‘A spiritual necessity’: the cultural heft of the Montreal Canadiens’ playoff run

The Habs’ ultimately doomed title challenge served as a reminder of just how deep the storied team’s social imprint goes across the north. Just don’t call them Canada’s team

For such a storied team, it’s inevitable that you step back into the past to figure out the present.

It was October 1975 when the Montreal novelist and incisive social purveyor Mordecai Richler filed a piece for Esquire magazine entitled The Home Team, My Heroes.

Describing his city as “easily the most prescient of hockey towns”, he refers to the Habs as a “spiritual necessity”. It might just be the most definitive profile of the team, no small feat considering the amount of column inches devoted to opinion, analysis, rumination and condemnation throughout the decades.

The reason Richler’s spread is so good is because he’s 10 paragraphs in before finally talking about hockey. And, right there, is everything you need to know about the Montreal Canadiens.

Their Stanley Cup final loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning makes it 28 years since a Canadian side last won a championship, while their appearance was the first time in a decade a team from north of the border had even reached the decider. So given the national rut, you’d be forgiven for presuming a tidal wave of support greeted their compelling and largely inexplicable run. But, it wasn’t like that.

After stunning a pair of North Division rivals – the perennially optimistic but dysfunctional Toronto Maple Leafs and the Winnipeg Jets – to advance to the semi-finals against the Las Vegas Golden Knights, the government of Canada tweeted its support to the nation’s only remaining contender.

“Good luck to Canada’s team,” they bravely offered, before adding: “All of Canada is behind you.”

Only the Habs could have ensured such a wide gamut of hysterical replies. There were references to separatism (two Quebec referendums in 1980 and 1995 that sought independence from the rest of Canada), racism and secularism (the province’s controversial Bill 21).

“Only if there’s a cliff in front of you,” went one of the less-colorful responses.

Perversely, given so many North American sports franchises are relatively interchangeable entities and devoid of personality, history or a wider cultural attachment to their communities, the reaction served as a reminder of just how deep the Habs’ social imprint goes. But is that why so many Canadians were reluctant to embrace their genuinely compelling playoff push?

“The truth is that there is no such thing as ‘Canada’s team’,” says longtime Habs correspondent Marc Antoine Godin.

“It is mainly a parochial hockey thing. But the Canadiens remain the closest thing there is to it, and there are stories throughout the country of families that developed a special bond to this team. As for any social elements, other than sheer fandom, that would explain why the Canadiens are not embraced more than they are, you could speculate that a certain anti-Quebec sentiment might sometimes be in play, not to mention the perennial French-English duality, but I would not draw conclusions based on that. There is not one big overarching argument that would explain it.”

Maybe success has a lot to do with it. Despite it inching ever closer to three decades since a last title, the Habs remain out on their own when it comes to Stanley Cup victories. More importantly, it’s not even close. Their record is 24, with the Leafs leading the chasing pack on 13. And Habs fans will gleefully remind you of that. Frequently.

However, perhaps it’s the sanctimony too. When it comes to hockey, every Canadian city boasts a deep-rooted – borderline worrying – obsessiveness about the game. But Habs fans carry a distinctive moral superiority, that somehow their organization just means more. However irritating to some, it’s difficult to argue with.

“It’s a franchise steeped in the past and for good reason, because not much good has happened in a long time,” says Michael Farber, a former senior writer with Sports Illustrated and longtime Montreal resident.

“When you walk into the dressing room, you see the words of In Flanders Fields, written by the Canadian doctor and poet John McCrae, who had strong ties to Montreal.

“‘To you from failing hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high.’ And there are the headshots of all the members of the Hockey Hall of Fame who played for the Canadiens. Now, whether that affects players, I don’t know. But you can’t miss it. It infuses everything that’s about this franchise. It’s part of the DNA. Do players embrace it? I’m not sure. But there is something about playing for le Club de hockey Canadien and wearing that ‘CH’ on your uniform”.

The Canadian actor, writer and director Jay Baruchel is an obsessive fan, and detailed his lifelong Habs-related neuroses in a memoir, Born Into It.

“We have the most fans of any team up here but that doesn’t mean it’s anywhere close to a unifying thing everyone can get behind,” he says.

“There are some dyed-in-the-wool Leafs fans across the country and it’s insane to expect them to root for the Habs. But I say that knowing a bunch of them were rooting for them, as a function of patriotism.”

Stanley Cup final
Fans cheer prior to Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre. Photograph: Andre Ringuette/Getty Images

Gradually, especially once the Habs confirmed their place in the final, more Canadians grudgingly toned down the tribalism, probably a wider reflection on how they view the bigger picture: that the NHL now views the birthplace of the game as an afterthought.

