How I ended up rooting for the Habs

Hailing from Quebec city, I used to be a fan of the Nordiques. How is it that I came to be a fan of the hated Habs?

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

Hockey doesn't run in my family. Nobody ever played the game at any significant level and myself, I can barely skate. But still, it's nigh impossible for a young Canadian not to be exposed to the game and play it in some way, shape or form. I picked up the habit of watching games of the home team in my early teens, which means I started following the Nordiques in the late 80's, around the 88-89 season.

Dear lord those team sucked. Even worse, once Dale Hunter, Peter Stastny and Michel Goulet were gone, it was Joe Sakic's team. Those were the foundation years of the Colorado juggernaut of the mid-90's to early 20's, sure. But a 20 year old Sakic was a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing and he didn't have much help from the get go.

The other thing is, those teams didn't just suck, they often didn't even try. They were doomed, they knew it and a whole bunch of guys slogged halfheartedly through the season, waiting for the end. Not every guy mailed it in, but it often was ugly. But hey, that was my team, so I cheered them on.

The only time they actually tried was whenever they met the Habs. Dunno why, but I suspect even the worst floaters of the gang knew if they mailed those in, they might get run over by a car in the next week. That was the general feeling in the city and even though I found those games especially important, I never really got into the whole heated rivalry thing and already thought very little of the whole media freak-show that often surrounded those events.

We all know how the story went for the Nordiques from there on: team sucked for a while, piled the high picks, got 2 hall of famers out of those (Sakic and Sundin) and an arse load of good players trading Lindros (including one of the, if not *the* most dominant 2-way player of the late 90's, Peter Forsberg). Oh, and they picked Owen Nolan too. So when those kids started to get it, things went up fast: 91-92 is the first year we knew this was a good group but it was the tail-end of an awful run: 61 points in 88-89, then 31, 46 and 52 points. Then, the beautiful (if awfully flawed) young team of 92-93. No defense, no goaltending (we all loved Hextall, but I sincerely believe Fiset was already better than him), but man oh man did they have some offense: 351 goals, including 101 on the PP, 214 at 5v5, 18 short-handed... The 92-93 Habs actually had 222 5v5 goals, FWIW, and gave 17 less goals at 5v5 than the Nords (170 to 187), so just peeking at the numbers, you could tell that MTl-Québec series wasn't exactly a cakewalk for the Nordiques. They kinda sorta tanked next season, fired Pagé and then Forsbeg came up and, with Sundin shipped out for a more or less useful Wendel Clark and a very, very needed Lefebvre, they took off for good in the shortened 94-95 season.

And then they took off to Colorado. I was pissed but, hey, life goes on, so I simply tuned out of hockey and started paying more attention to baseball and the Expos instead.

So, at this point, I think one thing is clear: I suck at picking which team I should root for.

I moved to Montréal in 2000 and once you live in this city, well, the Habs are *everywhere*, so if you like to go out for a beer in a bar, well there is often a TV with the game on, and if there is a TV with the game on, pretty much everybody's watching the game. I picked it up right away for a few reasons:

  • Every media outlet you turned to, you had guys wailing about the indignity of this all, a team that *sucked*, that lacked french players, that didn't even bother to show up, things like that. Look, Oleg Petrov is a staple of your top-6, you are in trouble. And a 70 points season is pretty bad, indeed. But these guys were actually trying and weren't as hopeless as one could tell from reading the papers.
  • The next season, living my first playoff run in Montréal, pretty much sealed the deal. Playoffs runs were pretty much foreign to this Nordiques fan and, well, you gotta admit it: it's fun!
  • It's a good thing to root for a team that has unlimited resources and will, whatever the configuration of pro-hockey at a given moment in history, certainly be one of the big market teams in that environment. Seriously guys, being able to pay Scott Gomez 7.3 millions a season without having to trade an up and coming kid because he's about to ask for a big paycheck is a good thing. The Nordiques wouldn't have slumped had they been able to bring back Duchesne and ice Lindros as their 3rd C in 93-94.
  • Hockey just got so much better trough the 90's, it's unreal. Yeah, it was dead-puck, clutch-and-grab hockey, but I'm of the opinion that epoch was the result of ever increasing competitiveness throughout the league. Goalies were getting better every year, conditioning, the ever larger amounts of cash poured into the teams... The dead puck era is, I think, a moment where the league hadn't adjusted it's refereeing to the team's ever increasing ability to game the system as it existed then. It was ugly, but underneath all the hack and slash, the contemporary game that was unleashed by the post-lockout rule changes was quickly taking form.
  • Even though things got worse in the last few years on certain aspects (mostly, the game is now so fast it's kind of a meat-grinder) the game is still eons away from that 93 MTL-Québec game 6 I saw on TV last night. Add HD and PVRs and, really, for a guy like me who always followed the game as a TV show, well... Some people see the game primarily trough the prism of the experience of actually attending a live game. I can understand how, to them, the actual game might be less interesting but to me, there is no contest.
So, am I a fan of the Habs? Absolutely. But I'll move to a new team if needed. It's simply that I can only follow a sport through the lens of a given team. And after watching the Nords and Expos sail away, the Habs are still in town, thriving as a business, which means I get to keep my team for a long, long time. Third time's a charm, I guess.
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