Of Habs And Leafs Fans
Many of my favorite hockey nights of the season are the Saturday's when the Canadiens meet the Leafs. Even in these times of a watered down rivalry, it's still special because what the players don't bring to the game, or what the situation fails in these times to create, the fans can always be counted on to make up for.
I've always considered myself to be quite fortunate than I live in an area - Cornwall, Ontario - that almost splits the alleginace right down the middle. My guess is that Habs fans make up a 55% proportion of the fanatics of the game here, with Leafs fans taking up the other 45%.
Senator fans, to me - irrelevant!
I'll willingly take a hundred arrows in suggesting this, but Habs fans and Leafs fans are so much alike it is impossible to ignored. The funniest part is that few from either side would ever admit it. That my friends, is where all the fun begins.
I takes an extension of thoughts to see this clearly, and knowing dozens of Toronto supporters, I can testify how similar we all are. To see this, one must look past the 10 Stanley Cup wins the Canadiens have enjoyed since the Maple Leafs last conquered in 1967.
Most people, especially those on the Habs side of things, like to believe that those ten Cups are the defining line between fans on both clubs - the difference between what a loser is and isn't.
Thinking that way is just missing the point. Looking at it so tersely, would only anger a Leafs fan, and keep one ignorant to the truth - to be harshly honest!
Fans of the Leafs are incredibly supportive, just as Habs fans generally are. Toronto backers can be equally cynical in tough times. I hear and read them and feel I am being mimicked.
I recall the pride of Toronro fans in 1993 and 1994, as the club went farther than it had in years. The Leafs were very legitimate Cup hopefuls, and their fans reminded me a whole lot of myself then.
It was a shocking admittance. It was an awekening of sorts.
I began to wonder how I would feel about my team, and how I'd feel about fans of our most passionate rivals, if it were them and not us, who had won those ten additional Cups since our country's centennial. I also started to think of what it would be like to have never seen the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup.
In truth, I can't even imagine it. When I think of such a notion, all that comes to heart is emptyness.
Had Toronto been 24 time champs, I could imagine the boasting and pompous bragging, the claims of superiority, the pride, and all the banter and teasing that rides along with it.
How is it that I can imagine such a thing so clearly?
The answer is simple - because as a Canadiens fan, I encompass all that! I admit it.
A Leafs fan would be exactly the same.
The real difference between a Canadiens and Leafs supporter is nothing more than choice, and lack of it. Where you were born affected that choice, obviously, and what you were exposed to in formative ages made that selection for most.
I've mentioned that I know many Leafs fans, and as you would guess, I know hundreds of Canadiens fans. I know no Leafs fans who made their teams lose, and I know none on the Habs side of things who helped the Canadiens win.
Part of the verbal jousting in fandom is always to do with wanting to be better than others. As I've grown older, that notion just gets sillier and sillier.
In that view, so does all the language stupidity that only serves to divide people on either side of whichever team. I am completely bilingual, and have always found that bringing in the language card is an expressway to stupidity. I'm proud to be fluent in a second language, but hardly blinded by separatist nonsense. I should stop here, while I'm ahead!
My team - the Canadiens - are going on sixteen seasons without a Stanley Cup. Toronto is at 42 and counting. As each season passes, I understand Maple Leafs fans better and better.
I have many memories of encounters with fans of the Leafs. Some were hilarious, some were harsh and mean spirited, and some have been extremely pleasant.
One memory will never forget, occured on February 23, 1991 in Montreal. The owner of the business I worked for back then told me to go to his office during my three o'clock break. When I went to see him, he asked if I wanted the remainer of the shift off, and flashed a pair of tickets to a Habs / Leafs game at me, explaining that a funeral had changed his plans. All I had to do for them was to agree to work half his Sunday night shift. Not a problem!
A friend and I took in the game - an unmemorable 3-3 tie - sitting amongst a busload of fans from Toronto. Montreal never had the lead in the game, if I recall correctly, and boy were we ever given it that night. I wore the Canadiens jersey of my industrial league team with number 47 on the back, and I endured profanities all game long from the fans behind me.
Next to me, was a young girl in a cut up Wendel Clark jersey and a mini skirt, who knew just exactly how hot she was. And she was damn hot! She was both friendly and viscious in a breath, and took all kinds of pleasure in teasing me to a boiling point, purposely riling me up. I couldn't possibly recount the conversation here, it was just too adult rated. When the Leafs scored, she'd jump up and scream in my face, hug me tight, put her lips to my neck, then back off, looking at my jersey, and go, "Yuck...sorry, I got carried away!" Another time it was, "Oh, I meant to grab a Leafs fan!" She knew what she was doing to me, and was enjoying every second of it!
The fan behind me, at one point in all this, pourred his beer down my back. He apologized, and said it was accidental. During the third period, he bought me a beer, and apologized again at the end of the game. The Wendel fan, when it was all over, stayed in her seat talking hockey with me for about fifteen minutes. She knew the game real good, and asked a bunch of questions about Shayne Corson. She seemed really bummed that it ended in a tie because she said that if Toronto had won, she "would have given it to me really bad!" I've wondered about the nuances of that suggestion for years!
