Team 990 Nostalgia: The Calm Before The Fight



"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone." It's a line from the hit song "Big Yellow Taxi" (originally Joni Mitchell's, later Counting Crows'), also used in part by Montreal's own Annakin Slayd in his Montreal Expos tribute song "Remember". The saying rings true when it comes to the Expos because of the way the team was taken for granted up until September 29, 2004, the day it was announced they would be leaving for Washington. That was also the day of the team's final home game, and I remember begging my mom to let me go to Olympic Stadium one more time. I hadn't been the biggest sports fan up until that point, but I realized the finality of what was going on, how the book was about to be closed on 35 years of baseball in Montreal. Instead, I watched the game on RDS, on television, and had tears in my eyes as I watched Terrmel Sledge make the final out at Olympic Stadium. Four days later, it was on Team 990 radio in my car that I heard the final few plays in Expos history.

Whether it's the Expos, the Canadiens, the Alouettes or even our newest love the Impact, there hasn't been a moment of sports in Montreal that I don't associate with our English all-sports radio station. Now as we have all learned, Bell Media - which purchased the Team and made it TSN 990 - is intent on converting the station to French RDS 690 in order to comply with CRTC regulations regarding its recent purchase of Astral Media (you can read about it here). If the CRTC accepts the change, TSN 990 will soon be no more. I don't intend this to be a rant against Bell Media; I am writing to remind those like myself, who will spend the next few months fighting to save the station, to take some time to reflect and to appreciate what we did have. If the worst is to happen, at least we can say we had those final few months, as well as the eleven years before.

I fondly remember the first time I found the 990 frequency. I would always listen to Ken and Kat in the morning on Mix 96 before school as an (not so effective) alarm. One morning, my arm happened to knock the dial, and as I frantically struggled to try to retrieve my station, I ended up on AM 990 (otherwise known as CKGM), hearing the voices of Picard, Ron Francis, and Tony Marinaro, original hosts of the Morning Show. My dial never turned back to FM radio.

As the years went on, much changed. Picard, Francis, and Marinaro became Casavant, Price, and Starr, who on many occasions had me laughing myself awake. I remember playing the Birthday Game along with them every morning, shouting out "38!" to nobody in particular before any of them could tell me how old Jeremy Roenick was. Having once travelled to Senegal, I knew that "Thieboudienne" was in fact a plate, and "Mame Biram Diouf" a player.

I looked up to Tony Marinaro for all things Canadiens, at least until he tried to argue that peaches should be peeled, at which point my allegiances somewhat shifted to PJ. I remember the first time I called in, pressing the phone against my face as I paced my kitchen, as nervous as I've ever been, waiting to chime in on the Michael Ryder for Raffi Torres trade rumor - of which I approved - and having Tony botch my name (as many-a radio host would again). I would always make sure to have my radio tuned in at exactly 10:05 AM (later 1:05 PM) for Tony's inspiring intro - set to an all-time great song: U2's Where the Streets Have No Name - and the same for Stock's hilarious Whitesnake-accompanied series of movie clips with his own name inserted ("You can't handle the... - P.J. Stock!").

Picard was always the poster-boy for cynicism, ranting on and on about the Red Sox sticking with journeyman Wily Mo Pena in centre field, and the Patriots refusing to sure-up their defense. As a Boston-hater I loved it. I listened to "P on Sports" - also with an intro I'll never forget - on the drive home from tennis practice on Friday evenings, but it was also the soundtrack to my other weeknights. Long after I was supposed to be asleep, I would still have my radio tuned to 990, with the volume on the lowest setting so as not to wake my parents, just to hear a few more minutes of P.

I never heard much of Gabriel Morency's show - it probably wasn't age appropriate anyway - but I know that Picard and Gabe had great chemistry on the Habs post-game show. The night it was announced Morency would be leaving, the two took callers for the duration of the show, and I don't think hockey was mentioned once. That was when I really began to understand just how much this radio station meant to its listeners: to Louis in Ville-Mercier, to Felipo the Taxi Driver, and to so many more. I began to realize just how different my life would be without it.

