The Unexpected Habs Fanatics

Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

While the real action is undoubtedly on the ice, we’ve heard quite a bit about Habs fans during these playoffs.

We've read about the religious fervour with which expatriate believers unite around the Montreal Canadiens. We've learned that the superstitions and neuroses that we thought to be unique to our own living rooms are actually universal features of the game-day experiences of fellow members of Habs nation. Finally, we've seen how the traditionally face-to-face act of collectively cheering on the CH is now increasingly practiced in digital space.

Forgive Habs fans if they've been panicking in this third round series against the New York Rangers, but even with tensions running high, it's been a thrill.

Now, there's nothing unusual about fans doing fairly typical fan things. But, as the Habs have gone deeper into this year's playoffs, I've also noticed unexpected partisanship emerging around me. From the Coordinator of my department who's closing e-mails with "Go Habs Go," to the Humanities professor who's talked my ear off about Thomas Vanek, people who normally shy away from the hype have exposed themselves as full-blown boosters.

I have many academic friends who'll keep their hockey passion on the down low out of a sense that sports is not serious compared the real life topics we're supposed to be dealing with in higher education. But, in light of the numerous Habs love reveals I've witnessed in recent weeks, I decided to explore this question in a little more detail.

In the age of Twitter, it's easy to locate people with particular interests, and it's from my own feed that I drew a sample of hockey fans with whom to talk. Similar to the normally closeted Habs devotees at my work, these folks address important social issues in their professional lives. Yet, they've also stood out for their enthusiastic hockey tweeting during the playoffs. I turn to them to explore the phenomenon of the unexpected Habs fanatic.

Readers of Andrew Coyne know that the Postmedia national affairs columnist is deeply engaged in Canadian politics. Those who follow him on Twitter also know that Coyne's not shy about defending the positions he takes against those who come after him. Though he admits he'd rather be chatting with those he knows personally, Coyne explains why he'll go back and forth with his critics on Twitter.

"People don't always get your point," Coyne said. "People tend to believe what they want to believe, but every now and then you run into somebody who you're able to disabuse of whatever preconceptions they had about either me or about the column. [Twitter's] useful sometimes to know how you're being perceived."

Debating Justin Trudeau's policy on whether Liberal MPs can vote their conscience in parliament on abortion is one thing, but trolling the proponents of advanced statistical analysis in hockey on Twitter is something else entirely. Then there's the commentary he provides on the Habs' ups and downs in the playoffs. Why is a prominent political commentator taking time out of his busy schedule to do that? Coyne explains how tweeting his hockey interest is a welcome release from writing about the big issues of the day.

"It allows you to show a different side of yourself," Coyne said. "There are bounds of tastes that apply to newspapers that are a little looser on Twitter. You might throw in a swearword that you wouldn't in a newspaper. It seems to be an understood norm of the place, and that can encourage a breezy informality. And, [hockey] lends itself to that."

Coyne was a Winnipeg Jets fan growing up. As the only Canadian team in the playoffs, Coyne says he's solidly behind the Montreal Canadiens.

Supporting his notion that political writers tend to enjoy sports, Coyne wasn't the only nationally published journalist I was able to find who's been revealing affection for the Habs via Twitter during these playoffs.

In the recent Quebec election, Les Perreaux, a news reporter for the Globe and Mail, was assigned the task of live tweeting the second leaders debate. Leading up to the event, Perreaux provided historical context by supplying 140 character highlights of debates from the 2012 election. That his replay resembled TSN's routine of showing the previous year's Grey Cup on the afternoon of the current year's championship game is no coincidence. Like Andrew Coyne, Perreaux enjoys alternating between news and sports in his public musings on Twitter. Hockey and the Habs make regular appearances.

"Hockey is an area I feel pretty free to say what I think," Perreaux said. "I don't have to have evidence that the Habs stink to say, ‘the Habs stink,' whereas before I can say Philippe Couillard stinks, I better have pretty solid reasoning to say it. Sport is a distraction, a leisure activity, a spectacle, and for someone in my job, it's a fun area to talk about."

Before he began to use Twitter to discuss issues he's reporting on, hockey was the subject Perreaux tweeted about most frequently. And while he thinks that too many people tweeting the exact same things during games can ruin interactions, Perreaux's personal investment in the Habs playoff fortunes and his work duties keep him involved.

"I will continue to observe play and games, and [tweet] things that happen on the ice," Perreaux said. "If the Habs continue on a run, there's going to be stories we have to do outside the actual games, [like] the buzz in the city or Stanley Cup fever. If they get to the final, we'll be doing stories everyday, so I'll be using twitter for that sort of hybrid news-sports."

It might not be all that surprising to find Canadian columnists and journalists publicly commenting on the Stanley Cup playoffs as part of their chronicling of current events. But, can the same be expected of folks in the ivory tower? Are my colleagues and their coming out stories an aberration or are many scholars experiencing & expressing a similar latent Habs fever? Twitter supplied me with an answer.

I first learned about Emmett Macfarlane due to the fact that his Habs tweets would frequently appear in my Twitter timeline on game nights during the regular season. Macfarlane, an Assistant Professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, studies the Supreme Court of Canada, and also writes on politics for Maclean's and the Globe and Mail. A regular participant in Twitter discussions with a network of political journalists and academics, Macfarlane won't hesitate to express his adoration for the Habs right in the middle of the high-flying conversation.

