How do you become a fan of the Montreal Canadiens? Well if you're born in Montreal, it's only a matter of time.
I'm not sure why I wasn't raised on hockey, my father was born when the Habs were becoming truly legend, he was 6 years old when they began the greatest dynasty run in NHL history, winning 5 straight titles between 1956-1960. He was 15 when they began their "Quiet Dynasty" and won 4 Cups in 1965, 1966, 1968 and 1969. My father than witnessed in his twenties another team for the ages in the 1970s, a team that won 6 titles in a decade and stands out today as possibly the greatest team ever assembled. Perhaps he was dissatisfied with how the Canadiens drifted from their glory days as he got older, perhaps he tried to show me the game and I wasn't interested, my memory is honestly not that strong for my early years and it didn't help that I was only 9 years old when the Canadiens had their last bit of glory with the 1993 Stanley Cup.
The Canadiens utterly imploding in the mid-90s certainly didn't help anything. I remember my father and my big sister were upset with the team and their policy of trading anyone who could skate and not fall down. My sister flirted a bit with the Devils in the 90s, why I'm not sure, to this day I think the only thing less interesting than a New Jersey Devils game is watching a snail race. My father, I can only surmise with him having seen so many legends, he was tired of enduring what came after.
So the 80s and 90s passed without my having an interest in hockey. So did the first half of the 2000s, I saw a bit of the playoffs (when they made it) but still not a devotee of any stripe. I sat down to watch the 2006 NHL Playoffs, which is also the first time a hockey moment was burned into my memory, for all the wrong reasons. I think we all remember this, Saku Koivu down on the ice in Game 3, the accidental and errant (or was it? This is one my long, unbreakable bias) stick of Justin Williams nearly having carved his eye out. The Canadiens were leading 2-0 in the series, Koivu was the Captain and always one of, if not the best man they had for a playoff game. To this day I scowl when I see Williams name on a scoresheet and wasn't for the Kings winning the Cup as he was on their roster. As I watched the rest of that series, I realized what a toll that had taken on Montreal, because despite what his critics will try to pin on him, Koivu was the man who drove the success of the Habs quite often. Was it great success? No but you could have dropped Jean Beliveau on the 2000 Habs in place of Koivu and he wouldn't have made them a Contender.
Koivu was my first real taste of Habs fandom, He always inspired me for no matter how beat up he was or how much bigger the other players were, he was always in the thick of it and playing with everything he had. To this day he's my favourite Habs player, he never stopped giving all he had to the Canadiens and I think that's what I liked. Beat up, hadn't skated on two good knees since the mid-90s, a stick to his eye and a battle with cancer but he would be damned if he lost because he was outworked by someone. I think that is the spirit of the Habs, no matter what you throw at them, they will rise above it.
The next two years were mostly a blur towards my gaining any big interest in hockey. I saw a few games here and there, but I do remember the Canadiens final game in 2007. Montreal-Toronto showdown. My best friend and I got together to watch the game, grilled a couple steaks and hoped that Montreal could crush Toronto (which I actually thought was the team's biggest rival) and secure a post-season berth. Everything was going well, Michael Ryder scored a hat trick in less than 6 minutes and Montreal was sitting pretty on a 5-3 lead late into the 2nd. Than the wheels came off, Toronto scored three goals to win the game 6-5 and eliminate Montreal from playoff contention. We didn't know it than, but that loss actually ended up doing us a favour, as it left Montreal in position to draft P.K. Subban at 43rd overall in the 2007 Draft (which is actually a big part of my story). The following year, well that's a long story I don't like talking about. One thing that was going on in the background of that year was the Montreal Canadiens, instead of finishing last as the pundits predicted, they finished 1st in the East. I tuned in for the entire playoff run of the Canadiens, I watched the star of Carey Price rise and fall and ultimately, blamed for everything as even a relative outsider knew, Montreal fans have a knee-jerk reaction when it comes to losing, blame the goalie.
In 2008, we had a historic day of sorts, we had an RDS subscription for the first time. (it wasn't until the 2000s that my family subscribed to a TV service). I get ready for what as any bandwagon-jumper (and that's what I was, I admit it) expects, a better season than last year. Instead what I got was an education in how quickly a winning team can become a losing team, or as near to one as really matters. I learn the art of generating excuses and placing insane expectations and having the stubborn belief that "this will be what turns it all around" even though I get proven wrong so often. But it was also the year I learned about the World Junior Championships and a young man named Pernell Karl Subban.
