My Story: Meditations of a Latter-day Habs Fan

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‘My Story’ is a continuing feature at All Habs Hockey Magazine where we invite you to tell us your path to Canadiens fandom.  Want to tell your Habs story? Use the ‘Contact Us’ tab above!

Jonathan Sas, a 2012 Sauve Scholar, is a free lance journalist based in Montreal.  The former editor of The Mark News, he holds an MA in political science from the University of British Columbia. As a die-hard fan of the Montreal Canadiens, Jonathan was pleased to have the opportunity to talk about his beloved Habs to the members Sauvé House on Wednesday, February 6.  An edited version of his presentation appears below.

By Jonathan Sas, Special to All Habs Hockey Magazine

MONTREAL, QC — Tonight, I hope to give you some insight into the psyche of a modern day Habs fan. A Habs fan that has lived in the dreaded diaspora, cheering on Les Glorieux from the heart of Leafs’ country for the better part of three decades. I now stand before you having made it to the promised land for one strike-shortened season of glorious hockey.

My colleagues will be shocked to hear this, but today, I am renouncing atheism and can admit that I believe in God. Well, in the hockey gods anyhow. Until January, you see, it seemed commissioner Gary Bettman, greedy team owners and an entitled players union felt that I was undeserving of an experience I had longed after since I was born the child of expat Montrealers in the great cultural hub of London, Ontario.

That dream was to live in this hockey-crazed city for a full season of hockey, to cheer on ‘les boys’ at the bars with fellow fans, to gloat of our spoils in the cold streets after gritty wins, one too many Molson Dry’s to my name.

in my elementIn early January, to my delight, the season was saved. The Hockey Gods, I am certain, had weighed my predicament and in their great wisdom granted me (at least) 48 games.

Tonight, in addition to watching the Habs take on their great rival, a very good and tough hockey team in the Boston Bruins, I hope to give you a glimpse into how the rouge, blanche et bleue have coloured my life. And I want to dig a little deeper into what I believe some, if not many, committed sports fans derive from cheering on their favorite team.

I also want to challenge, though indirectly, the contention which social critics like Noam Chomsky have floated — that professional sports are a harmful distraction, a commercial often corporatized endeavour that effectively dopes the masses and keeps them from addressing more pressing issues.

I think that kind of critique has merit. But I also think it misses something profound.

There are no doubt wasted hours spent glued to a television, or thumbing a mobile app. And it’s difficult to reconcile the unbounded pride of a win or the frustration of a loss with the stark realities that so many people on this planet face, in want of life’s basics. The satisfaction that comes from following a sports team seems unwarranted, even empty when thought of in this light.

But underpinning the satisfaction, I hope to persuade you, lies much more. Underneath is a kind of solidarity, membership in a community, and opportunities to form lasting traditions. Fandom is an outlet to tap to into the ‘lightness of being’, sometimes a welcome distraction from hardship or a respite from the day to day malaise.

What I mean is fandom, Habs-fandom, brings meaning to my life.

These lofty underpinnings I’ve listed above are things that are hard to come by in this secular age, as the great Montreal philosopher -and I suspect Habs fan- Charles Taylor has written. I am going to try and back up my claim through personal and family anecdote, and explain why what hockey blogger Mike Boone describes as the “agony and ecstasy” of being a Habs fan is worth it. Ten times over.

The Hockey Sweater
Not unlike young Roch, the irreverent protagonist in one of Canada’s literary treasures, Le Chandail de Hockey, I have my own hockey sweater story. You see, growing up the son of expat Montrealers who had watched the likes of Beliveau, Dryden and Lafleur, I was baptized young into Habs fandom.

My father’s mood, like many other Habs fans, would be sour after a loss and inevitably lighter after a win. It softened or hardened depending on the fortunes of the rival Boston Bruins or Toronto Maple Leafs.

So steeped and self assured in my love of the Montreal Canadiens was I at the age of four that at my first hockey practice I got myself, and my father, into a bit of trouble.

At the season’s first practice team jerseys had yet to be distributed. So as tired parents filed their eager sons into the dressing room, groggily sipping their Timmies coffee at 6:30 a.m., each child was wearing his own jersey. Beaming with pride, the beautiful crest of the CH across my chest, I stopped in shock when I saw another young boy pull the despicable blue and white Leafs jersey over his head. So derided had the Leafs been in my house, I began to laugh and point…

“Hahah. Look dad. A leafs Jersey!” … who would wear such a thing by choice I wondered in amusement?

As the other boy shifted uncomfortably in his oversized hockey pads, his dad, six-foot-two and none too impressed, asked my father if he’d like to step outside. My father politely declined.

A Different Time
Dad grew up in a different era. An era before, as Mordecai Richler famously wrote, the fall of the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal’s favorite curmudgeon captured well why the team was so special, so revered, so unique in sports.

“For years, years and years, les Canadiens were a team unlike any other in sports….Not only because they were the class of the league…but also because they were not made up of hired outsiders but largely of Quebecois, boys who had grown up in Montreal or the outlying towns of the province. We could lend our loyalty without qualification, because they had not been merely hired to represent us on ice — it was their birthright. As boys, Beliveau and I had endured the same blizzards. Like me, Doug Harvey had played softball in an NDG park.’

Richler traced the beginning of the fall to the change of the draft rules that had allowed Montreal first and second pickings to the best of Quebec’s hockey talent until 1969.

