The regular season having ended, the NHL playoffs got underway this week. The Montreal Canadiens will be watching from the golf course, having suffered the ignominy of finishing dead last.
For Habs fans, however, the focus right now is on Guy Lafleur, the last of the great icons of Les Glorieux who succumbed to lung cancer last week at the age of 70. His was the mantle accepted from Jean Béliveau, who retired the season before Lafleur joined the Habs. Béliveau had become the French-speaking superstar in the wake of the first such cultural icon, Maurice “Rocket” Richard.
Just as it was cancer that claimed Lafleur, Béliveau died in 2014 at the age of 83 after battling throat cancer, while Richard died in 2000 due to abdominal cancer, age 78.
In writing about Lafleur’s death, the Montreal Gazette drew on the dean of hockey coverage, the late Red Fisher who wrote about the Habs for 57 years before his death in 2018 at the age of 91.
“Lafleur was born to wear the CH. What could be better? A poor boy from a pulp-and-paper town (Thurso, Que.) continuing the line of pre-eminent French-Canadian superstars. He was right for the times, bringing as much glory to the sweater as any of the great players before him or since,” Fisher wrote.
“Like Richard before him, when the Canadiens and Lafleur won, Quebec won. When Lafleur scored goals in a way only he could, Quebec scored. When Lafleur and the Canadiens brought home Stanley Cups five times in the spring, all of Quebec hitched a ride on their float as it inched along Ste. Catherine St.”
That captures the element of hockey as a religion that permeates Montreal and Quebec to this day, albeit with less fervour than in decades past. That the team has fallen on hard times since it won its 24th Stanley Cup in 1993 hasn’t helped matters.
Hockey today has much more competition for entertainment dollars. And it’s much less accessible given the increasing cost, micromanaged training schedules and the dearth of backyard rinks that fostered the likes of Howie Morentz, Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky.
Still, it is playoff time. Here in the heart of the Leaf Nation, there’s both a buzz following a strong year and a certain dread of the first-round curse that appears to have afflicted the team. That was seen just last year when the pandemic-tainted season ultimately saw the Leafs put out in the first round by the not-very-good Habs, who would make an unlikely berth in the finals before falling to a legitimate powerhouse, the Tampa Bay Lightning (positive words about a southern expansion team is enough to make a Canadian hockey fan somewhat green, envy included).
Those are fighting words. Well, at least the basis of an exchange of words. When it comes to hockey, the wife of even the most closed-mouthed guy would be amazed at how the thoughts come rolling out of his mouth.
In a history of rivalry between the Habs and the Leafs, the battle has largely been reduced to regular-season skirmishes and limited bragging rights about qualifying for the playoffs before falling short.
For fans of either team, before long the conversation boils down to a few crucial digits: 1967, the last time the Leafs won the Stanley Cup; 24, the number of cups won by Montreal; 13 by Toronto.
The long drought is a sore spot for Leaf fans. The Habs have won the cup 10 times since 1967; their win in ’93 was the last time Lord Stanley’s prize was home in Canada where it belongs.
Despite their problems, the Leafs engender resilient fan support – through all of the horrible years prior to the current incarnation, fans have remained faithful year after year. Still, there is a large contingent of Canadiens fans in this neck of the woods, if hats, jackets and T-shirts are any indication.
I’ve met plenty of fans who love the Habs without having ever set a foot in the belle province. Some were drawn to the team’s glories, others because dad was a fan. Some disliked the Leafs and sought another team to support. And some, like me, are transplants from the city that really is the center of the hockey world.
Born and raised in Montreal, I come by my obsession naturally. As a kid in the 1970s, the legendary players and dynasty years were the constant soundtrack to my life (Montreal took six cups in the decade, including four straight from 1976-79).
There was Béliveau, Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Yvan Cournoyer, Jacques Lemaire, Henri Richard (the pocket rocket, big brother Maurice having retired before my time), Frank Mahovlich and brother Peter, Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Ken Dryden … the list of Hall of Fame players goes on.
All the ink spilled over Lafleur in the past week took me back to a time when there were two hockey seasons: ice and road, with plenty of overlaps between the two. Whether incurring yet-another touch of frostbite on the neighbourhood rink or reacting to the universal cry of “Car!!,” I played every game like it was a Montreal playoff drive – and there were plenty of those back then.
If I close my eyes and think of those days, I can hear Danny Gallivan’s distinctive cadence calling the game. He, not Foster Hewitt, is the voice of hockey. He of the “cannonading blast,” “stepping gingerly over the blue line” and “Savardian spinarama.”
And alongside him is Dick Irvin, an encyclopedia of hockey knowledge. With the Montreal Canadiens, even the announcers are legends.
How many nights as a very young boy did I fall asleep to the rapid-fire commentary brought on by the feats of the Flying Frenchmen? Perhaps if it had been Mozart instead, I would have spent more time at the symphony rather than at the shrine, the Montreal Forum.
The passage of time can’t help but be unkind to our childhood heroes, but it can’t touch their legendary accomplishments or our memories of them.