My friend Gary and I then ventured out to a small crowded downtown pub not too far from the Forum for a few post game suds. We walked in looking for a place to sit, and found it was jammed tight. There were two empty seats at a tablefull of Leafs fans as we were making our way out, and an a fellow a few years older than us in the most ancient Leafs jersey I'd ever seen offered us the chairs.
Gary was hesitant, but I was thirsty. We joined the table, expecting to keep to ourselves, but it soon became apparent that the Leaf fan who's invited us to sit was not with the others. He stopped talking to them shortly after, and they left without him, leaving him alone with us.
I'll never forget that guy! His name was Jim, and he was from Newfoundland. We spent two hours in his company as he practically told us his life story through his love of the Leafs and his distaste for the Canadiens. He was hardly hateful or spiteful in any way, he was admittedly envious.
Jim bought us four rounds of beer as we talked hockey. His tale of his travels in life were compelling ones. He was a seasonal fisherman and this game was his first live NHL game experience. He had travelled to Montreal alone, hitch hiking since Thursday to make it on time. In his front pocket, he had a wad of cash that he said represented the dollar per week he had saved for two years to make the trip.
Our Newfoundland friend was the most self - depracating soul I ever encountered. Every serious note he sounded was followed by a joke about himself and his life. Twice in his lifetime, he had tickets to see a Maple Leafs game near his home turf. Both were exhibitions games. On the first occasion, his mother passed away and he couldn't make it. On the second, he was run over by a car whose parking break gave way at the top of a hill, and came rolling down to crush his leg. After telling us all this, he says that it was a goal in life for him to see the Leafs win a game live, and scream his guts out in joy. Then he made a joke about travelling hundreds of miles by thumb just to see them tie.
For a fellow from the East Coast, he sure knew his hockey, and he was naming off players and events with the accuracy of a true diehard. Jim told us about his younger days as a player, and a time in the early 1970's when he played Junior B.
Jim, as he tells it, played on a team that once had the honour of having a Leafs scout in the building. Knowing this, Jim hit the ice with the intention of having the game of his life. After the scoring the game's first goal on his first shift, Jim got a breakaway and tragically smashed his teeth into the crossbar when pokechecked by the goalie. He spent the night in the hospital, never hearing from any scouts in his neck of the woods again.
As the stories trickled and flowed from his lips, Jim became pretty darn sloshed. Several times while he was talking, he'd rest his head on his folded forearms on the table. When he was telling us about the once promising player that he was, he lifted his head from the table and you could see see faint tears in his eyes. He excused himself and wobbled to the washroom, sending us another round of beers as he went off.
When he came back, he sat down and exclaimed, "I'll tell you why I hate the Canadiens so godamn much!"
Gary and I looked at each other, stunned silent.
Jim took off on an expletive filled rant that never let us in with a word edgewise. He said he hated Montreal because they were so lucky, in his mind. He understood all the smarts that had given the Canadiens great runs, but pointed to things like Ken Dryden landing from Mars at the right time, Guy Lafleur being born when he was, almost to accomodate the Canadiens chain of greats, and Don Cherry putting too many men out in that infamous game.
"Stuff like that just don't happen to the Leafs!"
He cursed Harold Ballard up and down, and meant every word. Jim kept bringing up that he hoped he would one day live to see the Leafs win the Cup. As he was explaining how it would mean so much to him, the poor soul's eyes welled up once more.
"You guys are just so lucky...so lucky!"
Jim reached out his hand and asked a favor.
"I can't hardly stand up, I don't think. Would you guys walk a few blocks with me to my hotel? It's slippery out there."
It was about a quarter to one in the morning, as Gary and I made our way to Jim's hotel. He did fine on the way, barely stumbling at all. Once we'd made the five minute walk, Jim offered to take us in, and as we were feeling pretty good by them, it was only logical that we call it a night.
Next morning we woke up to find Jim had left. A note by the phone said that he had an early bus to catch. On the note Jim wrote some thing like:
"Thanks, boys, for being good friends, helping and listening. I had fun. Go Leafs Go!"
Eighteen years later, Jim often comes to mind. How is the guy? What's he done in life? Is hockey and the Leafs still tearing him up?
I'll never know.
When I think of the prospect of the Maple Leafs one day winning a Stanley Cup, it is for him and those long sufferers like him that I hope it happens one day. I've seen my Habs win it nine times. I know full well what it looks and feels like, having been there. I just want one more from the Canadiens in my lifetime.
I'd likely grind my teeth some, but seeing the Leafs get their mits on Stanley would be something to see.
If and when it happens, I'll surely have a thought for Jim - guaranteed!
By then, I might be in an folks home wishing that young chick in the cut up Wendel Clark jersey were my private nurse.
If the Leafs winning wouldn't kill me, that nasty girl would!
Better to live to see it.