Saturday, February 10, 2007

Extraordinary Popular Delusions: Le Centre Bell, 2/10/07

It’s 5:45 pm on a Saturday afternoon, and for exactly 15 seconds I am very, very concerned about my underwear.

What concerns specifically me is that I’m wearing red underwear, which normally would be fine, since red is a Habs color. But tonight they’re playing the Sens, who also use red. This could be bad mojo. Especially because my only sweatshirt is black, which is also a Sens color.

You do know what this means, don’t you?

Yeah. The Habs are really slumping.

No, it means you’ve gone completely insane.


All fans know that there are rituals that must be observed before attending a game. There are no guarantees in hockey, anything can happen in any given match-up, and some of what happens is beyond the control of the players. Out of 10 games, 5 will be decided on skill and 4 on desire, but the last will be decided purely on luck, or fate, or divine intervention- whatever that mysterious force is that makes the bounces go your way. The hockey gods are mercurial beings that move in mysterious ways, so we do our best to appease them.

It starts with clothing. One must wear the right colors and the right symbols, or at least make a conscious effort not to wear the wrong colors and symbols. On one level, this is a necessary means of social communication, the means by which members of different fan groups can distinguish each other in the building itself. You have to know who to trash-talk and who to encourage. But on a second level, we consciously choose to wear the proper things because we believe in the ritual efficacy of ‘showing support’, that our wearing of these things will be, or at least could be, meaningful to the game, that it will transfer magical powers to our team. Many fans, indeed, take this to a further level, believing firmly that a single item of clothing - the right socks or hat or bracelet- can make the team win.

But there are other kinds of preparation. For example, from what I can tell, most hockey fans prepare themselves for a game with alcohol. I can't do this. Alcohol and I do not get along well- it tends to make me morose and maudlin. It gives me the overwhelming urge to sing mournful, twangy songs in a voice somewhat reminiscent of Loretta Lynn. This is not necessarily incompatible with hockey- we’ve all seen a few 3rd periods that could only be improved by a particularly plaintive rendition of ‘Oh Susannah’- but it’s not really the spirit you want going into a game. And, as I am often told, my judgment is poor enough without additional impairment.

So, being restricted from participation in the alcohol-rituals, my preferred method of preparation for hockey-game-attendance is caffeine and sugar in massive quantities, ideally such that the final result cannot easily be distinguished from that of low-grade cocaine. I firmly believe that this is how the Lord intended for us to watch hockey. That is why, in His infinite wisdom, He has swathed Canada in a dense layer of Tim Horton’s. That is also why He has permitted Tim Horton’s to be the only thing in Montreal which stays open past 5pm on Saturday, so that one can go there before Habs games and fortify oneself with caffeine and sugar.

So by the time I get to the arena, I’m chattering and bouncing like an ADD rhesus monkey, and still worrying about my sweatshirt.


I love the crowd at the Bell Center. Canada is a wonderful country in many ways, but there is just too much space. 300,000 sq. km. bigger than the States, with about 1/10th of the population, Canada is a place of incomprehensible vast emptiness, and even in the cities, people seem to be subconsciously aware of this. Canadians have an unusually large ‘personal space bubble’. Even in the most crowded places, even on the bus on the coldest days of winter during rush hour, Canadians leave each other an awful lot of room. Until I started going to Habs games, I had never experienced a real crowd- a crushing, potentially lethal crowd- anywhere in Canada. But the Bell Center is really crowded for every game, and I love it, it feels like the Souq al-‘Attarine all over again, it feels like home.

I love the noise. It is so deafeningly, painfully loud. This is another of our rituals, the meaningless chants and random howling that we send up with one single voice. The right words must be spoken at the right time, at the right volume, and in perfect synchronicity with the group as a whole. This is our prayer, this is our mantra, this is how we call on the higher powers and channel their will towards team. We open the game with as much noise as we can muster, for this, we know, pleases the gods of hockey.


I realize, from the comments on this blog, that I am slowly becoming Chicken Soup for the Hockey Fan’s Soul. I write things that make people feel good about the sport. Generally speaking, I’m happy to do this, because people should feel good about hockey, but I do think that I sometimes give a false impression of what sort of fan I actually am. See, most of these blog posts are written at least half an hour after the actual game, when I’ve had some time to calm down a bit and clear my head. Therefore, what I say here is much more, well, moderate, than what I was saying during the actual game. So in the interests of honesty, I’ve decided to include some more or less verbatim examples of what I generally say while a game is in progress. I hope you’ll still respect me in the morning.

[Scene: 10ish in the 1st, and Janne Niinimaa has just made a particularly poor decision which has led to Ottawa’s 2nd goal.]


