The thing that frustrates me most about the Habs slumping is that it has made it impossible for me to see clearly.
One hears so many general statements, over the course of the season, about hockey teams. Not just ‘my’ Canadiens, but all of them. You hear who are the ‘good’ teams- Buffalo, Anaheim, San Jose, Ottawa- and the ‘bad’ teams- Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, Phoenix, the teams on an upward trajectory (Pittsburgh) and a downward trajectory (Edmonton). Often there is a general consensus around these categories, and I often accept that consensus, because I just can’t watch every team in the league and I have very little investment in the accuracy of these statements. I do not need to know whether or not the Flyers are really, deeply terrible, I only need to know that is what most people believe and the available data supports it. If they turned around tomorrow and won every single game for the rest of their season, I would surprised, but it wouldn’t really matter to me that a ‘bad’ team had suddenly become ‘good’. I’d shrug and say huh, who knew? Good for them.
Obviously, though, I have somewhat more investment in trying to figure out what sort of team the Canadiens really are. It has to do with expectations, I think, and interpretations. Knowing what the team is tells one what to expect in a given game, and provides a framework for explaining what has happened after the fact. If there was a consensus position about the Habs, I would probably embrace it wholeheartedly, gratefully. But in the past months I have heard the Habs described in every possible language usable for describing a hockey team. They are a terrible team that’s gotten occasionally lucky. They’re a fabulous team having a rough patch. They’re the best they’re going to be for a long time and need to make a Cup run this year. They’re in a rebuilding phase and won’t be a serious Cup contender for several years in the future. They’re one of the elite teams in the League. They’re bottom-feeders.
Everyone who gives any of the above analyses seems to be very certain of their rightness. They look at the team and see it clearly, they know what it is, not just on a given night but as an entity in and of itself. They can muster up a whole list of statistics and comparisons to support their position, to say this proves what the Canadiens are this year, but the opinion does not come from the statistics- the opinion comes somehow from what they see. They look at the team, and they just know what kind of creature it is. There are days when I think that hockey is perfectly transparent for everyone but me.
I do not know what the Habs are. I can see some truth in almost every description, and often my instinct is to believe that they are all somehow true, even though they are mutually contradictory. A team is not simultaneously elite and bottom-feeding. But I cannot tell what they really are, I cannot choose a side. I have seen them play beautiful hockey and atrocious hockey, I have seen them work hard and I have seen them give up. I do not know which version is the real team and which is the aberration, and I convince myself that the problem is that I cannot really see the Habs for myself. Everything I see of them comes with a prepackaged interpretation- there is always some helpful commentator or analyst to tell me what is a good play and what is a bad one, to tell me their strong points and weak points, to draw circles on my TV screen with the magic red pen, showing me where to pay attention, showing me the important part of the game.
Finally, the last game before the All-Star Break, I get to go to the Bell Center again in person. I look at the tickets and I tell myself: This is my opportunity. I may not get another one. I have to see ahbabi clearly tonight. I have to know what they are.
The tickets have positioned me, ironically, behind the broadcast booths. I can see the ice completely, but the top half of the scoreboard is cut off. This isn’t a bad thing, since it turns out that it’s actually more interesting to watch the press. I’m directly behind the little room that is helpfully labeled as being for Pierre and Yvonne, and before the game I’m almost as excited to see them as I am to see the team. I nudge my companion and point, “Look! That’s
A confession: I have always, deep down, imagined that the Canadiens are among the best teams in the League. I don’t say this very often, because it’s a difficult claim to support on any objective criteria. Even I, personally, could probably demolish that contention in an argument more easily than I could defend it. They’ve played some truly terrible games at regular intervals this season, and there’s no getting around that, even when looking through the most forgiving lenses. But for me the personal evidence is nearly as compelling as anything objective: this is the team that won me over to hockey. Not just the Montreal Canadiens with their history and tradition and venerable legacy, but these Habs, these guys, this particular team- they’re the reason I’m here. I’d seen hockey before and liked it, but I can pinpoint the exact moment, the exact second in my life when I became a hockey fan, and it was their moment. They played the game that I fell in love with, and as such, if it is possible for me to trust my own eyes at all, I cannot really believe that they are anything less than beautiful. If they didn’t have, somewhere within them, a game as transcendent and gorgeous as anything being played anywhere in the League today, I wouldn’t be writing this sentence.
In the beginning, the Canadiens let me have my illusion. They come out faster than the Sabres, looking comfortable and confident. The Sabres are taking silly penalties, which you’d think they’d be smart enough not to do, because their penalty killing is embarrassingly bad. The Habs pick up two neat, opportunistic power play goals in the first. They’re winning, and making it look easy. Going into the 2nd, the crowd is buzzing like a swarm of very contented bumblebees. Snippets of overheard conversation: A serious-looking middle-aged woman rhapsodizing about Latendresse- how talented he is, how well he’s playing with Kovalev, how important he’ll be to the team in the coming years. A pair of teenage girls in jerseys trying to come to an agreement on the comparative merits of Komisarek vs. Higgins. A group of guys talking about Bonk’s new baby. It’s an easy, calm atmosphere- you’d never guess there was ever a slump, that there are hovering trade rumors. You’d never guess that these are the fans that are famed for their difficulty and cruelty, a crowd made of the same substance that booed their own team off the ice repeatedly in the past week.
Bouillon opens the second with another pretty one, this time at even strength. 3-0 and looking very much as though it’s already over- the Canadiens have all the momentum and the Sabres seem tired. Somebody behind me offers to bet his friend that Biron is going to get pulled by the end of the period. I’m thinking, thanks ahbabi, for showing me what I needed to see.
