Thursday, 23 February 2017


What Matters

During the late 80s I lived on the ground floor of an apartment tower in downtown Montreal, close to McGill University and Mount Royal. However the view from my suite wasn’t much to look at, my windows faced the rear, down slope into a rectangular well of dead space formed by adjacent high-rises. One warm May evening every tenant had their balcony doors and windows open. And every single one of us sequestered in hundreds of units must’ve been watching the Montreal Canadiens playoff game because when the Habs scored the roar that echoed through that canyon was unlike anything I’d ever heard in my life emanating from a city block.

The New York Rangers are routinely rated by Fortune magazine as the National Hockey League’s most valuable franchise. Ann and I were in New York City on the evening of February 9th. The Rangers had a home game against the Nashville Predators. The event did not appeal to us because the admission price for an experience that did not matter was too high. At game time I was bemused by our fellow patrons in a Manhattan pub who preferred to be engaged by a repeated loop of golf and basketball highlights rather than a live hockey game.

Two nights later in Montreal we tried to enjoy a late casual dinner in a west end neighbourhood pub on Sherbrooke Street called Next Door. The St. Louis Blues were the Canadiens’ visitors. There were more televisions than tables and every one had the game on. The sound was up, cranked to a Spinal Tap level. Having lived away from my hometown for 27 years and following the Habs from a distance, I’d forgotten the insane level to which they matter to the city: they are the alpha dogs in a global metropolis and they’ve been embarrassing to middling since 1993. True, the Edmonton Oilers exert a similar influence on Alberta’s capital, but their mythology is comparatively young and they’ve yet to infiltrate the literature of the region or inspire a university undergraduate comparative theology course.

It’s difficult to mistake the 21st century NHL as the world’s finest purveyor of the greatest game on Earth. Hockey at its highest level has become tactical, specialized, uncreative and often boring. The stars rarely shine. The modern NHL trumpets league parity; that is 15 teams are decent and three of those are elite, and 15 teams are bad and three of those are dismal. The Canadiens ping pong around the median and you cannot help but summon Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront: “I coulda been a contenda.” The Canadiens organization, catering to a fan base nurtured on at least the legend of fire wagon hockey moves in mysterious ways. The executive is as opaque as “the company” in any thriller or science fiction story and is as inscrutable as North Korea’s hair-raising regime. They know what’s best for the team and its followers.

The club’s strategies to revive its dynastic eras, its glory days, are frequently perplexing. Last summer the general manager traded away the team’s attraction, the most dynamic hockey player in decades to have worn the CH crest on his chest. And a miraculous, latter round draft pick who panned out to boot. The message was clear: the organization would not or could alter its ingrained culture and on ice system to accommodate a creative skater. Last week the slumping Habs fired their inflexible coach Michel Therrien and replaced him with Claude Julien. This exact same scenario unfolded more than a decade ago in Montreal. This current course of action may be the only ever actual documented case of déjà vu all over again.

Goaltender Carey Price came down from a higher league to mind the net. The team has relied too heavily on him for too many winters. When his other-worldly skills are on display it simply means that the puck is in the wrong end of the rink. The Canadiens opened the NHL’s meat puppet grinding schedule with a deceptively hot start, going 13-1-1, victorious against teams they were supposed to defeat. Three quarters of the way through the regular season, the Habs hover around .500 at 32-20-8. Reality bites when you can’t beat anybody on any given night. Montreal is still atop the Atlantic Division but only because the other clubs in the grouping are worse. By contrast, the Rangers are 38-19-2, clinging to a mere wild card spot in the ultra-competitive Metropolitan Division, turned on its head this year by Columbus’s discovery of hockey.

The Canadiens lost to the Blues that Saturday night in Montreal. They lost again the next afternoon against the Boston Bruins. The coaching change was made. Following their bye week they lost to the Winnipeg Jets. They then eked out a win against the Rangers at Madison Square Gardens – now that was a game Ann and I would’ve paid to attend!

Spending time on our penultimate day in Montreal, we retired to Ziggy’s Pub on Crescent Street, my home away from home in my hometown. Ten years ago I took my aged mother there for a couple of gin and sodas before we went to watch the Habs versus the Preds. Mom had dolled herself up as if she was attending a game at the Forum in the 70s with her second husband, lipstick and fur, prime seats in the reds, glory days; Ziggy was so gracious and attentive to her. I was so appreciative of the smarm. I love the guitar signed by Keith Richards on the ceiling near the men’s room whose door features a portrait of Canadiens’ legend Ken Dryden in full repose. I love the jukebox. But most of all I love the pub’s proximity to the Canadiens’ home ice and the team memorabilia on the walls, that nearness to greatness. I asked the owner for his pub’s wi-fi password. The secret phrase included “24cups.”

Montreal’s 25th Stanley Cup championship remains ever elusive. My sense is that time has run out for this edition of the team, this incomplete configuration. One step up and two steps back. Still, provided the Habs hang on long enough to qualify for the playoffs, anything can happen. My hunch is that Ziggy won’t be changing his wi-fi password anytime soon though I dearly wish he will have to suffer that nit-pick, deal with that one minuscule inconvenience.

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