Sports  Inhabiting fandom

What it means to love the Habs

The playoffs are over and the Los Angeles Kings have secured their second Stanley Cup in three years. Hockey season returns in October, but for a city like Montreal, who made a deep playoff run this year, the thought of new possibilities for the next season are never far away. Here’s a look into minds of some fans – both causal and devoted – as they embark on a conversation covering everything from yelling at bar television screens, to the unifying effect of a winning team.

Charlie: The Maple Spring, Charter of Values, Jean Charest, Pauline Marois, Pierre Karl Péladeau, Charbonneau Commission, ‘Pastagate’, Gérald Tremblay, Michael Applebaum, and so on and so on… Living in Quebec these days comes with some special pre-requisites: choose a side, dig in, bang on some pots, and call out the other. Civic participation and protesting may be signs of a vibrant democratic society, but as we face one divisive issue after another, we need to stop for a second and ask: what about the things we love?

This city loves the Montreal Canadiens. You don’t need to be a sports fan, or even care about hockey, to know why it’s beneficial to love them. Montreal loves them because of what they do for the city. They bring militant ‘francofools’ and petulant ‘angryphones’ together, if only for a moment. Bruce Arthur wrote in the National Post that the rest of Canada shouldn’t drop everything and cheer for Montreal just because they were Canada’s only NHL playoff team this year; after all, Quebec had one of the most divisive government in the provinces history and, you know, sports rivalries are awesome.

We agree with this, but also believe that the Montreal Canadiens are much more important to our ‘distinct society’ than other teams are to their respective regions.

Dan: I’m very happy that you’re choosing to conceive of, and position the Canadiens – particularly in a playoffs context – as a unifying force in the pluralistic Montreal landscape. I’m glad because, a) it would be silly to downplay the significance and influence of a mass underdog narrative for a city that tends to struggle with a national/international inferiority complex, and b) I could only fake being able to discuss the Habs’ performance as an actual sports team for maybe a minute and a half tops, and this is only with excessive stalling and mugging. How many times is it acceptable to say, “Am I right?” when pretending to wax philosophically about Lars Eller’s shorthanded goal in Game One against the Rangers?

The truth is, being a Habs fan in Montreal has cultural implications that run deeper – or shallower, depending on your perspective – than nationalism and patriotism. With special attention paid to the pressure-cooker scenario of a summer sports series, harnessing your hopes to the Habs becomes an easy shorthand for quotidian social interaction. Crudely put? Becoming a Canadiens fan is something to do.

Here I speak with great sympathy for the oft-maligned bandwagoners, easily identified by the roster crib-sheets scrawled on their forearms and their mating calls of, “When did they pull the goalie?” I’m truly happy for the McGill out-of-towners who choose to stay in Montreal for the summer, and already had half their social schedule booked up until mid-June (god-willing). I find great comfort in knowing that during playoffs I have the opportunity to make plans with all the friends that I’ve been avoiding all semester by simply heading down to the pub for the game and a pint. No longer do I have to be afraid of running out of things to say – we’re all on the same team, now. And if I exhaust my limited musings about forechecking and penalty kills? It’s perfectly acceptable social behaviour to just yell at the TV screen. I ask you, Charlie; what am I supposed to do with myself, now? Watch soccer?

The World Cup and hockey off-season

Charlie: Watching ‘the beautiful game,’ as it’s called, is surely something to do during the next month. Watching it somewhere in Little Italy will even provide you with a taste of the old country with the added element of native tongues screaming at the TV screen in unison.The truth is though, to get back to the Canadiens, we’re comparing nation-states to city-states. So while we enjoy the World Cup, the Habs shouldn’t be too far out of mind. Thanks to the deep run this year it’ll be a short summer.

I’m probably not the only one who tuned out of the World Cup for a moment to look at my phone to find out the latest in Habs news. I saw that Louis Leblanc, once a hometown blue-chipper, was traded for a conditional bag of pucks (fifth round pick). I muted the Switzerland-Ecuador match to have a silent moment of reflection on how badly the Canadiens organization bungled Leblanc’s development.

In the lead up to the France-Honduras match, I recalled France’s revolt against their former coach Raymond Domenech in South Africa. He lost the players, lost the confidence of the management. Adidas recently crushed France’s 2010 team bus as a means to exorcise the demons of a team so fractured that they felt it would help to destroy the bus four years later. Then my phone advised me that the Montreal Canadiens had just signed head coach Michel Therrien to a four-year contract extension. This is a coach who for, say, his entire tenure, has been accused of losing the room every time the Habs lose more than two games in a row. I’ll withhold judgment on the signing since everything Marc Bergevin touches turns to gold, and because these two coaches were the subjects of sports discussions on the same day is purely coincidental – am I right? All of this to say: yes Dan, you can watch soccer, but there will always be Canadiens issues to talk about.

The taste of victory

Dan: You know what, Charlie? You’re right. Not just for momentarily zoning out of a soccer game to check up on Habs headlines because soccer is boring, but also for correctly highlighting the way that hockey’s importance reaches far beyond the immediate effects of an individual game. I am sure that, to its fans, soccer has its own web of longstanding rivalries and dramas – narratives that only come to a head in the crucible of the World Cup. I don’t know these stories, though. That’s probably why my interest in a sport that is currently playing on every television at this very moment is easily dwarfed by my sense of wonder toward a sport that just entered its off-season. As I prepare to welcome a long-awaited summer and finally ease back on the porch with a sweaty beer and a newspaper, I prefer to read about a game that is traditionally played on ice.

I can’t call myself a hockey expert – or even a fan, really. Maybe a curioso? To be honest, I have been very skeptical about people’s emotional investment in sports. But even I can recognize that the hopes and dreams of Habs fans hinge as heavily on backbench dealings, locker-room speeches, and bureaucratic sagas as they do on the games themselves. Is it all about winning those games? I don’t think it is. I think it’s about belief, and the desire for validation.

It’s a stretch to compare sports fandom to religious devotion, and that’s not what I’m trying to do here. But I think that it is a very human desire and even need to crave something to take comfort in and believe in. This is why, even though I couldn’t care less about the outcome of a soccer game, I actually teared up when I was reading the story about the Team France bus. The stakes may be different, but I too have had to force myself into disposing cherished tokens from disappointing relationships. I may not always ‘get’ sports, but I get humans – and I think I get this, too. In a few weeks, I will be attending a taping of WWE: Monday Night Raw. I don’t think I have ever seen an entire wrestling match in my life, but I still could not be more excited. I asked my buddy to compile a digest for me of the recent storylines and rivalries, but I know my attention will be centered squarely on the crowds. I think that’s what I really care about and respect when it comes to sports – more than the prowess of players, or the strategies of playmakers. For the real fans, the Habs saga doesn’t end with closing of the season. It’s been going on since their last Stanley Cup in 1993. It’s been going on since their inaugural season 1909. I can believe in that.