The moments of Mitch Melnick's show that stick out the most for me - it took a more mature me to figure out the radio genius he truly is - are his chats with Pierre McGuire. I will always remember being in my car when the Gomez trade broke; I was spewing profanities that I didn't even know I knew as I learned that not only had we traded for Scott, not only had we thrown in Chris Higgins, but we had parted with my favourite prospect, Ryan McDonagh. I attribute much of the respect I have for Pierre (despite the attacks that he constantly seems to endure for voicing his opinions) to the fact that on that day, he seemed to be the only person who was as angry about the deal as I was. If that trade were announced today, the first thing I would do would be to race to Twitter as fast as possible, second would be to turn on the Team. Back in 2009, I didn't have twitter; I have no idea what I would have done if I hadn't had my station either.

And yet this is the reality we face. When Mitch Melnick came on the air this July 10 - after playing "Shattered" by The Rolling Stones in its entirety - he said, "I always used to look forward to All-Star Game Tuesday. All-Star Game Tuesday will now always be associated with death". But this announcement didn't feel like an elderly grandpa passing away from old age after a long and fulfilling life; this felt like murder. This was a radio station being shut down at its peak.

It had begun as a project with much uncertainty in the fall of 2001, and as a result of the 9/11 attacks, it almost didn't survive the season. Nobody wanted to hear about sports for the next few months, which left Melnick and others in a precarious position. But they fought through, recruited some of the best journalistic talent in the city, replacing those that moved on to other things, like Stock and Casavant, with respected talent in the community, like Randy Tieman and Ted Bird. When in the fall of 2011 Bell Media took over 990, the station's future seemed all but secure. But I should have seen it as a warning when, shortly before the purchase of the station, the trade broke that sent the Philadelphia Flyers' two franchise players away; the message was clear, nobody and nothing is untouchable.

Despite the passion and dedication shown by those close to the station, the ratings for 990 have been fairly modest. When a station had to be sacrificed, therefore, it was always the one most likely to go. To me, however, 990 has never felt like a business. It's a part of the fabric of Montreal just like the Canadiens. There are some things that should simply never be taken away, and the Team 990 is one of them.

This may come off as selfish; after all, CKAC - the French-language equivalent of the Team - was recently shut down. But this isn't about language. French-Montrealers deserve an all-sports radio station as much as English-Montrealers; it shouldn't be a "one or the other" situation. Sports may not have as far-reaching of an appeal as news or weather or traffic, but they have an important place in the hearts of many of the most dedicated listeners, callers, and fans in the city. If the Team really does fold, Montreal will be losing more than just a radio station, it will be losing a cultural icon.

So what can we do? If you haven't signed the petition to the CRTC, do so. You can write an "intervention" to them as well, to voice your displeasure at the change. Finally, you can contact Bell Media, whose officials - according to reports - never asked for an exception from the CRTC, to lobby them to make a change. Follow @SaveTSN990 on twitter, and like the "Save The Sports Network Radio 990" Facebook group. There will also be a "Save TSN 990 Rally Night" at McLeans Pub on Saturday, August 4th about which you can find details on Facebook.

The Team/TSN 990 has given us so much over the years, and it is up to us, the fans, to save it. Every time you think you've done enough, that you don't want to take the time to sign a petition, or write a letter, think about the day the Montreal Canadiens finally win their 25th Stanley Cup. Think about Mitch, or Tony, or Elliot, or Randy, or Shaun, or Conor, or Matthew, or anybody else on the 990 staff. Think about not having the opportunity to have your voice heard by calling, emailing, or tweeting into their shows. Without 990, sport in Montreal would never be the same; it would be hollow. The recent announcement has given us all a chance to reflect on eleven amazing years of the Team, but now it's time to fight. Hopefully, there will be many more years of memories to come.

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