Sunday, January 15, 2012

Defending Byzantium

“Decline of the Habs Empire” isn’t a title so much as a genre designation. It would be like calling an article about the Leafs “Forty Years of Frustration”, or publishing a Canucks essay entitled “Successful but Still Not Likeable.” Excepting that of the Romans themselves, few tales of decline have been retold as often as that of the Habs. Mordechai Richler wrote on the theme; so did Ken Dryden. Half of Red Fisher’s columns for the past ten years have used it as either the introduction or the finale. It is Montreal’s greatest trope, it’s most enduring cliché. If the team had any sense of humor about its media coverage (it doesn’t, sadly) they could have put out an anthology of literary writing on the subject in honor of the Centennial.

So although Gare Joyce is not being original in the theme of his recent article for Sportsnet Magazine, he is at least in good company. And, of course, a narrative that appeals to so many obviously intelligent writers cannot be entirely devoid of truth. The Montreal Canadiens once had dynasties; now they don’t: this is a truth, and a sad one indeed, and one can hardly fault anyone for speaking it aloud. Moreover, many of the specific criticisms Joyce levels at the franchise are valid. The hyberbolically excessive hostility of the local media towards certain players and management even in good years is a problem. The inability to attract Francophone players of the quantity and quality the fanbase desires is a problem. This season’s poorly planned and even more poorly executed coach firings and hirings are a problem. Montreal is not a great team and has not been one for many years. Nothing wrong with pointing that out.

But Joyce’s piece is not content to point out the team’s mediocrity. Honestly, who has ever been content to point out the Habs’ mediocrity? Mediocrity makes for terrible copy- where’s the thrill in a decline from great to so-so? Who’s going to rend their clothes and weep over meh? So, rather than contending with the thornier challenges presented by bare adequacy, Joyce uses a bag rhetorical tricks make it seem as though the Canadiens recent history has been nothing but a long slide into misery, unbroken by any hints of success or reward. The first and most egregious of these is what appears to be the piece’s thesis statement: “It was March 11, 1996, the last game at the Forum, the last act of a masterpiece and the last time the Canadiens mattered.”

The Habs don’t matter. Joyce tells us this, in more or less those exact terms, no less than three times in the piece. Or, he switches to synonyms for ‘mattering’, like ‘relevant.’ “They'd rank last among Canadian teams in the league -- if not in the standings then in relevance.” To whom the Canadiens are not mattering, or on what scale they are least relevant- these things are never specified. Because you couldn’t specify them, could you? You couldn't come up with any way of measuring relevance that would put the Canadiens at the bottom of the NHL pile. The Habs still, even now, sell out every home game, they are still the third most lucrative franchise in the League, they still the leading topic of virtually all Quebecois sports media. Clearly, they still matter very much to a remarkable number of people. And, in fact, having lived in both Montreal and Toronto, I would make the case that the Canadiens ‘matter’ a great deal more to an average Montreal fan then the Leafs ‘matter’ to an average Toronto fan. That is, of course, a subjective argument, but that is more than Joyce makes in support of his contention that they don’t matter.

His contention about relevance is no better supported. Of course, he throws out the standings immediately, because if you judged relevance by performance than the Canadiens are well ahead of most of their Canadian brethren. Since the lockout, they’ve made the playoffs five seasons out of six, more than any Canadian team save the Canucks. Their prospect pool, which Joyce characterizes as full of players with ‘low ceilings’, is ranked by Hockey’s Future as 24th in the League, but still ahead of Calgary (26th), Winnipeg (28th), and Vancouver (29th). ESPN thought more highly of the Habs and put their organizational depth at 11th, ahead of all the aforementioned teams and the Leafs as well. Their draft performance, far from being the failure Joyce describes, has been ranked by people who do such things as anywhere from 1st to 3rd in terms of the League over all. Far from being “bereft of young talent”, the team has several young players in the line-up- Subban and Price, most prominently, but also Eller and Weber, on whom we have hardly given up, and guys like Palushaj and Leblanc just starting to get their first cracks. Far from having “no young prospects in development,” the Habs had five prospects at this year’s WJHC, more than any other franchise. That they have nothing on the scale of an Ovechkin or a Nugent-Hopkins has nothing to do with organizational failings and everything to do with the fact that they make the playoffs a lot. Joyce, paradoxically, wants to characterize the Canadiens as abject failures, but also wants to condemn them for lacking exactly the sort of players that they would have if they had actually failed abjectly. Apparently it would be preferable were they Oilers-terrible. That would be ‘relevant’.

