Praying for Goals: A Visit to Hockey’s Cathedral

I’ve been anticipating this game for months. My favourite team, the Montreal Canadiens were playing the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburg Penguins. We were lucky enough to have a generous friend give us two hockey tickets in the Desjardins section, a place where hotdogs pizza, ice cream and many other goodies are all free, so we prepared to get our yearly supply of nitrates by having a very light breakfast before this afternoon game. Gotta love my honey though, she has recently been more interested in the sport, and she can analyze the team as well as I can.

Despite the low likelihood they would win, as the Habs had suffered a scoring drought and been decimated by injuries to their top players, there is nothing like entering the Cathedral of Hockey, the Bell Centre where the banners of twenty four Stanley Cups hang proudly .I was getting a double header of spectacle that afternoon seeing Avatar (great eye-candy, could have used a better script) after the game. After getting the tickets to the movie, we walked the short distance to the Molson Centre, which appeared extremely long due to the nippy weather. We were looking for the shortest route to the game, and we were lucky to follow a couple of guys wearing Habs jerseys to enter the holy shrine. On the way, we noticed some kids asking money for charity in this frigid weather. Shame on the charity for making them beg under these conditions. I ranted to my honey on the way to arena, but decided to shake that off and enjoy the afternoon.

There is something to be said to being there live, we see the line-changes on the fly, something one can’t appreciate on tv as well as the thuds on the boards somehow seem more resonant. and then there is the crowd, which is think is the greatest reason to go to the game. It is the collective experience, the jubilation after the goal, the shared disgust of a missed penalty call, encouraging our gladiators, and giving them hell when they are mailing it in. Montreal has been called the best place when you win, and the worst place when you lose in the NHL.

We hear a young fan screaming encouragement to his idols: “Away Plekanek! Away Markov” which was endearing for a bit, until he was listing the entire roster for about half a period. Then it became tiresome, and I thought “Away little kid… far away!”. The Molson Ex section, which look like the worst seats in the arena seems the loudest, animated by cheerleaders, yet their exuberance was disproportional to their animators and it made me begin speculating whether they were getting free beer, as we were getting free food. A guy dancing spastically  in a Captain America costume behind the goalie’s net  robs a couple of kids of the spotlight on the “crowd cam”. T-shirts getting launched into the crowd from the ice during the intermission with these “bazookas”, we both watched in awe at the distance they reached. None of this can be appreciated on television.

The Habs with a roster full of minor leaguers managed to surprise the champs by the score of 5-3, and the crowd was jubilant. I often wondered why people go to church, since I often analogize the Canadiens as Montreal’s “religion”. At the end of it all, it is about the gathering, a way of getting a collective experience, and a pretext to solidify our connection to the “tribe”. So we cheer the battles on the ice, the thunderous body check, the powerful slapshot, but are concerned when anyones’ hurt. There was a gasp as the best defenseman Alexei Markov took some time to get up after colliding against the boards. Hockey can be a violent sport, yet there is grace, power and speed that is undeniable.

The Canadiens are likely to miss the playoffs, which is sacrilege  in this hockey mad city. There are arguments to “tank the season” which involves trading talented but high priced veterans for younger players and draft picks. But the luxury of rebuilding is not one that would be easily tolerated in Montreal. the very idea verbalized is blasphemy, but now as the Habs’ last Stanley cup is seventeen years away, and with the era of dynasties over. A few fans and commentators are denounced as heretics for suggesting rebuilding. The GM Bob Gainey has resigned after failing to deliver on his 5 year plan to a Cup, and many talented free agents, especially francophones don’t want to play here, due to the intense pressure and media scrutiny. I don’t see The Big Trophy coming anytime soon.

Hockey here is intimately connected to politics and language, as the president of the team suddenly declared that he needed a bilingual GM to helm the team, shrinking the pool of talent to replace Gainey. The team, the NHL’s oldest is steeped in tradition, but are likely to remain a middling team, without a major rebuild and youth movement, which involves losing. A lot. While the Molson Centre continues to be sold out, it is unlikely management will change direction. The butts are in the seats, the profits being made.

President Pierre Boivin hired Pierre Gauthier, a man who has experience, but has been a part of the organization for almost seven years as head of scouting and assistant GM, thus it could be argued he’s also responsible for failure to ice a contending team. The coach Jacques Martin is also signed for a 3 additional years, so it is likely more of the same. Perhaps fans will see that the expectation on this team are too great, and perhaps will have to settle to see good young talent which will lose a good share of games while the learn the ropes. But that wont happen, as most fans, media, and the Habs management are filled with entitlement, spoiled by the decades of plenty. Tradition doesn’t lace up skates, give a body check and score goals. Yet tradition is why many fans continue to fill the Molson Centre. They are hoping for heroes. No Lafleurs, Richards, Beliveaus and Cournoyers so far. The famed “ghosts” are gone, and an increasing amount of fans are beginning to realize it.

Another reason to watch the Habs? I guess it is also a soap opera, even when they are losing there is drama, something to raise our temperatures in frigid weather. My honey enjoys ranting, yet I often remind her, this is supposed to be fun, to enjoy the game, and it’s nothing to get too frustrated about. Some people take it pretty seriously, some even are considering boycotting Molson beer (owners of the team) in internet fan forums to improve the product on the ice. The hundred anniversary celebration has left the city nostalgic for old glory that is unlikely to occur again in a thirty team league.

As for me, I enjoy the athleticism, and exchanging speculation with my fellow analyst over the team and players, cheering goals so loud we disturb the neighbours, ranting over lost calls, and calling bullshit on the often heard promises of a competitive team. My honey is not a sports widow, and often clues me on on Hab news, so I am very fortunate. At least until she gets sick of the lousy play we’ve seen recently. Until then “Go Habs, Go!”

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