"I tweet about [hockey] because it's one of the things I'm passionate about," Macfarlane said. "Most of my tweeting is during a game, particularly big games, like in the playoffs. It's kind of neat to connect to other Habs fans online, or to get into debates with people who like other teams. A lot of the people in my twitter feed are tweeting about the game, and it's a shared experience in that way."

It's refreshing to hear a fellow academic be as unabashedly enthusiastic about a sports team as he is about the politics he studies, but is there no hesitation to mash the Montreal Canadiens with the Canadian Constitution in such a public manner? Macfarlane makes the balance work.

"I'm much more inappropriate when I'm talking about hockey," said Macfarlane. "There are people in academia who are conservative about seeing someone swearing or making stupid jokes about other teams. They regard it as wholly inappropriate, and even something that can damage your professional reputation. I don't personally buy into that. I am a fan of hockey, so I behave as a fan. I will literally tweet ‘YAAAH' when there's a goal, as if this is a remotely an intelligent thing to do. But, it's something that's one of my passions, so I enjoy engaging in that way."

In their public expressions then, all three unexpected Habs fanatics transition between the serious content of their day jobs and the joy that comes from following their sport. But, beyond tweeting the Habs, I also wondered what they thought about hockey's place in Canada more generally. Isn't hockey really just a diversion? Or, is it truly as vital to our nation as the CBC and Prime Minister Harper would have us believe it to be? These observers and storytellers of the national scene are in a perfect position to comment.

Though he certainly sees crossovers between hockey and real life affairs, Les Perreaux mostly views hockey as a distraction with limited societal stakes. Taking a different tack, Macfarlane and Coyne not only respect hockey's value to Canadian society, but they also suggest that its big picture significance is partially responsible for drawing them in.

"I think we're a little bit insecure about what makes Canada distinct," Macfarlane said. "We do so much comparing of ourselves to the United States, so we point to things like universal healthcare or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as things that make Canada special. I would put hockey in that class of things. In some ways it's analogous to what baseball is to Americans, but in other ways it's also reflective of us being a winter nation, a northern country. We do hold it in pride of place in that sort of cultural perspective."

While Macfarlane acknowledges that the Conservative Party has invested a lot in trying to leverage hockey into political gains, he also maintains that the sport is a legitimate and needed marker of Canadian identity.

Andrew Coyne agrees that hockey's expressive of Canadian culture, and he offers an inspiring take with which many of us would no doubt agree.

"Hockey crosses every boundary of identity politics," Coyne said. "All the supposedly immutable differences and vast gulfs that are supposed to separate the different languages, or the different races, or even the different genders, all of those get blown apart, and people just find a certain unity just playing a game for fun. That's a wonderful and sacred thing and, at its best, the game really does bring people together."

Coyne recognizes hockey's role as a great social unifier. Yet, true to his reputation as a bit of a contrarian, Coyne offers an additional view of the sport's importance in forcing Canadians to re-evaluate taken for granted views of their own historical and cultural sensibilities.

"It is not the peaceable kingdom caring sharing type of sport, it's just not in its nature," Coyne said. "When you see the game of hockey, you see a more accurate picture of what this country has been than a lot of the nationalist mythmakers would allow. It is violent, individualistic, spontaneous, freewheeling. We've colonized large sections of America with it, so the whole argument of cultural imperialism gets turned on its head. That's probably part of what appeals to me about it, [and] there's a part of me that finds that ruggedness of our forebears something to learn from."

It's clear that even unexpected Habs fanatics enjoy publicly supporting their team, and that they recognize varying degrees of hockey's social value, but one final serious matter requires attention. Can the Montreal Canadiens actually win this year's Stanley Cup?

"The stats people would say that Montreal is the odd man out amongst the last four teams in the sense that they were the least effective at controlling the puck all season long," Coyne said. "But, the fact that they've come this far shows that maybe statistics don't explain everything, and that intangible things like emotions and teams playing above themselves can also kick in."

Coyne's foray into the language and logic of fancy stats is impressive, but his prediction is basically a hedge. He's not alone in stopping just short of a clear declaration.

"My ability to predict hockey is much worse than my ability to predict what the Supreme Court will do, and I'm often wrong about what the Supreme Court will do," Macfarlane said. "I was nervous going in to [the Rangers] series, but I'm starting to feel that something special's going to happen this year. The Rangers are a good team, but I think the Canadiens match up well against them."

And, despite being closest to the ground in Montreal, Les Perreaux goes no farther than the others.

"I honestly don't know what's going to happen," Perreaux said. "Hockey's a weird sport. The stats guys are getting a bigger and bigger presence in how hockey's analyzed, but hockey has to be the most unpredictable sport. Anything can happen. To me, that's the crazy thing about hockey."

So, despite all their collective knowledge and opinions regarding the most important happenings in the country, the unexpected Habs fanatics' predictions about their team are surprisingly non-committal. Thus, even taking the highly serious nature of their professional engagements into account, maybe Coyne, Perreaux, and Macfarlane are not so different from fans like you and me.

"After the win over Boston, I suddenly [became] very excited," Macfarlane said. "But, as a Habs fan, being excited just makes you nervous. Are you getting your hopes up only to be crushed? It very much is a completely irrational approach to assessing these things as a fan I think."

Whether our Habs fanaticism is expected or not, it's the irrationality of it all that helps makes the ride so worth it for all of us.

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