How I became a Habs fan in Leafs country
This post is part of an ongoing series on Eyes on the Prize wherein the authors will tell you how they came to love the Montreal Canadiens. It is also the beginning of a contest! In order to enter, write your own experience of becoming a fan as a fanpost on EOTP. All those who write a post will be entered into a draw for a Habs t-shirt jersey (shersey) of their choice. The Active Stick encourages you to not choose Rene Bourque. The deadline to enter will be December 1st, so we'll have time to give the winner his or her gift before the holidays.
OK so here's the deal. For some reason I can't remember what I had for dinner two nights ago, but have an ability to recollect memories from years back to the detail, as far back as 38 years. It's kinda weird when people can say, " How did you remember that?" Well some of that falls into this story.
Keswick, Ontario circa 1974. A small farm and cottage town on the shore of Lake Simcoe, with a population at the time probably smaller than the wildlife and livestock combined. Roughly an hour and change drive north of Toronto, long before the 404 was inching its way north, and a massive residential growth in the nineties, it was a sometimes billed as a backwards, redneck/hillbilly town by many to the south.
I lived in one of the most rural areas on the northern end of town, in a small bungalow surrounded by farms in all directions. While the farms are gone and the lands lay vacant, that house is still there surrounded by enormous trees that my dad planted as seedlings 40 years ago.
The one thing the general population shared was a passion for the Toronto Maple Leafs, as it was all over in the typical Ontario setting of a pretty much all white/anglophone community.
In terms of TV coverage,we were still on an antenna, with cable still years away. To the west we could get the signal from CBC (Now CTV2) in Barrie, to the south CBC Toronto, CFTO (CTV), CHCH (Hamilton), WKBW (ABC Buffalo), Global and from the east, CHEX (CBC Peterborough).
Suffice to say the airwaves were full of coverage of the Leafs, especially from the CBC stations. So at the time it was all I really knew, in terms of hockey, at 4 years old.
From time to time my dad would get company tickets and take me to a game in Toronto. It was exciting to visit the big city and ride the subway to Maple Leaf Gardens, The home team at the time, well it still sucked, but it had its stars in Darryl Sittler and a young Borje Salming. "So why couldn't they win more?," we wondered as kids, not understanding the mockery and dismantling Harold Ballard was making of a once great franchise.
Despite the unsuccessful attempts to regain their greatmess, the excitement of being there in person to see the game that made it that special and really got me into hockey, even if I started with the Leafs. I even remember one car ride home when one of the worst snow storms on record struck the night we were in Toronto. After what would have been an eternity of driving, my dad got the car as close to home as he could. There was no way a Plymouth Duster was climbing an unplowed dirt road with a foot of snow on it, so he gently settled it against a snow bank about a mile from home and carried me on his back the rest of the way. The whole time I was talking about the game as my dad carried me.
Watching them on TV was as different experience but the Leafs still lost more than they won. It got frustrating, even for a four to six year old. The big bad Philadelphia Flyers were in the midst of two Stanley Cups, and Bobby Orr, my first hockey hero, had two knees that weren't going to hold out much longer. Things looked grim.
Then one Saturday night when I would have been five, and or no known reason, I decided to change the channel from the Barrie CBC station to the Peterborough station.
And there THEY were....
Wearing the bleu blanc et rouge, and the CH on their fronts, I watched this amazing team practically man handle their opponents. Now I knew who the Montreal Canadiens were, but my sheltered life in Leafs Nation gave me little to know of them except for head to head contests on HNIC, and on the fronts of hockey cards. But now I had found them, and not just playing the Leafs but the Flyers, the Bruins, Gilbert Perrault and the Sabres, and on a regular basis on Saturdays.
Now every Saturday morning I would check the small television guide in the Toronto Star to see if the black symbol with the white number 12 had "_____ at Montreal Canadiens." At the time, Peterborough was considered a more eastern station, and carried more Habs games when it could.
If there was a time to begin being a Habs fan, that was it. I watched Guy Lafleur race down the ice and score, the brilliance of Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson crushing anyone who had the puck, and a certain goaltender who made sure that if the puck got past Robinson, Serge Savard, and Guy Lapointe, that it wasn't getting past him.
As the game went on I would sit at the coffee table, oull out the pencil crayons and draw a small rink on a piece of paper. With a big blue and red CH in the middle, I would draw lines on the page, following the players on the ice on paper. It would be interesting to see those sheets now, as I'm sure it was primitive scoring chance and Corsi, Fenwick analysis in the making. My other artwork on those pages were numerous renditions of Ken Dryden's bulls-eye mask.
The final piece to the puzzle was one night when I got a call from my dad, who was away on a business trip. He was at the Montreal Forum, and found a pay phone during an intermission to call. I don't know how many dimes and quarters he would have used, or if he called collect, but it was a worthy call. A few days later he brought home a Canadiens pennant, coffee cup and button home for me. The pennant, along with a Leafs one that I also had from that era have long since vanished, and the coffee cup had a sad demise just a few years back. I still have that button though.
So now I had a team to really cheer for, and four straight Stanley Cups made me a happy camper, though likely not too popular among my Leafs brainwashed classmates.
The next season was a disappointment. As kids, we didn't follow the off-season activities of our favorite teams. It was baseball season, and time to be outdoors. There was no TSN or Sportsnet, on 24 hour sports radio to give us daily news and we only saw the newspaper on Saturday. All the while Yvan Cournoyer and Jacques Lemaire were retiring, and Scotty Bowman bolted for Buffalo, having been passed over as GM of the Canadiens a year before.
How did I learn Ken Dryden was gone? When I opened a pack of O-Pee-Chee hockey cards and saw "Now Retired" in black ink stamped on the front of card number 150. I was in disbelief.
Despite the absence of some key players, the Habs continued to fight on, winning their division before being upset in seven games by the Minnesota North Stars, Curse you, Denis Herron!
The Islanders would of course win four straight Cups, with Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky taking the goal scoring reigns from Lafleur into the eighties with Le Demon Blond retiring, for the first time, midway into the decade.
The next 30 years certainly saw its share of ups and downs for Canadiens fans, from disappointing seasons, to against the odds Stanley Cups in 1986 and 1993, to emotional moments such as the Roy trade, the Forum closing and Saku Koivu's victory over cancer.
Some seasons have been frustrating, to say the least, and some surprising, but I always think that if I hadn't changed that channel those many years ago, I would be be waving that blue and white flag, teased with a bit of hope in the early nineties, only to be cast back yet again into absolute despair.