The Passion of Les Habitant Fans

April 25, 2011 § 4 Comments

It all started when I was 10 years old. I wondered what the sirens were all about as my Dad watched hockey.

I was hearing, of course, the signal to begin and end the periods at the fabled Montreal Forum where the Canadiens, a.k.a the Habs, played prior to moving in the Bell Centre.

My initiation into Hab Nation began in the spring of 1971, 40 years ago. This blog is an account of how I and other men and women across the country have become diehard fans invariably as a family custom.

I started watching the Habs play against the heavily favoured Boston Bruins, who they would upset in seven games in the first round of the playoffs that year. As I write, the Canadiens are once again the underdog versus the same team in this year’s post-season.

A love for the team attired in rouge, blanc et bleu with a CH on the front of their jerseys would be one of the things my late father and I would share over the years.

The torch has been passed on to support this storied sports franchise which has won the second most championships in professional sports with 24. Only the New York Yankees have more banners.

I was immediately hooked as the upstart team went on to win the Cup in my infancy as a fan, beating Boston, the Minnesota North Stars and the Chicago Blackhawks.

What a great time to become a fan of the Canadiens – they would capture six Cups in the 1970s, including four in a row, from 1976 to 1979.

The number of championships would dwindle after that – just two since – but the fervent desire to win never ceases in Montreal and for fans of the Canadiens elsewhere. Hockey is a religion in Quebec and I couldn’t help but be drawn in by the passion.

Although the Canadiens were not the favourites in 1971, I was attracted by their tradition for winning and commitment to be the best.

Some of my lifetime heroes came from that era of hockey, particularly Bob Gainey, who epitomized how I believe an athlete or any professional should conduct themselves — make every shift count.

He would later coach in Minnesota and was general manager in Dallas when they won the Cup. He also had executive duties with the Habs and served two stints behind the bench.

The highlight of my being a member of the Hab faithful came in 1979 during a student exchange between Northern Lights College in my hometown of Dawson Creek, B.C. and Marianopolis College in Montreal.

We’d been told from the beginning that the March 22 game between Montreal and the New York Islanders was already sold out.

On the day of the game, though, two classmates and I decided to go to the Forum to get souvenirs so we could say we’d been to the Canadiens rink.

After loading up on Hab paraphernalia, we checked in at Marianopolis College where our liaison asked us if we’d like to go to the game that night. We said in unison “What game?”

It turned out Charles Bromfman, owner of the Expos at the time, was in Florida for spring training and his tickets became available. We jumped at the chance.

I recall to this day walking around a few feet off the ground. I have never been so excited.

The Habs lost that game but would go on to win the Cup that year. They almost didn’t make it, but for the famed May 10 gaffe by Bruin coach Don Cherry. A late too many men on the ice penalty in the seventh game against Boston allowed Montreal to tie the game and win it in overtime, propelling the Habs on to the final against the Rangers.

I would get to meet Guy Lafleur, who scored the equalizing goal, years later at an oldtimers’ game in Sault Ste. Marie. I got to speak briefly with Ken Dryden who was general manager of the Maple Leafs when I attended the final game at the Gardens.

Another favourite moment was having a friend get an autographed copy of Jean Beliveau’s autobiography. My dog, Jasper, chewed the book to bits, with only the signature page remaining intact.

My wife knew how much the book meant to me so she didn’t share the news of the book’s fate until six months later.

A trip to the conference finals last spring stoked up the fire for Hab fans again. I knew my passion hadn’t subsided. It was a sick feeling losing to the Flyers.

I am not alone in my passion for following the Habs.

Here in Grande Prairie, Tom Pura at the Chamber is Commerce, is well known for being a big booster of the Habs and the Saskatchewan Roughriders.

He, too, started following the Habs in 1971.

“The obsession really hit during the four straight run from ’76 to ’79,” he recalls.

“I had to sit in the same spot in the same position to watch their games … very superstitious. They were entertaining to watch including the golden tones of Danny Gallivan and Dick Irvin. The cups in ’86 and ’93 were pleasant surprises, but nothing compares to the ’70s for me.

