Montreal, Canada – Twenty-eight years: That’s how long it has been since the Montreal Canadiens – or any Canadian hockey team for that matter – last hoisted the Stanley Cup.
With the National Hockey League’s (NHL) ultimate prize once again in reach, to say a special feeling has overcome the city would be an understatement; this is a place where a love of hockey, and of this team especially, reaches often-embarrassing heights.
Almost everyone has a story about les habitants, from decades of celebrations at the Montreal Forum, the storied arena the team called home for most of its 100-plus-year history, to more recent riots – both in good times and bad – along downtown’s main thoroughfare, Sainte-Catherine Street.
But few Canadiens fans and even fewer NHL pundits had predicted the team would get this far in 2021’s season, which was truncated by the coronavirus.
Playing against the backdrop of months-long curfews and restrictions in the province of Quebec, and with a sealed border to the United States limiting which teams Montreal could play, the Canadiens barely squeaked into the playoffs in the first place.
They fired their head coach in February after a particularly brutal stretch of regular-season losses, and sports columnists had called for the head of General Manager Marc Bergevin. But most are now singing a different tune.
The team rallied to beat Toronto – one of its all-time, biggest rivals – in the first round of the playoffs after being down 3-1 and on the verge of elimination. Then it swept Winnipeg and edged past Vegas to end up here, about to take on defending champions Tampa Bay on Monday night. “It’s for the big one?” a friend recently asked. It’s for the big one – and most people here can hardly believe it.
“Something is happening,” read a headline in Montreal newspaper La Presse after the Canadiens beat the Vegas Golden Knights 3-2 in overtime in game three of that semi-final series. “Those who knew the heyday of the Forum will tell you … it felt like the good old days,” hockey reporter Richard Labbé wrote.
But so many Habs fans – myself included – never knew those days.
The happy Canadiens stories we share are largely second-hand, coming from grandparents and parents who told us about the “ghosts of the Forum” that helped the team to victory; a league-leading collection of 24 Stanley Cups, or the decades-old exploits of one of the team’s most beloved stars, Maurice “Rocket” Richard, after whom my dad, Richard, was named.
I was too young to remember 1993, when the Canadiens, led by homegrown goalie Patrick Roy, last won the cup. I have a vague recollection of watching a game at the Forum before it was turned into a movie theatre, but nothing more. I saw the current Bell Centre arena change names, but most of the past 28 years have been marked by playoff disappointments, heartbreaking and sometimes questionable trades, and did I mention the riots?
But now, with burgeoning talents Cole Caufield, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki and stalwart Carey Price in nets, a younger generation of Habs fans is getting a chance to finally make its own, better memories. An overtime victory over Vegas on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, Quebec’s national holiday on June 24, could not have been a more perfect way to send the team into the finals.
The streets of downtown were packed with people waving Canadiens flags and setting off fireworks. Some had travelled from other parts of the province to be in the city, just in case the impossible happened. Jubilant fans raised orange traffic cones – the perennial symbol of a city almost always under construction – over their heads in lieu of the Stanley Cup. A cop car was flipped over, more than a dozen people were arrested, and Montreal police fired tear gas to disperse the rowdiest in the crowd. It all felt very true to form.
Now, as the finals get under way, the team still has a long way to go to get past the favourites, Tampa Bay Lightning. But whatever happens, after a year that was so devastating for so many people, the simple truth is that it’s pretty fun to have something to cheer for. Aoueille, les boys.