Not content with misinterpreting the current incarnation of the team, Joyce also throws in a bunch of historical errors and misreadings. He regurgitates the notion that the Canadiens owed their dynasties to territorial rights, a myth which has been debunked several times over and yet refuses to die. He insists that the Montreal captaincy “didn’t matter” after Turgeon, ignoring Saku Koivu’s long, emotional, and controversial tenure- say what you will about Koivu, his captaincy was anything but meaningless. He suggests that the only reason Bob Gainey “escaped roasting” was the death of his daughter Laura, although the Gainey teams from 2007-8 to 2009-10 were actually rather successful by GMing standards, finishing first in the East in 2007-8 and going deep in the playoffs in 2009-10.

And then, of course, there’s the portentous, pointless hand-wringing about how there are no legends the like of Richard or Beliveau on the roster (of course not, that’s why they’re legends), about how the Habs have no face-of-the-franchise player (what, every team needs to have one of those at all times?), and how five teams have won more of the past 31 Stanley Cups than Montreal (a better championship record than 23 other franchises is apparently still not enough to secure relevance, which is of course why the Habs to this day are less relevant than the Islanders). These are the kind of accusations that could easily be leveled at nearly two dozen teams in the current NHL; the fact that Joyce can sell a magazine article just to throw them at the Canadiens is a very good sign of how much the Habs still matter comparative to their brothers in mediocrity.

But honestly, the thing that is so intensely irritating about articles like this is that they reflect the exact opposite of their ostensible theme: rather than being about memory, they are symptomatic of hockey journalism’s chronic lack of memory. The Canadiens have been bad this season, or more accurately, this half-season. They’ve made some weird moves. Suddenly, we have writers and journalists who hardly say two words about the Canadiens in an average month coming out of the woodwork to tweet tweets and print columns and rant of TV about their incompetence and irrelevance. Two years ago, when the Habs were knocking off Penguins and Capitals to get to the Eastern Conference final and the media were falling over themselves to write stories about their discipline and work ethic and strategic brilliance, this piece would never have been published. Four years ago, when the Canadiens dominated the East for a season and the Gainey plan looked like a roaring success, this article would never have been published. Joyce wants to draw a straight downward slope starting in 1970 and culminating in this year’s miseries, but the truth is a more complex thing, full of ups and downs, maybes and maybe-nots, plenty of disappointments but also some hopes fulfilled, and some wholly surprising thrills.

I rather doubt anyone who has invested many thousands of words in the ‘decline of an empire’ narrative is even remotely interested in advanced stats, but just for the record, the Canadiens misfortunes this season are largely attributable to two things: terrible power play luck and injuries. Through December, the Canadiens had lost 196 man-games to injury, amounting to the highest cap hit for injured players in the NHL thus far. Despite this, their even-strength possession numbers were generally positive, and under Martin their Fenwick percentages were quite good. The collective PP save percentage of opposing goalies was about .937- unsustainably high. There were plenty of indications that the team could and would improve, and there still are, although the panicky general management decisions are probably hurting the chances of that.

The season’s results have been disappointing and management’s handling of them has been depressing and discouraging, and an article saying that much would get no argument from me or any other fan. But if one disastrous half-season is enough to prove that a team does not matter, if this is all it takes consign a franchise to irrelevance, then Joyce is gonna have to come for every team in their turn. No one is good forever. There will come a season when the Red Wings aren’t going to make the playoffs. Time will come that the Pens will be in the basement again, and Boston has not seen the last of the draft lottery. No team, no matter how great, no matter how glorious, wins all the time. Every single thing wrong with the contemporary Habs has been wrong with some other team at some point, and all of those things can be made right again in time. There is nothing in this year’s struggle that is any more exemplary of an existential failure than there was something representative of durable dominance in the 2010 playoff run. These are swings of the pendulum, not shit rolling downhill.

This is the real value of history, to contextualize the present and soften the swings. We know greatness is not guaranteed and glory doesn’t last, nobody in Montreal or anywhere else needs Gare Joyce to explain this. The point of having had a dynasty, having had legends, is not to always have them. It’s to have had them, to have- even for a little while, hell, even once- achieved a first or a last, or something unrepeatable and unsurpassable. The making of a legend is the transformation of the transient into the transcendent. Something that happened once only for a fleeting moment becomes, through memory and veneration, something durable, something you can hold onto in the hard times. You can lose players and you can lose championships, but you never lose the legends. Howie Morenz died in 1937, but the Howie Morenz of 1928, first player to score 50 points in a season, is still part of the Canadiens. Maurice Richard may have coached the Nordiques, but the Maurice Richard of 1955, so beloved the fans would riot in his name, is just as much a Hab today as he was then. The Roy who led the team to a Cup in his rookie season is still a Canadien, just like the Gretzky who got 50 goals in 39 games is still an Oiler and the Orr who scored that flying goal will always be a Bruin. These monuments don’t mock the present, they enrich it. The Canadiens empire may indeed be crumbling, but better a crumbling empire than none at all, for the age of empires in the NHL is over and done. Happy are those teams who got their glory while the getting was good, because mark my words, there will never be a Pax Vancouvica.

