A long and winding road

Growing up in France, I was not predestined to become a Habs fan. Heck, even becoming a hockey fan was unlikely. As you may know or guess, hockey is not really developed in my country, nor is it very popular. Football (the real football, you know, the one that is played with feets), rugby, handball and at least half a dozen other sports rank higher. Arenas usually average two to three thousands seats, and even then they are rarely sold-out. Don’t get me wrong, a small population of hardcore hockey fan exists… they probably are registered on the endangered species list.

My initial contact with hockey happened during the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics. Buoyed by the home crowd, our national team managed to reach the quarterfinal round. What would be considered as an utter failure in Canada, was seen as a great achievement, and still is today. Being only six at the time, I don’t remember much, except being fascinated by the fluidity of the game. Not enough to become a fan, but enough to be excited whenever the Winter Olympics would come, out of curiosity to watch this unfamiliar sport.

A school exchange with a Swedish college provided the next encounter. I remember watching games on the Swedish television, and playing NHL 2002 with my Swedish friend… but still, that wasn’t enough to light the flame… that would come a few years later.

Fast forward to 2008. I was searching for a 5 months internship in a foreign country to finish my engineering degree… and I found one in Canada. At the time, all my knowledge about Canada was a bunch of clichés: tons of snow and -30° during at least 11 months a year, caribous everywhere, a population mostly composed of lumberjacks living in wooden cabins, and hockey as a religion. No, I’m kidding. Well, sort of. Am I? Anyway, the only thing I could do to prepare the cultural shock was to get interested in hockey, and choose a team to support. Being that I’m French, that I was doing my internship in Québec, and that at the time the greatest French hockey player there ever was, was playing between the pipes of the Montréal Canadiens – yes, I mean Cristobal Huet, please don’t laugh – choosing to support the Habs was the only logical choice.

But sport isn’t about logic. It’s about emotion, it’s about personal connection. For example, I love football (I mean soccer, please try to follow!), but I usually don’t care about a game if my Olympique Lyonnais isn’t playing. Why? Because they’re my home team, I grew up rooting for them; with every game they play, I get to experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. They are MY team. You know what I mean. But when I arrived in Québec, even though I had decided to be a Habs fan, I didn’t have that connection. They weren’t MY team.

One thing change everything: I watched the movie about Maurice Richard. It may sound silly, but after seeing this movie, I understood why hockey was such a big deal in Québec. Because of its history of success and its legendary stars, of course. But also because hockey is more than just a sport in Québec. It’s a way of life. All of a sudden, I could relate. All of a sudden, I was a Habs fan.

After finishing my internship and graduating, I decided to come back to Québec. The Habs probably had an influence on that decision, on a subconscious level. I was now able to watch the game on RDS (boy, does their after match show suck!), and even attend a few. I was watching when they had their amazing 2010 playoff run (although a bit pissed because I was rooting for Price). I was watching when Chara mugged Pacioretty. I was watching when they lost against the Bruins in game 7 overtime. And I was at the Bell Centre for the first regular season game between the Habs and the Bruins the next season (a 4-2 victory), proudly booing Chara at the top of my lungs every time he touched the puck, along with 20000 fellow fans.

After four years, I now have my own Habs memory, and with each game my connection with this team grows.

Arriving at the end of this post (quite long I realize, congratulations to those who didn’t fall asleep!), I wish I could have found some sort of profound and thought provoking conclusion that would put me miles ahead in this contest… but there is only one thing that comes to my mind : Boy, am I glad I didn’t find an internship in Toronto!

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