that yet. Not because he isn’t a hard worker, a dedicated employee. The man has lived in Rochester AND Hamilton for godsakes. I won’t drive through those cities. No, Cunneyworth is doomed to failure because he doesn’t speak French.

To the French Canadian media, the Canadiens’ head coach not speaking French is an unpardonable sin. I’m not sure what the French Canadian media does in the off-season in the absence of hockey, and after the death of the Expos. I imagine they take family vacations in Baie des Chaleurs and discuss David Desharnais’ ice time, and how to force Bob Gainey to rush Guillaume Latendresse into failure. There are likely some strange midnight ceremonies where they all bow to a burning Patrick Roy effigy. During the season they do their best to manage the team by proxy, even if it means manipulating facts and propagating fiction. In the past few days many a French journalist has supported their calls for a Francophone head coach with polls and statistics seemingly pulled from thin air. 83% of Habs fans want a French-speaking coach. 75%. 92%. These numbers could be real, but frankly I don’t care. The manner in which they’ve treated Cunneyworth in the past few days, and by extension the team in the past two decades, is inexcusable. See, the French Canadian media is the Habs’ daddy, an angry and overbearing father who is tirelessly meddlesome.

The mandate of the French media is to force their will on the Canadiens. They believe the team’s general manager and head coach must be able to speak French fluently, and preferably be Quebecois. They lament the lack of Quebec-born players on the team, but will forgive such a travesty as long as the hierarchy come from no further West than Rockland, Ontario. And if this was forty years ago, and the Habs got their pick of the best of the Quebec-born litter before the rest of the league, I could understand their position. But it’s 2011, and the Habs haven’t won a thing since 1993. The closest they came was in 2010, when an overachieving team took the city on an amazing journey, one that brought the Anglo and Franco communities together. One that I wish the French media would remember more clearly, to realize that winning trumps language, that the intoxicating pride of victory cures all.

The Habs run to the conference final in 2010 was one of the happiest and most memorable times in my life. I’m not an optimistic man, or a happy man, by nature. Anyone who has read one of my two books knows that I’m more concerned with loss and addiction than sunshine and lollipops. Some would say I’m bitter, but they’re assholes. But sometime during the first round against the heavily favoured Washington Capitals, I started to believe. I edged towards optimism. I crept towards the false light of, well, melancholy anyway. You had to. The city took on an aura, a collective feeling of hope and empowerment.

My friends and I would meet around 6pm at the Copacabana on St. Laurent to prepare for the games. We didn’t go to the games, because we couldn’t afford it. We were the masses, the fans the French media thinks it’s including in those suspect polls. We had to arrive early to ensure a seat as every bar, bistro, and dépanneur with a television was full by 6:20. We were fortunate enough to have a reserved table, but we enjoyed that feeling of privilege, and laughing at those who would show up after 6:30 expecting to find seats. We watched on the French-language RDS, because whether you were French or English whatever Bob Cole was speaking on CBC was unfamiliar to all of us. We did shots of Jagermeister when Habs’s assistant coach Kirk Muller was shown on screen. JagerMullers. It was the most involved I’ve ever felt in sport, more than any Olympics or World Junior tournament.

Superstitions were quickly born: ordering the same food, same drinks, sitting in the same seats. During one of the Capitals games, the team was up and one friend left our table to scold another for singing The Ole Song too early. And the table of offenders took their scolding, understanding where they had gone wrong. But it was more than superstition or idiosyncrasy. It was as if we were a part of the team, like our actions mattered as much as Jaroslav Halak’s glove hand or Roman Hamrlik’s defence. Watching those games could have you run the entire gamut of emotions, from desolation to euphoria. And there was a girl. A girl I loved dearly, who would join us and stay through the first few periods, then pay for my drinks and meet up with me after the game so that I could slur her the adventures of the third period, and occasional overtime. It was perfection.

And they kept winning. We kept winning. One friend had to travel during some of the games, and so in the waning minutes of wins we’d call him and put my cell phone in the middle of the table so that he could hear the sounds of the bar, be part of the moment. Strangers would come by and speak to this ghost of a Habs fan, and talk about the game, about Halak, about PK Subban, and about the city. And the city was united, French and English, for one cause, for one hope, a hope of a Stanley Cup victory. We wanted the chalice to come home. We wanted the late spring of our birthright. We wanted the parade to take the usual route. This is what the French media so conveniently forgets when the team is less successful, that winning is the language of Habs fans, not French.

Then, it all ended when the Habs hit a wall called the Philadelphia Flyers. As game 5 of the conference final wound down, the city stood as one to thank the team for the most memorable spring since 1993. The Copa bartender, Carlos, a Habs fan like no other, brought a round of shots to our table and we toasted the team in silence. Soon after that feeling was gone. And we tried to figure out where we went wrong, if we had erred in some way, if we were responsible. If only we had tried harder. If only we hadn’t taken it all for granted. If only we could have given more.

And the girl was gone. And we tried to figure out where we went wrong, if we had erred in some way, if we were responsible. If only we had tried harder. If only we hadn’t taken it all for granted. If only we could have given more.

And Montreal went back to being just another city awaiting summer, which would turn to fall, and with it the promise of another run, the hope of another spring that would have us collectively holding our breaths, holding each other, believing as one in the impossible, of a return to greatness, of another love. But they never came.

And the sense now, removed from that time, and living in Toronto, watching from afar as the French media does its best to take down a good man, is that it will never come again. The Canadiens’ management will inevitably bend to the will of the French media and hire some over-matched French coach. It’ll be the Mario Tremblay era all over again, and the Habs will continue to struggle as an also-ran, instead of being the crown jewel of the sport, the New York Yankees of hockey. There will be no parades on the usual route.

As a Habs fan, I don’t care if the coach speaks Inuktitut, as long as I can have that feeling of 2010 back. To see a great city come together again, to be empowered by hope, to have that girl back, and maybe go home again. The optimist in me, what little is left of him, thinks: maybe. But the true me, the writer trading bitterness for book deals, knows that it’s far more likely that we’re destined for springs in perpetuity of broken hearts.