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THE FAR SIDE OF THE POND: A Forgetful Game in a City of Fanatical Tradition

02/02/2009 10:22 PM

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By Chad Huebner

Montreal. There’s only so much we can glean from this city outside of Wikipedia and “The Whole Nine Yards” that in some ways it remains a mystery, and an intriguing one at that.

First, there’s the beer. You have your Molson, which is pretty good, and I’m not saying this because they own the Montreal Canadiens and have Les Habs’ home named after them (yep, I’ll be expecting that case of Molson Light any day now). You also have your Moosehead, which makes for a cool hockey team name. . . like the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. No other beer name sounds quite right as a sports team name, except maybe for the Millers and the Buds.

The town also has that quirky habit of putting Mayo on their burgers and using it as a dipping sauce for their fries, or pommes frites. Of course my info is solely based on “The Whole Nine Yards”, so I could be a bit off here. I love mayo with both dishes, so I better avoid the likes of Jimmy “The Tulip” Tudeski on the mean streets of Montreal.

But the only thing that Montreal is really known for, and rightly so, is hockey. There’s that old joke that towns like Montreal have two seasons: hockey season and off season. Yeah, sure, you had the Montreal Expos of the MLB in the good ol’ summertime, and you have the Montreal Alouettes (beyond knowing Alouette is part of that nursery rhyme, I have no clue what it has to do with football) of the Canadian Football League. Both are or were considered “diversions” by most of the populace. Hockey is first and last and everywhere in between. Some have even made the case that Montreal was the birthplace of hockey, which is not true. I’m supporting my peeps from the Society of International Hockey Research (of which I am a proud member-us hockey geeks have to band together) when I say that the game was developed further east, in the Nova Scotia region, but was brought into the forefront as a professional sport in Montreal. It was in Montreal where we had the formation of rules, and of teams, with names
like the Wanderers, the Victorias and the A.A.A., the latter name I assume has nothing to do with roadside assistance.

But out of all these various clubs came The Canadiens. Les Habitantes. That Team with the Weird-Looking Logo with the “H”
inside the “C”: What the Heck Does that Mean? (Hint: use the second nickname I used for starters).

Seriously, when it comes to hockey, who do you consider to be the best? Some say the Canadiens are the New York Yankees of hockey. I’ll bet if you ask anyone from the Quebec Province if that’s true, and they’ll smile and shake their heads and say something to the effect that you’ve got it all backwards. Hell, this is a town where they rioted and burned half the city when they found out their star player was suspended for the playoffs.

They talk about the passing of the torch, about holding each and every player to high standards. This is something the Canadiens have done very well every decade since they won their first Stanley Cup in 1916. But while I’m sure the players are honored to play for such a historic franchise, they also must feel the excruciating pressure playing in a town that lives and dies with every game. As we close out the first decade of the 21st century, this might be the first decade since the beginning of the 20th century where the Canadiens will not be champions at least once. It’s been 15 years since the last championship banner was raised in Montreal (also, possibly not coincidentally, the last time a Canadian club won the Cup), and each passing year, not only does the pressure increase, but so does the frustration. How could this happen to hockey’s storied franchise? Where did they go wrong? They can win in the regular season, why can’t they close the deal in the postseason?

These are all good questions, and frankly, no one seems to have the answers for them. I’m not much a fan of the Canadiens-I’d more than likely root for the Maple Leafs or the Bruins than them. But in some weird way, I can’t help but feel that the Canadiens not winning the Cup in such a long time might cause some rip in the time-space continuum. I also feel a little pity for a team that’s had such a glowing history, only to be falling on hard times when teams from places like Anaheim and Carolina, relative newcomers to the game, are not only making it to the Cup Finals, but winning it too.

But this year’s All-Star Game was far removed from the Canadiens and their problems. It was a perfect celebration for the team ready to celebrate a century of existence. And it also brought Montreal, Molsons and mayo-laden burgers, into the focus. The birthplace of professional hockey did the All-Star Weekend in style. I’d even say the Game itself was stylish, in a Guy LaFleur kind of way. But I’m sure I’m not the only puckhead out there that wish there was a little more grit in the game. I don’t mind the high-scoring totals, just give me a little more physicality. Yeah, I know, teams are so worried about the players suffering from some sort of dreaded “All-Star injury” and possibly ruining their chances at winning the Cup and saving humanity from ultimate destruction and blah blah blah. The NHL have had plenty of All-Star Games where the players let it all out, and more or less, didn’t get banged up too much. To have both finesse and physicality? Well, I guess we move from “The Flower” to “The Rocket” on this one.

But what’s worse than having the best of the best players-that were voted, of course-mincing around is to not have them show up at all. Sidney Crosby took forever to announce that he wouldn’t be playing in the game, but at least he showed up for the festivities. That’s something Pavel Datsyuk and Nicklas Lidstrom could have done, instead of costing themselves a game played and costing their team a win in what could be a neck-and-neck with San Jose for best record in the Western Conference. Man-up, fellas!

Here’s my idea to make the NHL All-Star Weekend a little more interesting: feature the Skills Competitions more than the Game itself. Move the Game to Saturday night, but keep the YoungStars game on that day. Make a day-night doubleheader out of it and really make Saturday an all-day experience at the arena. Then simply end with some of the best acrobatics and antics you will ever see in hockey on Sunday with the Skills Competitions. Players could be a little more relaxed after playing a game the night before, and I think more on-the-fence, or non-hockey fans interested in what these guys can do with a puck. For now, the NHL needs to sell the sizzle before they can sell the substance. The only thing most people remember about hockey games are those unbelievable moments. I’m sure you might not know a thing about college hockey, but you remember that one play where the Michigan forward lifts the puck onto the blade of his stick, swings around the back of the net, and dumps the puck over the goalie’s shoulder? That was a SportsCenter highlight, for sure.

All in all, the NHL couldn’t do much better than have the All-Star fun in Montreal (I’ll bet the Toronto fans are grumbling about that, but hey, start winning and maybe win a Cup more than once in 40 years, and I’ll give you your due), and with some freaky tweaks to the weekend, could make this an event for the ages. Pass the torch.

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