J: That was pretty bad.

E: He should be paying us for having to watch that shit.


Skill: Bonk’s skating stride is very strange. It looks slow, and awkward, and you almost think he’s behind the play, until he gets a shot on Emery two steps ahead of the nearest defenseman. And then you realize, ex post facto, how fast he actually is.

Desire: It is very wonderful to see Begin back in play. In a period where the Habs don’t score at all, he brings the crowd to its feet twice with shot-blocking alone. His only remarkable talent is a perfect instinct for getting in the way of whatever the opposition is trying to do, but it is a phenomenal talent and practiced so eagerly and joyfully that you cannot help but cheer for him.

Skill: Ryder does not understand the concept of defense. It isn’t a matter of, like Souray, making the occasional terrible defensive decision, it’s more like no one has every sat the dear boy down and explained to him the entire theory of defense. If Begin has a burning passion for interfering with the opposition’s plays, Ryder doesn’t seem aware that it is possible to do so.


[Scene: 15ish in the 2nd, Komisarek and Neil are fighting.]


J: I don’t think he can do that.

E: He can damn well TRY!!


Skill: Johnson always finds ways to get a little better. It was enough for me, really, when he was simply the most comforting possible presence on the ice, the closest thing the Habs had to a guarantee of not getting scored against for 45 seconds. But somehow he comes out in this game with some unexpected offensive inspiration, and the near-miraculous ability to get the puck through the neutral zone without being forced to dump it. The way the Habs go these days, that makes people gasp and drop their jaws.

Desire: Latendresse has gone from being one of the Habs most controversial players at the beginning of the season to one of the least-discussed these days, which is the measure of how good he’s becoming. A couple of months ago, when the team was doing well, there were a lot of deep reservations about the kid, whether or not he was really ready for this particular show, but now, as the team free-falls down the standings and the fans howl for nearly every player to be traded, no one mentions Latendresse. Somehow, although he has been bounced up and down the lines like a ping-pong ball, our unspectacular bacche is developing into a remarkably solid presence. He’s not yet the fastest thing on the ice nor the most skilled, but he plays with a careful intensity, and he doesn’t make many mistakes for one so young. So he’s not Nahr Staal, he’s still going to be amazing in a couple of years.

Skill: Samsonov is so absolutely fast and absolutely distinctive. Live on the ice, in person, he grabs your eyes and won’t let go, but it is difficult to imagine the sort of line he would fit in well with. He seems to be looking constantly for linemates who aren’t there, setting up some sort of play that won’t happen. I would give anything to see the game in his head, for it must be a crazy, kinky, magnificent thing, but it’s not the game the rest of the Canadiens are playing, in fact, it’s not the game that anyone I’ve ever seen is playing.

Desire: Komisarek is learning Souray’s brand of honorable but misguided hockey ethics. That is to say, maybe he is letting himself be provoked too easily, maybe it would be strategically better for the team if he let Neil’s deliberately obnoxious ways slide off him. But I assume he knows that, and also knows that sometimes there are things more important than good strategy, such as not letting the likes of the Sens push you around.


[Scene: 12ish in the 3rd, a penalty is whistled for no apparent reason.]

J: I don’t get it, what’s the call?

E: They called the Senators for BEING A BUNCH OF CHEAP WHORES.

J: I thought you liked the Sens?



Desire: Kovalev looks as though he doesn’t even want to be here. And then, for the rest of the period, he isn’t.

Skill: Markov is the only Hab who can think faster than the game. He’s so good he makes himself invisible half the time, because he's always where he needs to be, and always makes the right decision. He is the guy who keeps the puck in the offensive zone or clears if from the defensive zone as needed, he is the one who makes the perfect pass. It is so seldom glamorous and so seldom shocking, so contrary to what people usually value in hockey, but nevertheless perhaps the most wonderful piece of the Canadiens these days.

Luck: Higgins’ legs are betraying him. He is trying so hard, throwing himself forward and willing himself to get the breakaways he knows are his rightful game, but he cannot get the speed he needs. He falls, he crashes, and he gets up again and keeps trying, but his mind cannot force his body to do what it should. It is heart-breaking, both for him and the team, because we need him so badly to have that rhythm again. It is random, it is unfair, and there is nothing for it but to send up a prayer to the gods of hockey for better mojo next time.


The game ends, 3rd straight loss, and the Sens fans are gloating in the corridors. We shuffle past them like a herd of elephants past a group of particularly annoying hyenas. There are many more of us, we could crush them easily under our feet, with the pressure of our bodies, but we don’t have to. We can afford to indulge them their victory tonight, because there are still a good many games remaining to be played, for the rest of the season, and the next one, and the next one, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow onto forever.