Let me stop for a bit and explain why things are different for me than most of you. Becoming a hockey fan at 25 is insane. It really is. You don't know a damn thing. You can't truly appreciate the legends of the game outside of a highlight reel. People around you talk about them as these otherworldly figures, you just know names and in my case, their numbers. You can watch these guys on YouTube all day (which I have) and it still doesn't do them justice. The elites of hockey are just different from the rest, they are artists and the ice is their canvas. If I could time travel, I'd watch every single game Mario Lemieux played in, but I can't so all I can do is watch today's game and try to appreciate what's there, but know that I missed out on so much before now.
The real killer though is the day-to-day stuff, you are always at a disadvantage for general knowledge of the game. I honestly didn't know what forechecking meant until about 2011. Don't ask me to catch if a team is playing 2-1-2 or 1-2-2, I still haven't figured out breaking that down during a game. Coaching? Still a wee bit clueless on figuring their trade out. I never was a fan of fighting, but spirits help me, I honestly believed Laraque was going to be helpful to Montreal when he was first signed (my worst moment in hockey, ever). I'm starting to appreciate analytics, but I believe that there are things in hockey that the numbers just can't break down. Any Habs player who left the team before 2008, I can't really give an opinion on them as Habs outside of looking at their career numbers or the opinions of my friends. There is a mountain of things about hockey I just don't know because I only just came on board relatively speaking, fortunately I did have my own tools to help me along.
I found myself at an advantage in two things. First is mixing my excellent memory for numbers with my gift for being able to recall at great length, subjects that are of interest to me. I have a slightly obsessive personality that does pay off when I want to learn things. Second, I'd learned about P.K. Subban and that is how I really became a Habs fan.
I knew P.K. Subban was 5'11", his reported height of 6' is a typical bump you get in team media guides. That's another lesson I learned about hockey, hockey teams will always insist their players are taller than they actually are. I knew he was an above point-per-game defencemen in junior hockey and that he was a stand-out at the World Juniors. That's it, what I learned over the next year was a whole other matter. Subban had signed his entry-level deal with the Habs and was set to report to the Hamilton Bulldogs. Circumstances of the time placed me in Brantford, Ontario halfway through the the 2009-10 season. That's 20 minutes from Hamilton. Sometimes fortune smiles on the hockey-ignorant. I would see Subban six times in a live setting that year. It's still the best money I ever spent on hockey tickets. Even a hockey ignoramus like myself could see he was the best player on the ice with skating ability that made everyone else look like they had cement in their skates when he was flying.
Now that I knew about Subban, it was a natural extension to try and understand the rest of the prospect field on the Habs so I could find the "next Subban". This had it's own pitfalls as I was out of my depth so as always, I had to learn fast and discover that I knew even less about prospects than I did about NHL hockey. I had to learn about the importance of where a prospect is playing for their development and AHL eligibility. I had to learn about reasonable expectations for where players are taken in the draft and the likelihood of even a 1st-round pick making "The Show" in a significant role. I learned about the importance of retaining 2nd-round picks (I'm looking at you Pierre Gauthier) and that you can't really evaluate the success of a team's draft for at least 5 years (Remember when Max Pacioretty was a bust?). I began to understand the paths of 'projects' and 'sleepers' as I watched my 2nd NHL draft in 2010 as that happened to be the draft class that included 1st-round project Jarred Tinordi and 5th-round sleeper Brendan Gallagher. I learned about KHL transfer rules, career AHLer versus NHL prospect, European prospects needing to be released from their European league contracts and that using the Memorial Cup or World Juniors as a singular measure for a player's NHL future doesn't make sense. Today, I know the Habs prospect field, it's what makes me believe that the Canadiens can become a great team again and it's why I am more concerned about the Draft than I ever will about Free Agency or the Trade Deadline.
How did I get here? You can say it was a confluence of random events but would have I even paid attention to the Habs if I wasn't from Montreal? I doubt it. You grow up in Montreal, you know about the Habs. On a subconscious level you just understand if you're going to watch hockey, the Canadiens are your team. Would I follow the Habs if not for Saku Koivu? Maybe, but with him not around, who on that team would have inspired me? Would the Habs have had the success in 2008 that they did with no Koivu, to have me bandwagon to the 2008 playoffs? Would I watch the Habs if they hadn't drafted P.K. Subban? It's possible but without the infectious spirit and inspirational play that he brings to the ice, would I eagerly watch every shift he plays and spend hours every week examining their farm system? I doubt it.
But I am a Canadiens fan today because of these things. Being born in Montreal was where it began, Saku Koivu was the first flicker of light and P.K. Subban was the true catalyst of where I am today. I know the Habs, I know their farm system, there's still a lot more for me to learn but I love the game of hockey because of the Habs. I will continue to educate myself about the game and it's history because of the Habs and I will never miss a Habs game if I can avoid it. It's not always about one moment making you a fan, sometimes it's about a series of moments that take you to the same inevitable conclusion, you're a Habs fan and you never had a chance to be anything but.