Georges Vezina: Joyce tells us you might hear him spinning in his grave, if only you make the pilgrimage to Chicoutimi, so great is his shame at the fate of the Habs. But I’m not so sure. When Vezina died in 1926, the Montreal Canadiens were a seventeen year-old team that had won two Cups. In his tenure with the team, he saw their home rink burned to the ground and the Spanish flu kill off one of his teammates and his general manager. He saw the League he started playing in, the NHA, collapse and get restructured into the NHL. Many of the teams he played against- the Renfrew Creamery Kings, the Montreal Wanderers, the Quebec Bulldogs, the Toronto Ontarios, the Quebec Athletics, the Hamilton Tigers- were born sickly and died within the span of his career. Several others- the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Montreal Maroons, the New York Americans- didn’t outlive him by much.

If Vezina understood anything about hockey, he understood that it was hard thing. It’s a hard game and a hard business and it’s left a lot of casualties behind it in the past hundred years- not just players but franchises and fortunes too. Could old Georges, in his wildest dreams, have imagined how long the Canadiens would survive and all the glory they would garner? I doubt it. It would have seemed as impossible and unlikely looking forward from 1926 as it does looking back from 2012. But I know this: if his spirit has been tagging along for the past 100 years, he is fucking thrilled. He is thrilled and amazed and dazzled, he is positively joyous, because it has been a helluva ride, and a far better ride than any other NHL team has ever given its tubercular ghosts.

40 comments:

Black Dog said...

Great stuff E. One quibble though, an essay on the Canucks would have to be entitled 'Neither that successful nor likeable'

Despite their recent rise I still would not call them successful by any means. ;)

Andrew Berkshire said...

This is brilliant!

I'm very happy you put in the effort to write this, because the result is one of, if not the best article I've read all year.

Number31 said...

Too bad they won't print your article... Sadly it's more fun for garbage mags to print sensationalist poorly researched crap over actual intelligence.

saskhab said...

Great job, E. We'll have to leave Chris Boyle to defend the Canadiens of 1980-94, an era of Habs history so often tossed aside as mediocre when it was pretty clear the Habs were a top 3-5 team the entire time that won the Cup twice, the conference three times, and the division a few more times.

One correction should be made: the Canadiens had the most prospects at the WJHC of any CANADIAN franchise (though this was tied with Edmonton, I believe, who padded up on prospects from the likes of Slovakia and Latvia). The illustrious Florida Panthers led the way for the entire NHL with either 7 or 8 prospects. :)

E said...

thanks guys, i rather thought this was a little unnecessary since most habs fans know that articles was full of ridiculousness, but i figure the more people say it out loud the better for us all in the future. not that it'll make publishers any less likely to put 'decline' stories in print, but maybe a few otherwise intelligent authors will think twice about writing them.

sask- i wasn't a fan during that time (80s-90s), and it's also coincidentally my worst period of hockey history, so i didn't take on that part of the article. i look forward to reading boyle's takedown, and will insert a link accordingly. and i'll make that correction (and note that i made it in the text, david staples!), thanks for pointing it out.

Anonymous said...

Thank You for taking the time to write a well informed piece...I am sure a few have just stepped back from that ledge

Scottymac said...

This is brilliant stuff. Like Boethius' "Consolation of Philosophy" but for hockey.

Get a life said...

This makes for interesting reading and that's about it. There are a lot more important things in this world to devote this much time and attention to then the exploits of a hockey team. And if the Canadiens (and this goes for any team) matter or don't matter, should we care? We need the people who spend this much time analyzing and debating these topics to actually produce something tangible which will benefit our society. If tomorrow the Canadiens disappeared I am sure many people would be greatly disappointed and incensed. However, if tomorrow we were told that thousands of people died of cancer or some other illness, we would shrug our shoulders and say "that's life". What does it say about our society that we pine for and honour these "teams" when they are really a bunch of millionaires that are so separated from the reality of the average fan's life? It is indeed a pathetic world we live in and no one seems to care.

