How I became a Habs fan: Le Gros Bill

With my formative hockey teen years in Kingston, Ontario in the 70s, it would not be surprising for me to have become a Leafs fan, with Toronto just down the 401, and, to my eyes, more Leaf games on Hockey Night in Canada than Habs matches.

Like many Kingstonians I could also have easily been a Bruins fan, whose Stanley Cup team featured not only the tandem of scoring dynamo Phil Esposito and a classy young Ontario lad rewriting both the record books and the book on how to be a defenceman, but also a number of ties to the Kingston area, with Don Cherry, Wayne Cashman, Rick Smith, to start.

Or just as likely, I could have had no team to cheer for. There was no Junior A hockey in Kingston when I was young, the Kingston Canadians not arriving until 1973 when I was 14, and it was quite a few seasons before they would win a playoff series. And as any Kingstonian hockey fan is aware, the Limestone city to this day never had a real bona fide season in the OHL. I also had the disadvantage of no brothers, no good friends on a hockey team, and two parents for whom sports in general was a mystery. And after a few years of frustrated attempts on wobbly skates, insufficiently tightened by my early grade school-aged hands, I had given up on skating.

Perhaps the turn of fortune had been that the Tommy Hunter Show was a family Saturday night staple, and always on just before Hockey Night in Canada, which I could then watch on that antenna fed, ghost imaging, solitary black and white TV in the living room. It might have been that exposure that began my interest in the game and got me to accept frost-bitten hands and toes for the joy of playing the frozen tennis ball 'last-goal-wins' pre-supper road hockey games on my street, appropriately, Morenz Crescent.

The first game that I have a memory of watching was the final one of the 1968 season. I doubt that I had realized that there had been a regular season, victories in earlier play-off rounds, or for what honours or prizes they played, let alone the strategies and skills that were being employed. All I remember from that game was that, upon completion, the red, white and blue clad team had won the championship, and as the fans and players finished their celebrating and the official ceremony began, a noble man came through the doors onto the ice and proudly and steadily walked to center ice on his crutches to receive the Stanley Cup, amidst the idolizing cheers of the crowd. Even to an 8-year-old it was clear that these weren't the cheers that are given for a great scorer, skater, or fighter. They were cheers not for hands or legs, but for what was between a man's ears, and in his chest. These were the cheers for a man respected, admired, and idolized by that crowd and team. I had a tear in my eye watching this man, who stood above the others, receive the trophy that he hadn't been on the ice to win that night, but that clearly was due in big part to what he had meant to that team. Jean Béliveau, as he had to countless others over the decades, instantly became my first hockey hero, and the Habs became my team for life.

Of course, Canadiens teams gave me plenty to fan fandom's flames in the coming years; certainly my first memories of watching an unexpected play-off run in 1971. Any young Habs fan of that year will recall the magic of watching a young unknown Ken Dryden leaning on his stick, wearing that peculiar and memorable goalie mask, which surely haunts the dreams of a number of ex-Bruins and their fans to this day.

Or the exhilaration of watching the waving mane of #10, who never seemed to even break a sweat as he gracefully flew down the wing, and particularly with time running out in that memorable final Bruins-Habs game of 1979 as his low-release slap shot rocketed by a helpless and hapless Gilles Gilbert, to crush Bruin dreams once again.

Or sitting in a room full of Hab haters in the playoffs of 1984 watching the Habs overcome a 2-0 deficit in the 3rd period of a brawl-filled game six against the bitter rival Nordiques to win the game and playoff series.

Or two improbable playoff runs in 1986 and 1993, the last with the stunning 10 consecutive overtime wins. They book-ended the eight seasons that I lived in Montreal, for the first several years but a scant dozen blocks from the hallowed Forum, and gave me the pleasure of marking my arrival and departure with the attendance of Stanley Cup parades.

Or watching through moistened eyes the just deceased Boom-boom Geoffrion's rising number retirement banner be met halfway by his father-in-law Howie Morenz's so that they could ascend and retire together.

Or watching the courageous Saku Koivu removing the helmet from his bald head to salute the crowd's eight minute ovation marking his return to the game from cancer.

These memories were all galvanizing, yet irrespective of them and despite having long ago moved back to Ontario to an NHL town whose team would have been and still would be easy to cheer for, the die had been long ago cast.

The one NHL hockey sweater that so long has hung in my closet is worn and a little small for me now. On the back of the red, white and blue is no name; the lettering would have cost me more than I could part with at the time. But with his reputation then, and to this day, having been earned countless times, Le Gros Bill didn't need a name tag when he wore it, and no Habs fan ever would need to see more than the single digit '4'.

Jean's team will always be my team.

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