“I celebrated every win and took every loss hard. It seems silly to a lot of people but everyone should have a passion for something. Mine was always sports.

“I knew those teams in the 70s inside and out, every stat, every number and name, every idiosyncrasy, and we imitated our heroes in road hockey or tennis court hockey or floor hockey. I never actually played ice hockey, but I was Larry Robinson on defence and Ken Dryden in goal and Pete Mahovlich at forward because i was one of the taller kids,” says Tom. “I even remember Larry Robinson’s overtime goal as a rookie in ’73 against the Flyers. I was six not yet seven and recreating that shot from behind the blue line in my living room with a plastic stick and puck.”

For Trista Lefave, a friend from Cornwall, Ont., who’s studying at the University of Ottawa to be a teacher, following the Habs started at an early age.

“My father is a French-Canadian from Quebec and a huge Habs fan.”

Her father, whose house is a shrine to the Habs, would delight in buying Canadien-themed Christmas presents for family members.

“He bought me and my brother Habs jerseys, and other things like pajamas or blankets. He’s the one who got us into the Habs, anything Habs. And now for birthdays and Christmas my sisters, brother, mom and I give Habs presents to each other, and we passed along our love for the Canadiens to my nieces and nephews so it’s all in the family.

“I grew up watching the Canadiens play and cheering on Patrick Roy. I became a very dedicated and diehard fanatic for the Habs.”

Trista has watched the Habs play in Ottawa but awaits her first game at the Bell Centre.

Last November, she did get to meet her favourite player, forward Mike Cammalleri, along with coach Jacques Martin, assistant Perry Pearn, and former Hab Maxim Lapierre at an event at the Bell Centre. Retired Habs Rejean Houle and Yvon Lambert were also on hand.

Much like I grew up wearing a Yvan Cournoyer’s #12 jersey and admiring the speed that would earn him the nickname Roadrunner, Trista appreciates that Cammalleri is not a big player, but is a sniper nonetheless.

“He’s a true Canadian hockey player. He loves being a Montreal Canadien. I just love his whole demeanor, his dedication, passion and his attitude. He’s not as big as everyone else, but he plays with heart and shows his skills are just as great and better than some. I respect that a lot.

“The thing I find amazing is everyone who plays on the Habs always talks about what an amazing team it is to play for, how dedicated and passionate the fans are and how that makes them want to play. Brian Gionta even said he wouldn’t have signed with the Habs had it not been for the passionate fans. We love our sport and take it seriously and it’s amazing that the players see our love for the game and for them.”

Another friend, Hélène LeGendre Drake, an audiologist who lives in Whitby, Ont., returned to her Hab roots in recent years.

“When I was very young living in eastern Quebec, my Dad and I would watch the game on Saturday nights. It was the best night of the week!  Aside from the game, it was so nice to see my Dad in such a good mood, and fun for me to get to eat junk food and stay up way past my bedtime,” she recalls fondly.

“My real passion for the Montreal Canadiens started about six years ago after a friend invited me to a pre-season game at the Bell Centre. Something magical happened at that game, it was so exhilarating! And after that experience, I was simply hooked!

“I knew that I would be making the trip from Toronto to Montreal many times to see my beloved team! I usually manage to attend three games in Montreal per season. I’ve even made the awesome trip to California last year to see the games versus LA and Anaheim.

“I have only met Canadien players once, at the Toronto Hockey Hall of Fame in 2006. Each player signed our poster and chatted with us a bit. It really was surreal. The only two players remaining with that team are Tomas Plekanec, who happens to be my favourite player, and Andrei Markov.

“I know now that I am a true fan of the Montreal Canadiens for life. It has become my passion. Win or lose, I bleed bleu, blanc, rouge!”

Meanwhile, here in Grande Prairie, hope springs eternal that the Habs will once again rise to the top and win hockey’s Holy Grail.

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