When I was a kid, I had an actual bottom-feeder. A plecostamus, one of those small brown flat fish that eats algae off the bottom of the fish tank. My parents had me get one to keep the tank clean, and at first I’d resisted, because my aquarium was supposed to be for pretty, delicate, quartz-colored fish. But the plecostamus won me over almost immediately. I called her Jane, because she was ugly and it seemed to me an appropriately dull name, and I loved her as much as I think anyone has ever loved a small brown flat fish that eats algae off the bottom of the tank. She outlived all those pretty, delicate, quartz-colored fish that she was purchased to serve, eventually remaining the only thing in my aquarium, and given that she tended to blend in with the rocks on the bottom it often made people ask my parents why on earth there was an empty fish tank in the living room. When she finally died, I buried her in the back yard under the lilacs.
So it is definitely possible for me to love bottom-feeders.
Or stupidity. Not quite halfway through the game, 3-0 lead, and Latendresse takes out Komisarek. I think I can actually hear Briere laughing, and a second later it’s 3-1. Like that, it’s an entirely different game. The Habs deflate back into their zone, clinging ineffectively to Huet, nervous. 3-2. They scramble to clear the puck, but even when they do it avails them nothing, for the Sabres simply swirl back out to their zone, reform, and come back with neat determination like a squadron of fighter planes. The Canadiens are panicking, knocking the puck around almost blindly, passing to the Sabres more than to each other. 3-3. The mood in the stands shifts palpably. A kid behind me is shrieking directives at the ice with needle-shrillness- BACKCHECK, BACKCHECK, SHOOT- while the guy in front of me seems to believe he is having a personal conversation with Komisarek at a distance of 500 feet- no, Mike, no, don’t do that, Mike, get in the corners, hit the guy, come on. An inebriated gentleman, who will henceforth always have a special place in my heart as Drunken Obnoxious Sabres Fan, is stumbling up and down the stairs, trying to start arguments with some Habs fans and hitting on others, depending on gender. At the second intermission I started hearing fragments of trade-talk, and there are Rivet-centered debates are popping up all over in the darker corners, like mushrooms
The crowd is nervous. The Sabres, even chased by their own small variety of slump, are running away with this game, and the Canadiens are just standing there, watching. Somebody once said, on a message board after another Habs game, good teams don’t play this badly. It’s true.
So it sits at 3-3 as the clock ticks away, and the gods of hockey are mocking me for coming to this game expecting answers, expecting to see the truth. Although I have been attentive and careful, have tried to see with my own eyes and decide for myself what I really think this team is, what I have seen instead is two distinct snapshots of two completely different teams. I do not want to fall back on the old explanation that they’re schizophrenic and emotionally disturbed- that may be true, but it doesn’t really tell me anything about what sort of being they are beneath their various disorders. Collective Mood Disorder is a comforting explanation for a distraught fan, but its comfort, not clarity.
But the clock runs down and the tension builds, and I can’t keep thinking and worrying and analyzing because there’s simply too much yelling to be done in the last minutes of a hockey game. 10 minutes to go and the Habs are rallying but the Sabres aren’t backing down, and the white wave of sound is building around the arena and my heart is pounding and it really feels somehow like everything, everywhere, the fate of the universe as we know it is riding on that little black piece of rubber. And when Perezhogin gets that break and we’re all on our feet, in that moment before the ecstasy and the victory, I get my wish. I see the Canadiens clearly.
Here is what I saw: The Canadiens 06-07, ahbabi, the only Habs I have ever known, are not any sort of team yet. They are not a being, but a becoming, an event and not a thing. To argue over what sort of team they ‘really are’ is pointless, because there is no essential nature to the team- the team is a hybrid and a synthesis, its features are different in different moments, and ever game is part of a process that is creating and recreating the Montreal Canadiens. At the end of the season, when it’s all over, perhaps we can look back and say what sort of team they were, but whatever name we give this team, whatever we decide that it really was, will be little more than a eulogy. The 06-07 Canadiens will be dead and gone then, pieces of them perhaps reincarnated in the 07-08 Canadiens, but that will be a different team that will, again, only become itself over 82 games.
Perhaps other teams are real things, solid identities that can be known. Perhaps the Sabres really are ‘elite’, through and through, in the very core of their being, a stable and excellent product. It’s possible, perhaps, for certain teams to be so good or so bad that it becomes not just a transient state but a defining characteristic. But for the rest of us, the vast majority who bounce around the standings, our teams are something that is being built before our eyes, and we can only imagine the shape of the finished product. It is good, in a way, for me in my sky-high seat to realize this, because I do not fear any longer that I am missing something, that I am blind to what the Habs really are, and because I do not believe any longer that my aspirations for them- even the wildest and most optimistic of them- are impossible. It’s just the shape of things to come that I imagine, and if the shrill teenager behind me or the quiet old man beside me imagine a different shape, we are none of us wrong- whatever eventually happens, the different Canadiens we see are all in this moment equal possibilities. But it is scary too, because it means that the games they play are more individually important- the game is tied because they came out flying and then curled in on themselves, and both of those are the real team, and the outcome will determine not just what kind of game they played more of on this particular night, but it will form a small piece- 1/82nd, to be precise- of what they are. If a team is a process and not a thing, than every loss and every win is formative. They are the sum of what happens in the games, and this game, hovering on a particularly nasty edge between the very-good outcome and the very-bad outcome, will actually make them better or worse. This has to be a regulation win, not because they can do it, but because only by doing it do they become the sort of team that can do it, and they (we) need to go into this All-Star Break knowing not only that they have the ability to bounce back, but that they did so.
Practice is formative of character, ahbabi, you are what you do.
Go Habs Go.