The Canadiens: A Sense of Identity

This photo once hung on my bedroom wall. - Robert Laberge, Getty Images

As a young kid growing up in rural Saskatchewan, the Montreal Canadiens became a major part of Bruce Peter's life.

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

I don't know why I became a Montreal Canadiens fan. When this topic was brought up, I tried really hard to think of a particular moment when I realized who my team was. I can't remember ever choosing the Canadiens, or cheering for a NHL team other than them. There were other options, even within my family. My father had multiple favourite teams in his life, first growing up a Red Wings fan cheering on Gordie Howe, then becoming a Canadiens fan as a young adult, before falling for Gretzky's Oilers in the 1980s. My mother was a Leafs fan, though she didn't watch hockey anyways. Both my older sisters had cheered for the Oilers until their favourite players got traded: Andy Moog to the Bruins for my oldest sister, and Wayne Gretzky to the Kings for the second oldest. They followed their favourite players to their new teams. In the midst of all of this falling in and out of love with the Oilers, I came up cheering for the Canadiens.

I grew up a brisk 2800 km drive from the Montreal Forum, but the Canadiens made a lot of sense. They were on nearly every Saturday night... back in the 1980s, the majority of Canada watched the Canadiens on Hockey Night in Canada. It was a golden age where the Maple Leafs were relegated to the southern Ontario market, because they stunk and were incredibly uncool. The Habs weren't on every night, some nights a western Canadian team got the broadcast. Hockey Night in Canada was only a one game a night affair for the most part during the regular season, so I guess it made a lot of sense not to waste that one game on showing Toronto to the entire nation. There were a number of Canadiens fans in the west, but I can't really pinpoint anyone as influential enough, other than my father, who would've steered me in that direction.

My first real memories of really cheering for the Canadiens were in the 1989 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Canadiens back then were incredibly good, having put up a 115 point regular season back in an age of an only 80 game NHL, ties, and no overtime loser points. They made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, only to be taken down by the evil Calgary Flames. I hated them so much. That cruel defeat was my introduction to the total immersion of fandom. The Canadiens were the ultimate consolation prize: second in the regular season, second in the playoffs, Roy won the Vezina, Chelios won the Norris, Carbonneau won the Selke, and Burns won the Adams. I don't know if they all deserved the hardware or not, but to a kid, you don't understand how the team didn't win when they had most of the best players.

That season I had attended my first NHL game, in Los Angeles of all places, where we saw Gretzky's new team take on the Vancouver Canucks, winning 6-3. We held up a sign which said something like "Canada still loves you, Wayne #99". It was obvious I wasn't an Oilers fan at that point, and I know I was a Canadiens fan then, but I don't know why. We were all Gretzky fans, but somewhere along the way it was Patrick Roy and Chris Chelios that caught my imagination.

Chris Boyle has said that the team chooses you, and I can't help but think that's true in my case. One of the benefits of living in Saskatchewan is that your best friend or neighbour could be a fan of any NHL team. I don't really have a close friend that's a Habs fan like me, but I've known several other fans. Most of my closest friends are fans of different teams than each other. I've got good friends that are Leafs fans, Jets fans, Oilers fans, Avalanche fans, Red Wings fans, etc. My former co-worker used to talk to me about her son, who was around my age, and how frustrated he'd get when the Sharks would inevitably choke in the playoffs. You can be a fan of anyone, for any reason.

What was my reason? I could say Patrick Roy, the best goaltender on the planet (and therefore the coolest to a six/seven year old since he wore a mask). I could say the Forum, and the atmosphere it provided. I could say the uniforms and the logo. I could say because they were good and on TV the most. I could say it was because we had a copy of The Hockey Sweater in our home. All of that would be true. And none of that may be the reason.

Whatever the case, sometime in that period of my life, I became hooked. I convinced my parents to enroll me in hockey. I remember in my first year playing, I told the coach to put me on the penalty kill, because I could do it. I wanted to be Guy Carbonneau. I got a chance to play goal, and was pretty good at it. I remember stopping the best shooter in our league on a couple of breakaways. I wanted to be Roy, but never was presumptuous enough to think I could be that good.

I got posters for birthday and Christmas gifts, purchased hockey cards with my allowance, and destroyed a wall in the basement shooting pucks/tennis balls by myself. The following Canadiens players graced my bedroom walls when I was a kid: Roy (several different posters), Chelios, Carbonneau, Stephane Richer, and Mathieu Schneider, in what I believe is that photo above. I got both the white and red jerseys, I had a Canadiens towel with "Bruce" written on it, I had a Canadiens mini goalie stick, a Canadiens puck, a Canadiens pennant... my mom even knitted me an afghan that was bleu, blanc et rouge. The Canadiens were mine. I knew of no one that was as big of a fan of them as me, and they brought me both immense joy and mockery as a result. If the Canadiens lost, I would hear about it in school the next day. If they won, I could rub it in.

In 1991, just before I turned ten, my family moved to another small town about an hour's drive from where I had grown up. I had to make new friends, and really, really didn't want to move. I became best friends with two young Pittsburgh fans... I had never met a Penguins fan before, but they had obviously been swayed the previous year by that team with the stupid jerseys and freaking Ulf Samuelsson on it. I, again, was the only Canadiens fan. But being a Canadiens fan in this town meant something a bit extra... the town was Quill Lake, which happened to be the hometown of a young Canadiens defencemen named Lyle Odelein. I knew this because I had his rookie card.

In 1992, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup again, and my two best friends had all of the glory. The Canadiens got swept by the Bruins and Pat Burns was fired. I had a major crisis of faith... well, let's be honest: I had a major hissy fit that immature brats have, tore down all my Canadiens posters and swore they had wronged me for the last time. It was a terrible time in my fandom, I think my identity was more defined by the Canadiens at that point than at any other in my life. I wasn't a very happy kid... although I had these new friends in general I was an outcast in this new place and missed my old friends and home. That summer our family moved out of town into a farmhouse, again renting the place, and our new landlord (who farmed the land) seemed determined to cheer me up in some way. One summer day, he brought his summer farmhand over to our place for coffee.

That's the day Lyle Odelein sat at my family's kitchen table. I was stunned, and didn't know what to do at all. I was introduced, then slowly embarrassingly retreated to my room. What the heck was I supposed to do? I had gotten autographs before from hockey players. The previous year, we went to a Canada Cup game in Saskatoon, and got autographs from players like Bill Ranford by walking up to him where he was sitting. Now, a hockey player, FROM THE MONTREAL CANADIENS, was chatting with my parents and sitting at the table I refuse to eat my peas at. Before he left, I made sure he signed whatever Canadiens stuff I could find, but I was too shy to really look or talk to him. Needless to say, whatever I had to say about the Canadiens the last time I saw them play, I didn't bring up with Lyle that night. All was forgotten.

And then the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup. I didn't see Game 5, but I had saw pretty much everything leading up to it. I was playing baseball when they won, having snuck beside a car that had a radio broadcast of the game during our team's at bat to confirm that yes, they had won. When one of my Pittsburgh loving friends came around from home I was the first to greet him in celebration, which was over the top exuberant as I simultaneously broke the news of my team's victory to him just a year after he lorded the Penguins' superiority over me. My sister had taped the celebrations, which I watched when I got home. My favourite player won the Conn Smythe. The guy I wanted to emulate as a player accepted the Stanley Cup at centre ice. And the guy who last summer was in my house was now skating around with the Stanley Cup, and there would be a day with the Cup in a couple of weeks in my town.

The Habs chose the right kid.

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