I Was A Habs Fan For A Night And That’s Plenty

MONTREAL — I consider myself a loyal person, but rarely do I have any compunction about adopting the home team for a night in a new city. Even if that team used to employ Patrick Roy. When I fulfilled a long-idle hockey dream on Saturday by going to see Leafs-Habs, in Montreal, in an unfamiliarly close seat, I went full method actress. As a result, I got to experience firsthand just how frustrating it is to root for this particular version of the Canadiens, who have a past to reminisce on and a potentially bright future to anticipate, but no present to speak of.

I was undercover. I’m pretty this was the first time I’ve ever worn my too-big, possibly bootleg 1987 Canada Cup Mario Lemieux jersey outside in public (the nameplate says “MLEMIEUX” on the back, with no space). It wasn’t a Guy Lafleur sweater, exactly, but it did the trick, honoring one of the greatest amateur players in Quebec’s history. Some knowledge I’ve gleaned from my time spent loving the Red Wings is this: a long jersey rouge, leggings noir, and knee-high boots marron work pretty much anywhere, except maybe Toronto. I think a guy gave me a detailed compliment on it as I was heading to the arena, but all I’m able to repeat is what I said in return: “Oh! Merci!”

Knowing that I’d be traveling mostly alone, I used an app for a bit that gave me some potentially useful phrases in case I really needed to communicate with someone. I could have saved the effort, because you can get around in English sans problème. But it didn’t completely fail me, either. At Maison Symphonique on Friday, I didn’t hear a word of English from anyone in the (quite young, very large) crowd, and I froze up like Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise (“un billet s’il vous plaît”) more than I would have liked. But I got through those ushers without forcing a switch thanks to my knowledge of à côté and à gauche.

If I’m digressing, it’s because the aural experience of being at a Habs game is unlike any other in the NHL. The French/English split on the video screens and during the in-game promotions feels something like 65/35, and of course that’s an adjustment for any Anglophone. But the way in which it’s presented is also a trip for a tourist brain. In a city like Toronto, for example, there’s an effort made to accommodate French speakers, but it’s very modular—most often just presenting the two side by side. There’s English, and then there’s French, and if a French speaker can’t forget the pervasiveness of English, an English speaker can easily pay almost no mind to the French. But at a Canadiens game, this kind of separation doesn’t really exist. There’s no obvious rule about when one or the other is used. The employees on the mics during intermission and commercial breaks, for example, switched flawlessly mid-paragraph from one to the other, rarely slowing down for the “Here it is in one, now the other” brand of corporate bilingualism. You can get the gist knowing just one, but you’re really only going to understand everything if you’re fluent in both. The way the languages lay on top of each other—so your seat ends up being, say “neufnine“—is both a testament to the way French Canada has fought to keep its culture alive and, on a smaller level, a fun brain exercise.

Oh, and there’s another way that a Canadiens game just sounds different than any other: the sheer force of numbers. Montreal’s arena leads the NHL in capacity at 21,105, and that extra two or three (or 17 in Arizona) thousand fans make a difference. The concourses are fairly humble, but walking through the curtain makes you feel downright tiny. Some of my awe, I imagine, came from the fact that I’ve been an upper-bowl girl my whole life, but there’s empirically no doubt that Montreal just has more than anywhere else. The top of the building felt so out of reach, almost like a football stadium, and the distant voices add to the clamor. The OHs, after a close miss are just, through basic addition, hitting your ears harder they would at a more exclusive rink.

Faceoff picture from the corner of the lower bowl

My Habs loyalist disguise was never questioned, and while my seatmates were nice and normal, we never engaged to the degree where I had to be like, “Je m’appelle Lauren. J’habite à New York, mais avant j’habite en Michigan.” I was an outsider, unavoidably, but didn’t act the part when the puck dropped. Thrilled by my view, charmed by the team’s ability to sell the Habs and Montreal in unbreakable symbiosis, I surprised myself with my fervor. A tense, scoreless first added to my focus. When the Leafs, after intermission, scored twice in a 17-second span, I instinctively shouted a curse word I rarely like to use. When they scored a third, I grabbed at my hair in frustration—as reflex, not performance. I pushed aside the memory, four years old, of adopting blue-and-white Leafs fandom for a night in almost the exact same way. I wanted to be of this crowd. Down 4-0 halfway through the game, I believed that we could get the goals back.

Just like the true Habs fans over the last 30 years, my belief went unrewarded. The Canadiens got two back, so I at least got to know what it’s like when they score. (The song requires that fans say “Hey!” a lot, but it’s not that one.) They couldn’t produce any more in the final 20, however. Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield did their part, but Montreal’s next most valuable attractions were the DJ (who had a ton of freedom at intermission), the shockingly violent traffic cones that race each other (one was beating the other with a stick), and Youppi!.

Youppi checks the crease during intermission

Insufficiency has been the story of this Habs season and the few before it. They glued together a ridiculous underdog run to the Cup Final in 2021, but over the next three years the team hit rock bottom and then showed only the most marginal of improvements. An optimist could have talked herself into a feisty campaign at the start of this season, given that they rostered so many young players. But only Suzuki and Caufield look anything close to finished products, and while you can point to steps being taken by Juraj Slafkovsky and Kaiden Guhle, the team is still sitting a long way away from even contending for the eighth seed no one seems to want. Montreal doesn’t have any kind of scoring depth, or a good defense, or a clear heir to Carey Price. Though you can imagine them obtaining those things through a draft-and-develop process, their divisional neighbors in Ottawa or Buffalo will be quick to lament that there’s no guarantee of a rise even after a whole bunch of losing.

The nice thing about being a tourist is that, even after getting provoked to fury by the talents of Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, you can step outside, exhale, and let the loss roll off you. Poutine doesn’t taste any worse when the Habs are in last place. But for everyone who didn’t get on a very long train home Sunday morning—the ones stuck pinning their hockey hopes on the idea that this franchise can recapture its former glory—well, maybe they can take a trip and spend a night cheering for a winner.

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