Canucklehead said...

It may be a stretch to discuss an empire in decline as the Canadiens were never an empire in the first place. In any event, it is no doubt not a stretch to observe that the Canadiens status in the NHL is not what it once used to be and most certainly it is apparent that they no longer are as relevant in terms of winning championships or having the best players in the league. So, in one sense, the Canadiens have been in a decline since their last Stanley Cup. Before people use to talk of "go to a final every seven years", "win a Cup every decade" and so on. Well, all those quotes can now stop.

VancouverHab said...

My goodness, this is magnificent. I'm forwarding it to my two sons who were brought up in the Habs' glory despite neither of them seeing a Stanley Cup win. This is just what they need.

I hope you get wider publication for this.

PS: caveat about the Canucks. How are they "successful"? Same ineptitude as always, with a different cast...

The Rockin Morroccan said...

Thank you. I am going to share this as much as possible in order to get this to the largest possible audience - this point of view needs to get out there.

Riksha99 said...

For those in the mainstream media who want to believe their owns words are gospel...you just got served. This article establishes Mr. Joyce's irrelevance.

I hope he does better, or else he'll be writing an article in the future about the decline of Sportsnet Magazine.

Anonymous said...

The only reason that anyone can write anything about the decline of the Habs empire is because they are simply the greatest franchise in the history of the sport an one of the greatest in all sports period. So coming back down to average standards from time to time will naturally look like a great fall. Plenty of other teams who'd like to be in this boat.

Steve said...

great article, yeah what if we had a healthy Markov.

mike said...

Awesome article! Well done.

Anonymous said...

To explode another continually perpetuated myth in regard to the so-called 'cinderella' runs of 86 and 93: During the twelve season period enveloping those cups (84-85 to 95-96), the Canadiens had the second-best regular season winning percentage in the NHL,(.576) second only to Calgary (.578). While the 86 and 93 versions of the Habs were not favorites in those years (particulary 86) this was never a case of a franchise winning one year and then continuing their losing ways....

Morenz7 said...

This is a goddam tour de force. I'm sending it everywhere.

Anonymous said...

I love the Weakerthans reference in your blog title, great article by the way.

James Sheehy said...

Stunningly fantastic article. Thank you for writing it.

hockeyinsociety.com said...

Great post E. I particularly like your point about the short memory of the media, and the need for historical context. The Canadiens have made some baffling decisions this season from any hockey observer's perspective, but this does not somehow reflect a sudden "irrelevance" within the league. Neither does it consider the broader historical trajectory of the team's on-ice performance, nor consider how the dynamics of the modern NHL (a 30-team league, the salary cap, relative parity, etc.) militate against the building of dynasties and the concentration (and retention) of superstar players.

I really wonder - given how new media has rapidly transformed sports journalism in the past decade - what kind of pressures mainstream media writers are under to produce copy, and how many inane narratives that get legs begin with an overworked reporter trying to make a deadline and manufacturing a story. I would expect better of Sportsnet Magazine, though, given that it can be a forum for longer and (theoretically) more thoughtful pieces than you will find in a daily.

Michael said...

Great piece...

Anonymous said...

Great article but I don't agree with the 'bad luck' part on the power play cause it just sucks this year, nothing to do with luck there.

mtl_kid said...

Yet another example of a blogger taking a "established" lournalist to school...good job.

Desi said...

A well written and well reasoned piece. Glad to have had a chance to read it. I also disagree about the "bad luck" on the power play, though. The fact that opposition goalies have a .937 save percentage against our power play is, in my opinion, testament to the poor quality of the shots taken by our relatively unskilled forwards. But that's just a nit. Overall, this is a piece that every Habs fan should read.

Anonymous said...

If they have even a shred of integrity over at Sportsnet they will post this well written, researched and thoughtful article next to Gare Joyce's story. I doubt they will however because it would probably embarrass their own writer far too much.

Excellent job!

Prairienewf said...

WOW! I got chill bump reading this. Proper Perspective can be a wonderful thing. sadly, today it is apparently an extremely elusive one. Great post.

Anonymous said...

The ultimate irony with them being third on the Forbes Franchise Evaluations is that much of the Forbes evaluations is based on measureable variables such as ticket sales and merchandise, the two very measurements that can actually measure whether a team matters to a team.

When evaluating any franchise, the question is often asked when it is doing something right is whether the success or lack thereof is sustainable? Top 5 in many off-ice business categories for a long time. The fall of this empire based on a half of a season is merely a great exagerration.