This is why you do not give up. We are the Archimedean point of hockey, we are the center that holds. Giving up is for other places. Fans in Nashville and Tampa give up. The Hawks might be invisible in Chicago, the Capitals may play to empty seats in DC, the Penguins may yet be driven to Kansas. Other teams come and go, move to different cities, change their colors and their uniforms. The League as a whole might be consumed in a black pit of indifference. That is all very far away from us, here, on this small island. Our Montreal Canadiens were here before there was ever such a thing as the NHL, and one feels as though they will always be here, no matter how bad the season, no matter what upstarts might manage to pull off a few moments of glory at their expense. Time, ultimately, is on our side, and we are among the very few who can look forward and backward with equal confidence. This is perhaps the reason for the bone-marrow rivalry with the Leafs, because they remain the only other team who endures the way we do, and therefore the only real opposition worth fighting, whatever the standings might say. We were, we are, and we will be, as long as there is ice to play on and 22 guys who can bear to play on it in front of a very irritable crowd. We are the Archimedean point of hockey, and eventually, we will move the universe.

But most importantly, we do not give up because the Panthers are coming on Tuesday, and who knows? In that game, Higgins might get his legs back, and the bounces might go our way.


You do know what this means, don’t you?


I have to get a Habs sweatshirt.

And wear different underwear.


Matthew Macaskill said...

Managed to attend this game, my first time at the Bell for the Habs in 3 years (Since pre-lockout era).

Begin was amazing to have back in the line-up.

I think Niinimaa played more in the whole game than Kovalev played in the 3rd. (That's not saying much)

In the end, there's always next game.

aquietgirl said...

Hockey is terrifying.

Jordi said...

I tried shoving my fist in my mouth once because the Habs were getting slaughtered. I secretly hopes that if I could fit it, they'd win for me. Plus it stopped me from screaming the house down.

Oh I blame bad hockey on everything. But it's extremely sad that I seem to witness more Habs losses than wins. I'm always working or out doing other things when I hear of a win. Maybe I should start rooting for the Sens.

Julian said...

I just got home from watching this game at a bar here that shows HNIC games on tape delay 24 hours later. I think regularly reading this blog has made me a bit more in tune with what the habs are up to, so I was able to follow the players stories a bit more than I may otherwise, thanks E.

On the clothing bit : Last year during the playoffs I recieved an Oilers hoodie for my birthday, I wore it that night and they won to begin their comback from being down two games to one to the Sharks. Needless to say I made sure I wore that sweater every game day, and they reeled off six more wins in a row.
Then something went horribly wrong after game one of the finals, and I had to find another charm, but by then it was too late.

I once worked with a guy who was a huge Habs fan. He told me during one of their playoff runs (to the second round anyway) he wore the same pair of boxers the whole 2+ weeks. And he played hockey about three times a week then. Same pair, the whole time.
I was both disgusted and humbled at the same time.

RC Robert L said...

The Habs are 12-0 when I wear my thong. I lost it! Blame the slump on me.

grey wall said...

I had the worst karma. In the 2001-02 season, the Nazzy-Bertuzzi-Morrison Line lit up the league and were arguably the best line in the nhl. In the first 40 games, whenever I got a glimpse of them playing on TV, in a bar, anywhere, they would lose.

Naturally, I forbade myself to watch any games as I possibly could. Ofcourse, friends, dates, family invariably turned on TV, switched channels or dragged my ass to the bar. The Canucks would lose. By the last 20 games, I was convinced it was my fault the canucks weren't winning every game.

I had to see the play-offs and so I offered the hockey gods a straight-up trade. In exchange for allowing me to watch the canucks, I would refrain from sex and... um stimulation of any kind, a la Josh Hartnett in 40 Days 40 Nights. where the Canucks won the first two games and lost 4 straight to Detroit. Alas, my sacrifice wasn't enough.

E said...

my great problem is that i have yet to find anything i do that reliably correlates with anything the habs do. for a while i had sort of the opposite of grey wall's playoff deal-thing going, but i don't need to go into the details of that, and anyway, it stopped working. so i'm fumbling around for new rituals.

still, i doubt i'm committed enough to go two weeks without changing underwear. i suppose if i could be absolutely and unconditionally guaranteed that it would work, i'd do it, but i don't think i could manage it on faith alone.

Jordi said...

I can't seem to bear wearing my Habs shirt more than a couple of times before washing it. Hell I'd wear my jersey if the weather weren't too hot.