Friday, October 21, 2011


I have this hypothesis that Canadiens fans have no interest in being reasonable about their team. Being reasonable involves staying calm, examining evidence, and thinking long-term, which is not fun. Being batshit crazy, though, involves calling for people to be fired/traded/beheaded, making fun of Scott Gomez, and invoking the weeping ghost of Rocket Richard as often as possible, which is a barrel of fun in any language. Moreover, if you’re reasonable, you can be proven right, but you might also be proven wrong. For example, if I say: “Hey, it’s not that bad, lotsa teams go 1-5 for some stretch of some season and still make the playoffs,” I might turn out to be right, but they also might miss the playoffs, and then I look silly. Whereas if I posted a long rant about how Martin has lost the room and needs to be fired or this team will never make it, and then Martin stays and the team recovers, I can just post a follow-up rant about how obviously Martin must have listened to me and my fellow irate fans and changed his coaching style, thereby averting doom, and still proving me right. The secret of successful Canadiens fanaticism is to calibrate your optimism/pessimism quotient to exactly what the team is doing right now, and then turn the emotional intensity up to 11, while acting as though whatever is happening is exactly what you knew would happen all along, and adding as an afterthought that you’re still not impressed, because you remember Guy Lafleur and not one of these modern pussies would be fit to tape his stick. It’s a fan-culture where people want to freak out over everything, and in fact gain legitimacy by the intensity of their freaking out. Sort of like American politics, but with everybody on the same side.

Back in the first season my fanaticism, I was very enthusiastic about the freaking-out aspect of Habistan, but it gets a little old with time, given how utterly repetitive it is. No matter the roster, no matter the season, it’s always the same screaming, the same self-pity, the same abuse of the players, and the coaches, and everybody involved with the organization. Sure, the Habs have some problems, not gonna lie about that, but everyone is so obsessed with CHANGING SOMETHING RIGHT NOW NOW NOW that nobody looks to hard at long-term problems, or long-term solutions.

Firing the coach is the ultimate in short term solutions, because ‘the coach has lost the room’ is basically code for ‘I have absolutely no idea what’s wrong, but something should be done anyway.’ I’m sure some coaches do alienate their players to such an extent that the team suffers; on the other hand, there are plenty of nasty, hard-assed bastards who alienated everyone they ever met and nevertheless hold seats of high honor in the coaching pantheon. Bottom line: nobody who isn’t in the room knows what it’s like in the room, and those who are really in the room sure as hell aren't going to speak honestly to the public about what's going on when the doors are closed. So it's really not worth worrying about.

The simultaneously encouraging and depressing fact is that the Habs are a mid-range team who’ve had the unfortunate luck of hitting one of their relatively common 1-5 streaks right at the beginning of the season, instead of having it sometime mid-winter, as is more traditional. Observe:

Last year’s Canadiens had two 1-5 runs in the course of the season. Between December 19th and December 31st, they took a disastrous road trip, in the course of which they lost to the Avalanche, Stars, Islanders, Capitals, and Lightning, winning only one game against the Hurricanes. Later in the season, from February 6th to 20th, they had another 1-5 run, where they lost to the Devils, Bruins, and Islanders, lifted their heads up long enough to beat the Leafs, and then got their asses whooped by Alberta, losing to both the Oilers and the Flames. Ultimately, they finished 6th in the Conference and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual Cup-winning Bruins.

The previous season, 2009-2010, the Canadians won their first two games and then promptly lost five in a row, from October 6th to 20th, to Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton, Colorado, and Ottawa, without picking up so much as a single loser point. About a month later, there was another 1-5 series, from November 21st to December 3rd, featuring a shootout loss to Detroit, a win in Columbus, and then a run of losses to Pittsburgh, Washington, Toronto, and Buffalo. Not satisfied with that failure, they lost another five in a row between December 10th and 19th. But was that the last 1-5 skid of the season? Nope, they went through another rough patch from March 20th to 31st. For those of you not counting, that’s four runs of games as bad as the one that’s begun this season. This team finished 8th in the Conference and went on to make it to the Eastern Conference Final before getting eliminated by the Flyers.