Well written.

Joel Cormier, Ph.D.

Anonymous said...

One of the best articles i've ever read. Great job!

Anonymous said...

You're right. Mr. Joyce was way over the top. He used only a laundry list of facts to make his case in opinion piece lamenting the decline of our most hallowed franchise. You see, he presented an essay. It's supposed to be pointed.

But, thanks --- for completely missing the point of Joyce's commentary. The Montreal Canadiens USED TO BE RELEVANT to ALL HOCKEY FANS EVERYWHERE. For nearly two decades, were are relevant only to our fans, of which, I am a card carrying member.

That some of our fans are content with nearly 20 years of mediocrity is perhaps even more upsetting than being virtually irrelevant on any scale that matters. Articles like yours that proactively defend this team's mismanagement are the problem with this team.

Mike, sorry, Mr. Michael Cammalleri was shoved aside like used tissue paper for speaking up about the loser mentality that he believes pervades this team. A team in the bottom half of the standings should be able to deal with the people --- insiders like Cammy and outsides like Mr. Joyce --- who point out our faults.

Instead, we get your elegantly written PR prose that we are the third most valuable team. Big deal. We are the second largest hockey market in the most important hockey country. Where else should we be. We fill out the building. Yee-haw. 18,000 seats paid for largely by corporations to wine and dine clients in a metropolis of more than 2 million. Lots of draftees playing in the NHL, and yet, none in our lineup that we drafted that scored 80 points or won a major award since 1984. We even managed to pick up the tired, injuries played a part. I don't see the Penguins missing Crosby et al for long stretches or the Flyers missing Pronger in our rearview mirror. One might even argue that Mr. Gauthier erred (darn, now I shall be banished to Western Canada) when he signed off-injured Mr. Markov to a lucrative three year deal with clearly no timetable to play even half the season contributed to our IR problem; and, until Mr. White plays like the second coming of Mike McPhee or Mr. Gomez starts producing, their injuries are just padding stats.

Andrew Berkshire said...

I always find it curious that the most negative people are anonymous.

E said...

my, what a very large pile of comments. i shall have to respond to them by category:

everyone who is saying nice things: thank you, thank you, thank you!

everyone who is concerned that the power play is bad because of structural failings and not luck: i realize that most of you are probably not familiar with advanced metrics, but i will refer you to the article by cam charron linked in the piece. if there are still further questions/concerns, perhaps i'll do an essay on it myself. suffice to say for now, i think there's a lot of support for the position that the power play failures are largely (if not entirely) an issue of random variance and not underlying talent.

to the person who is concerned that society as a whole is too invested in sports: there is a gentleman by the name of benjamin massey who has very kindly offered to take up this issue with you. you will find him at the copper & blue, which is on the sidebar of the blog.

to the people who are angry because they feel the canadiens should still be what they were in the 1970s: the original six is over and no team has now nor ever will have again the sort of dominance the canadiens did during their dynasty years, and if you really believe that fan complacency is the reason for that then... well, i wish you the best of luck with your many years of impotent rage. when you have some reasonable, practical ideas for how the habs can climb up from mediocre to remarkable again, please come back and share them.

Anonymous said...

Excellent article

Anonymous said...

Nice article. One thing; in terms of young guys, you place Weber ahead of Desharnais?

Andrew Berkshire said...

Desharnais isn't really young anymore. He's 25.

Anonymous said...

Shame on Sportsnet, and bravo to "E".
Joyce goes way too far in trying to denigrate the Habs. Yes, the Empire has declined, but only because it had a long way to fall. Try telling Boston and Chicago fans(and for that matter Leafs fans) that their teams aren't relevant. They love their teams, just as we still love our Habs. And, last year a poll done by CBC (I think) showed that THE MOST POPULAR TEAM IN CANADA WAS...(wait for it)...MONTREAL!!!!

Anonymous said...

Great job. Too bad that lazy writer for sportsnet will never read it.

Xenos Khan said...

Just read your article. Great piece of work and one of the best written articles I've read this year about hockey!

Maybe you should be published in Sportsnet?

Greg B said...

This is a spectacular article.

Long Branch Mike said...

I was expecting some solid journalism in Gare Joyce's article, as I'd read his 'Future Greats and Heartbreaks: A Year Undercover in the Secret World of NHL Scouts' which was insightful, interesting, & profound. Unfortunately, as E points out, the Habs hachet job was worthy only of the Toronto Sun - partisan, poorly researched, and flagrant at his dislike & joy of the Hab's demise.

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