Like many fans of an Original Six team, I don't fully understand my choice to cheer for Montreal. I know I love the team; that much is certain. But beyond that, the reasons for my fandom are many and varied, in spite of my coming of age during some of the darkest days of the franchise. I was seven years old when Les Glorieux last hoisted the Cup, and that summer I travelled with my beaming father as he took us for the sixteen hour drive across three provinces to the hallowed halls of the Forum. We stood in the locker room and I surveyed the famous line along the top of the wall:
"To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; Be yours to hold it high."
I knew the lines from "In Flanders Fields" from school, and it wasn't lost on me that the solemnity of the subject translated to the sacred atmosphere of the Montreal Forum. I was fascinated by the history of the team and its aspirations for excellence. For the rest of the nineties, I would be forced to try to reconcile that striving for greatness with the middling results of a struggling team.
In 1995-96, Saku Koivu joined that team as a small forward with slick hands and a prodigious drive for victory. Even before his diagnosis, Saku – for me, it was always a first name basis with him - was inspiring for his attitude as much as he was for his abilities. To quote the cliches, Saku played like every game mattered even when many didn't, and played a big man's game for a diminutive Finn. He understood the cultural complexities of Montreal's market even when those cultural hurdles were lined up against him. The first European captain, a captain unable to speak French, an underperforming team suffering under the expectation of greatness - while all of it undoubtedly pressured Saku, he barely batted an eye. He was a man of grace and subtle confidence, and it allowed him not only to take the mantle of the Canadiens' captaincy during a time of turmoil, but to use that position of leadership to become a beacon of stability.
Even though he retired as a Duck, his tenure with the Canadiens made it clear why I loved Saku. His career clarified my love for the team by representing everything the organization valued. The team's accomplishments under Saku's tenure as captain were, to be kind, mediocre. The Canadiens only made it to the second round twice in ten years with Saku as captain, but that's not to say the highs were not memorable. Two series victories against the Bruins were proof positive that the Canadiens were capable of momentary greatness even as the Cup was not within reach. Those flourishes of hope, those magical moments that brought the ghosts of greatness to the forefront, came as a result of Saku's efforts, but they were emblematic of the Canadiens will to destiny. What made Saku and the Canadiens special weren't the results they achieved, or even their stat lines. What separated them was their ability to elevate mediocrity to greatness, if only for moments at a time.
It's what separates the Habs from their rivals now. It's not an issue for the Bruins, who are always confident that they can bruise their way to success and who are often successful at doing so; their flavourless marches to victory come with chest thumping bravado, not with artfully overcoming obstacles. However, when they play the Canadiens, the Bruins are forced to adapt their game and embrace the strategy of their opponents.
When both teams are at their best, the Bruins bruise, but they start to wheel with the Habs and rely on outstanding goaltending; Montreal plays their usual speedy game, but the checking lines find a way to outgrind the opposing forwards. The teams exploit each other's weaknesses, for sure, but they also learn from each other, and that's what makes those matchups a true rivalry and a situation where Saku, a capable mucker when the occasion called for it, was able to thrive.
Saku's obvious counterpart on the Leafs was Mats Sundin, another European captain with a doubtless flair for the dramatic. As a franchise, though, the Leafs of the last two decades have been a listless team that lacks an identity and is happy with the smallest victories. The Buds can't see the forest for the trees - they become so satisfied with small victories that they are unable to elevate themselves when greatness incites them to do so. They collapsed against Boston two years because they couldn't adjust their game as needed, such as Montreal and Boston often do against each other. With their collapse down the stretch last season, the Leafs displayed a willingness to coast on their acheivements from earlier in the year. These are issues that are challenged by a good captain, by a Sundin or a Saku, who inspire change or drive in the face of adversity. The Leafs' problem has never been a lack of ability; it's been an abundance of satisfaction.
Montreal, by contrast, is never satisfied, and neither was Saku. His lionhearted approach to the game epitomized the philosophy of the Canadiens. In the Montreal Canadiens' darkest hour, a smallish European forward provided the light. The torch was his to hold high, and now that the light has been passed to a new generation, we can truly appreciate the legacy left by Saku as one being worthy of the ghosts of greatness that haunt the Canadiens de Montreal.