2008-2009 featured two stretches with a 1-5 record, from January 20th to February 1st, and then again from March 12th to March 21st. And, if that wasn’t enough, this season included a 1-7 losing streak, from February 7th to February 19th. The team finished 8th and were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round, again by the Bruins.

And finally, in 2007-2008, the season when the Canadiens finished first in the Conference, by far the most dominating season they’ve played in recent memory, they still had period where they went 1-5, from November 30th to December 11th. They made it through the first round of the playoffs, sparking the most ridiculous riot in sports-riot history, and then got eliminated in the Conference semis.

So basically, a contemporary Canadiens playoffs-making season includes anywhere from one to four nasty skids of 1-5 or worse, and in fact the year that displayed the most shitty streaks of the past four is also the one where the team went deepest in the postseason. So 1-5 ain’t fun, but it doesn’t prove anything without the context of the rest of the season around it.

There is, of course, the more disturbing fact that the Habs have this habit of either a) barely scraping into the playoffs, and/or b) getting eliminated early. Unfortunately, they’ve been that way with two different owners, two different GMs, two different coaches, two different captains, and dozens of different players. That’s the real problem, and it’s a damn difficult one. If anyone honestly believes that firing Jaques Martin is part of the solution to it, they'd better have more evidence for that position than a 1-5 streak.


Zwirb said...

Hear, hear.

Clare said...

You could basically replace "Habs" with "Preds," switching out references to history with references to how much Canadians hate sunbelt teams, and throw in "never won a Cup" every now and then and that is my life right now. Forget about the fact that we've lost most of our games in October since before the lockout and still made the playoffs. Forget about the fact that we were the 2nd streakiest team in the league last year and still went farther than ever before. Nope the coach and GM clearly have dementia and must be fired right now. All the rookies need to go back to the AHL and we should get some veterans in, despite the fact that no one we want is available and we can't afford them anyway. Oh, and we need to kidnap Alexander Radulov from Russia and force him to play out the last year of his contract with us. Yeah, that'll work.

I have a headache.

E said...

the hilarious thing about that is that the predators are somewhat renowned for having one of the shrewdest gms in the league and a coach who's been able to get all sorts of bargain teams into the playoffs.

between your comment and tom benjamin's recent article on vancouver fans and luongo, i might have to concede that all fanbases are equally ridiculous.

Chris said...

I've only just recently begun reading your blog after the guys over at Habs Eyes On the Prize linked to your article about the wonderful Don Cherry. I must say, for someone who has only been following hockey in general, and the Habs in particular, for the last five years, versus the decades that most of the blog writers or Gazette writers have been, you have an uncanny insight into the game.

It's a joy to read your blog, and I'm glad to see you're preaching rationality.

E said...

thanks, chris, it's good to know i am actually getting some new readers around these parts.

i'm really perplexed by the gazette crew. in some ways, they know far more about hockey than i do, and that site routinely throws out good, accurate observations. but they seem to take a lot of pleasure in going apocalyptic over any kind of trouble or difficulty, which means they back themselves into a corner, anger-wise. if you already act like it's the end of the world after three losses, than you've got no choice after losses four and five except to hop on the hyperbole train to crazy town.

of course, now that it's six, i'm sure i'll get accusations of not being apocalyptic enough.

Chris said...

Sigh, the Gazette. Since I've started using twitter and blogs to follow hockey in the last year or so, I've found that the Gazette, Journal de Montreal and other publications (as well as CBC and TSN's articles online) are woefully lacking in articulate analysis of the games and teams themselves, and instead tend focus on characters and themes, i.e. "Power outage in Montreal" or "Kostitsyn not producing."

It's just attention grabbing headlines which don't really do much other than give a game summary. The only useful things they provide that blogs don't are quotes from personnel to which bloggers don't have access.

As to the sixth loss--both you and the boys at Habs Eyes on the Prize detailed the stretches that all teams go through where they have trouble clicking. Look at the Caps last season losing nine or ten in a row and still coming back to finish top of he East, or the Hawks the season before losing eight or nine games and winning the cup.

As a lifelong fan and Montreal native, I've learned you just gotta ride the roller coaster sometimes.