“I have little doubt that a large number of Canadians supported Montreal over Tampa since the feeling that the game has become Americanized under commissioner Gary Bettman is widespread in Canada, and probably a reason why the Olympics remain so crucial in expressing Canada’s hockey dominance,” says Godin.

“Because the business of the NHL certainly does not reflect that.”

So where to from here?

The Habs can be extremely proud of their journey. It was unexpected and, for the most part, unimaginable. The accepted version of events is that this group was a hodgepodge of low-level, lesser-known personalities more attuned for the playoffs rather than the regular season. Raw but exciting kids like Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and fresh-faced Cole Caufield mixed with grizzly veterans like Corey Perry, Eric Staal and captain Shea Weber made for a steely, and consistent cocktail. It may have been an acquired taste but fans got drunk on possibilities. And given the sobering lack of confidence that has eroded so much for so long, it was more than enough.

Still, despite the one-sidedness of the Tampa result and the general awareness of how interim coach’s Dominique Ducharme’s “crazy bunch of guys” just lacked that sprinkle of stardust to consistently compete, there was one major pang when that final buzzer sounded.

Arguably the most frustrating aspect of the current Habs era is that goaltender Carey Price is still without a Stanley Cup success. It’s a travesty that outside of the hockey world, he remains a largely unknown figure. Despite his side struggling to make any impact in recent years, Price has managed to walk off with both the Hart Trophy (awarded to the league’s most valuable player) and the Vezina Trophy (handed to the league’s best goaltender). He was magnificent throughout this postseason and still, in the aftermath of last night’s loss, accepted all of the responsibility.

“I just don’t think I played well enough at the start of the series,” he offered, when asked to explain the defeat.

It’s an absurd notion, of course, which everyone knows. But it was the measure of the man and said much about his morals and motivations.

An added layer is that Price is a member of the Ulkatcho First Nation and deeply proud of his heritage. In late-May, the remains of 215 Indigenous children were discovered on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia – the same province where Price grew up. Since then, a litany of further burial sites have been found and the country has been forced to confront the realities of its sinister past. During the series against the Winnipeg Jets, Price was making his way to the MTS Centre for Game 2 when he noticed a woman standing outside a church, its railings decorated with 215 orange ribbons. He approached Gerry Shingoose and they spoke, with Price disclosing how his grandmother was a residential school survivor.

“Knowing he’s a generational survivor, and he knows the history, and he knows our truth ... it was good to make that connection with him tonight,” she told reporters afterwards.

“It made my day. You could see the kindness and the caring.”

Who knows what impact it would have had on the country’s self-reflection process if Price – such an inspirational figure for First Nations communities – hoisted the Stanley Cup. But crucially, Canada really shouldn’t need that anyway.

“Carey Price is one of the country’s biggest role models for First Nations peoples,” says Godin.

“He has been involved for years in sharing the message that great things can be accomplished despite the improbable, and he’s been very present with First Nations kids. That being said, he is also a discreet man and someone who is not looking for the limelight. I don’t see him being too comfortable in serving as a ‘public healer’ following the recent tragic discoveries. He might be exactly the hero this country needs right now – just don’t tell him.”

Still, Price is a Hab and proud to be one. In 2017, when he signed a mammoth contract extension, the famously monosyllabic figure was surprisingly chatty and went some way to explaining what it’s like to represent the team.

“I’ve got enough experience to know how to deal with just about any situation that gets thrown at me,” he said.

“It’s hard at times, but other times it’s the most fun you’re going to have in the entire NHL. There’s nothing that compares to it.”

What happens next is that the Habs, just like the wider Canadian hockey community, will just keep going. After all, it’s only three months until it starts again.

It turns out Richler was correct all those years ago.

“Everybody you meet these days is down on the game,” he wrote in Esquire.

“The players, they say, are fat, indolent and overpaid. Frenetic expansion, obviously fed by avarice rather than a regard for a tradition has all but ruined a fine institution. The season is horrendously long and the present play-off system an unacceptable joke. And yet – and yet – come Saturday, it’s still ‘Hockey Night in Canada’ and, diminished or not, les Canadiens sont la! And so am I, eyes fixed on the television set. The legendary Canadiens.”

• This article was amended on 8 and 9 July 2021 to correct the name of Cole Caufield, earlier given as Caulfield, and the name of John McCrae, given as McRae. The goaltending trophy is the Vezina, not Veniza.


Eoin O'Callaghan

The GuardianTramp

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