If you're wondering what exactly a person who has given up on the Canadiens season this year is going to write about for the remainder of it, well... get used to this. As fans of this club, we're down, but we're not going to accept humiliation without any fighting back. We won't be placating the haters like that.
Funny thing happened last week after I published my post-Cammalleri trade rant. I got a message from a one-time e-rival, a Bruins fan who I haven't heard from for a while. He complimented me on the piece for essentially seeing the team without bleu-blanc-et-rouge blinders on, and that he quite liked the piece (which is quite funny, since he's a fan that does nothing but wear black and gold blinders!). I know the Pension Plan Puppets guys enjoyed the piece, too. When you're pleasing the haters, you know you're at a low.
But I'm a proud fan of this currently whacky franchise. I'm cheering for this team to still win hockey games, even if I think the team believes winning is a futile exercise for the next three months. The team showed some life this weekend with the return of King Possession, the much derided Scott Gomez. Gomez finished his weekend a +13 in Fenwick measures, the Habs played strong at even strength against two teams in playoff spots for the first time in weeks, and they got 3 of a possible 4 points. There is a lot still wrong with the team (how about that 1-6 road record under Cunneyworth?), but I'm still a fan of the players themselves, including Gomez, who continues to help the team win hockey games despite struggling to produce goals. His injury directly coincided with the team's fall from 9th place and rising to likely no shot of making the playoffs, and if the Habs want to tank as I suspect, they might have to find a way to keep Gomez out of the lineup.
But for now, my attention is less on the day-to-day stuff then it is on shooting down these wolves and vultures closing in on us. And Gare Joyce of Sportsnet Magazine is first up, as well meaning as his cover story may have been.
Nevermind that Gare Joyce got his facts wrong. The Canadiens territorial rights clause continues to be overstated in terms of its scope, and Joyce is only happy to peddle the hockey community at large's ignorance on the issue. Robert Lefebvre did the work on this front on this very site a few years ago, and no one has ever been able to dispute the findings here. Yes, the Canadiens could not live without being provided first shot at Rejean Houle, Marc Tardif, and Michel Plasse. The 1950s through 1970s Canadiens would never have existed if not for this advantage provided by finding these three surefire Quebecois Hall of Fame talents!
So why were the Canadiens so successful at producing Quebecois talent back in those Original Six days? They invented the modern farm system. The franchise bought up whole leagues as well as clubs as feeders for the team, and yeah, they happened to be mainly based in Quebec. No hockey franchise in North America has come close to searching for and developing talent as the Canadiens did back then. Upon the arrival of the Amateur Draft, the Canadiens then became active traders for draft picks, valuing them at a time when other franchises could only see the short term benefits of such trades. Guy Lafleur was a Canadien because of clever trading, and Ken Dryden was a Canadien because of superior scouting to the Bruins of the time, leading to a key trade.
The rule was silly for both being an advantage and a completely uneccessary one, but it provided little real results in the end. The Canadiens were by far the best managed hockey team for a period of 30 years and gained huge advantages through innovation, not charity.
Nevermind that Gare Joyce thinks that the 1980-1994 Canadiens were middling, even though they were clearly elite. The Canadiens made the Final Four five times in those fifteen years, played for the Stanley Cup three times, and won it twice. They led their division in points 7 times, and averaged 97 points a year in that time frame, a majority of which only had 80 games (84 games in the last 2 years), no OT loser points were awarded and there wasn't even OT until 1983-84. I did a piece on Puck Worlds last spring giving NHL franchises an IIHF standing for each year based on their previous four years of performance, and the Canadiens in this time frame were first in 1989 and never fell below 6th overall. That's a long period of being a good hockey team.
But the best takedown of Gare Joyce's thesis was done by friend of the blog Ellen Etchingham over at Theory of Ice. Joyce's main point was that the Canadiens were not only losing relevance, but they were no longer relevant at all. He continued on this theme in his analysis of the Cammalleri trade, saying Montreal was closer to Columbus' level than even that bastion of recent managerial excellence and success known as Toronto! I'm going to pick and choose some quotes from Ms. Etchingham (as Pierre Gauthier would refer to her as), but you really have to read the whole thing to come out feeling proud of the CH and ready to take all the haters on again:
To whom the Canadiens are not mattering, or on what scale they are least relevant- these things are never specified. Because you couldn’t specify them, could you? You couldn't come up with any way of measuring relevance that would put the Canadiens at the bottom of the NHL pile. The Habs still, even now, sell out every home game, they are still the third most lucrative franchise in the League, they still the leading topic of virtually all Quebecois sports media. Clearly, they still matter very much to a remarkable number of people.
And then, of course, there’s the portentous, pointless hand-wringing about how there are no legends the like of Richard or Beliveau on the roster (of course not, that’s why they’re legends), about how the Habs have no face-of-the-franchise player (what, every team needs to have one of those at all times?), and how five teams have won more of the past 31 Stanley Cups than Montreal (a better championship record than 23 other franchises is apparently still not enough to secure relevance, which is of course why the Habs to this day are less relevant than the Islanders). These are the kind of accusations that could easily be leveled at nearly two dozen teams in the current NHL; the fact that Joyce can sell a magazine article just to throw them at the Canadiens is a very good sign of how much the Habs still matter comparative to their brothers in mediocrity.
And finally, on Georges Vezina apparently spinning in his grave over the current state of the Canadiens:
Could old Georges, in his wildest dreams, have imagined how long the Canadiens would survive and all the glory they would garner? I doubt it. It would have seemed as impossible and unlikely looking forward from 1926 as it does looking back from 2012. But I know this: if his spirit has been tagging along for the past 100 years, he is fucking thrilled. He is thrilled and amazed and dazzled, he is positively joyous, because it has been a helluva ride, and a far better ride than any other NHL team has ever given its tubercular ghosts.
When things are desperate, we need these kinds of reminders. We need to remember why we are fans. We should never, ever, have to prove why this franchise still matters when it's pretty obvious how much it still does. It matters greatly to the NHL that the Canadiens aren't likely to make the post-season this year, just as it mattered greatly that the Rangers missed the show from 1997-2004, and that the Maple Leafs haven't been there since 2004. It mattered greatly that the Red Wings were pretty much broke in the early 1980s. It mattered greatly that the Bruins and Blackhawks weren't consistently selling out their arena until the past couple of seasons. The Canadiens aren't anywhere near that level of failure, and people are already claiming they don't matter.
If the NHL were to fold, the Montreal Canadiens would still exist. The Canadiens are the only franchise that pre-dates the NHL and they will be around as a hockey club even if the NHL ceased operations. There is too much history, too much relevance, and too much money to be made off the Canadiens to ever think that someone wouldn't figure out a way to keep the franchise going. Questioning the relevance of this franchise is, quite frankly, the mark of a person more intent on selling copies than accurately assessing the situation. The team sucks this year, and it hasn't won it all in a while. We understand that. To think it doesn't matter anymore? You've now said something loonier than anything I've heard from Pierre Gauthier, Randy Cunneyworth, and Geoff Molson in the past six weeks, and that's saying A LOT.
I can handle criticism of this team and its current operations. But I'll never, ever, sit back and let this revisionist mythology be presented about this club.