By 1980, five years before I was born, Richler despaired at his team’s fall from grace:

“Try to understand that in this diminishing city we have survived for years confident that any May the magnificent Canadiens did not bring home the Stanley Cup was an aberration. An affront to the fans. Or just possibly an act of charity. Pour encourager les autres.’

Like Richler, and so many other Quebeckers –English, French, or a mix like my mother- my father was a product of his time. He cheered for a team where a player like Henri Richard could skate for 20 years and bring home 11 cups.

My father used to watch the hockey games from his room in a house on Lennox Ave in the now-dwindling Jewish neighborhood near the Wilderton shopping Centre off of Van Horne. If he had to go to the bathroom during play, he would ask my grandmother to keep tabs on the game. Rushing back, asking if anyone had scored, she would often reply “Replay, Replay scored” in her thick Eastern European accent. Hockey had not caught her post-war imagination.

My father’s own history, I venture, explains a lot about my own inculcation and lasting obsession.

The Montreal Canadiens have been theorized and studied as a sort of religion in Quebec by sociologists. That resonates for me if in a more simple way —my connection to the Habs comes from the meaning it had to my family and from the traditions that shaped my experience for as long as I can remember.

habs fans 2Tradition, Tradition
Saturday nights, of course, were always Hockey Night in Canada. Often, I watched those games in French on SRC on channel 5, ever angry at the Leaf-friendly CBC English broadcasts on channel 6 that chose to air lackluster Leaf teams over and above Shayne Corson, Kirk Muller, Pierre Turgeon or other favorite players of mine over the years. SRC broadcasts also meant avoiding Don Cherry and his tirades.

As a young kid, you were always allowed to stay up late to watch those Saturday night games to their end. Week night games were trickier.

My dad, ever the sucker for Habs-based appeals, could always be pushed to let me stay up for “one more whistle”…

Regardless of if I saw the game or not, I’d be up at 6:30 am the next morning to watch the highlights on TSN’s Sports Desk, then on channel 24. To this day, I still watch highlights of games repeatedly even when I’ve seen a game. For that I have little explanation.

The first time I remember my dad crying was in 1989 when the Flames beat the Habs in the Stanley Cup Finals. My mother, I remember clearly, told me to leave my dad and his sulky friends be.

There was also the time I was allowed to stay home from school without being or faking sick. It was the day after Montreal traded Stephane Richer to the New Jersey Devils. Waking up to the news, I felt so betrayed. Sick to my stomach. When my father returned home from work that night, he had bought me a Stephane Richer hockey card… he was rather broken up about the 40-plus goal scorer being unloaded too.

To riff again on the connection my relationship with the Habs has with religion, any Jewish-Canadian can tell you that the first round of the playoffs often coincides with the holiday of Passover. How many Seders have I strategically picked my seat so that I could easily slip out to check the scores. These days, the TSN app is never far from my tempted hands.

But truth be told, being a Habs fan in this era is different than it was for my parents. The original six teams are now joined by 24 other teams from un-godly places like Nashville, San Jose and Florida that wouldn’t know hockey if it spit on their shoes.

The Here and Now
For my part, I’ve seen only two cups come home. In 1986, rookie Patrick Roy led the team to a spectacular and unexpected championship. But I was one. In 1993, at the excitable age of eight, the cup was deservedly hoisted by Roy again and fiercely celebrated by yours truly. To this day, I can name that plucky 93 roster off the top of my head.

In a league punctuated by three strikes since 1994, I have stomached some less than memorable teams (last year’s was quite the stinker) players (from red-light Racicot to Scott Gomez) and trades. Remember John Leclair and Eric Desjardin traded for Marc Recchi? Patrick Roy leaving to Colorado for a bunch of nobodies? And Chelios for Savard? Come on.

But I have also rode waves of utter elation. A few in particular come to mind:

  • Three years knocking the hated and higher rated Bruins out of the first round when we qualified a lowly eighth.
  • Alex Kovalev’s 84 point season, the enigmatic Russian dazzling with stick handling and a slap shot when he swung off the half boards that every kid dreams of.
  • The deep playoff run a few years back led by Jaroslav Halak. I watched from Vancouver, my masters thesis languishing, and spent $50 on long distance calls to my friend Ben Gliksman as we watched in disbelief the take down of Ovechkin’s Washington, and Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh before bowing out to the Flyers.

hockey sweaterMost recently, my brother and I witnessed Alex Galchenyuk, one part of the two rookie line I call the ‘good gallies,’ score his first goal in front of a raucous Bell Centre crowd.

Most of all though, I remember watching the ten-minute long standing ovation for Saku Koivu, when he returned from his battle with cancer and went onto lead the Habs to victory in the first round against, you guessed it, the Bruins. The resilience he showed resonated even more when my father would later face and lose his own bout with cancer. The jersey I have with me here tonight was a gift from his close friends when he was already sick.

All of these meandering memories are meant to illustrate how the Montreal Canadiens have been a sustained ribbon running through my upbringing, a clothes line upon-which emotions, memories, and traditions have been hung. Following the Habs has been as much about the links to my past as it has the “ole ole ole’s” in the now and it will continue on (not unconditionally BETTMAN) to shape the lives of my yet-to-be born kid.

Isn’t this the stuff that constitute meaning in life? That sounds absurd, but it feels true.

I cheer for the six men on the ice – for the big hits, the flashy saves, the gritty road wins – but those cheers are informed and given life by much more.

In conclusion, I offer this— the Habs are off to a surprising 6-2 start…Lets pray, baruch hashem, they are destined for the playoffs.

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