Tuesday, January 30, 2007


The Montreal Canadiens, as everyone knows, have an excerpt from a poem in their dressing room:

To you from failing hands we throw the torch, be yours to hold it high

This is from “In Flanders Fields”, a World War One poem, and I often thought it an odd choice for an athletic dressing room. WWI, after all, was a very bad war, one of the worst, a brutal pointless meat-grinder war that virtually destroyed the adult male population of several nations, and for what? So that an equally brutal peace could lead to another war twenty years later? Sure, hockey is a game where you repeatedly undergo physical punishment only to earn the privilege of doing the entire thing again, so maybe there is a natural analogy, but I would think you wouldn’t exactly want to remind the players of that. But the poem not only evokes a sense of history in its words, it is itself a part of the Canadiens’ history, and if you learn one thing as a Habs fan, it’s not to argue with history. So I respect that, if there is a poem for the Montreal Canadiens, “In Flanders Fields” is it.

But it’s not the one I think of, when I think of my Habs. I often think of poetry in relation to hockey, I don’t know why, but in my mind many teams have a particular poem or excerpt of a poem that seems somehow natural to them. It’s probably a subconscious reaction to the overuse of the phrase ‘poetry in motion’ to describe the more graceful aspects of the game. In my mind, however, there is one particular scrap of poetry that is particularly suited to ahbabi:

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are.

I know, it’s a clichéd poem, but in some ways the Canadiens are a clichéd team. Anything associated with them, even the standard pre-game introduction, is swathed in history like steel wool. The franchise, the city, the fans- they all breathe, sweat, and bleed history. To call it a religion would do it a disservice, because it is in many quarters more deeply felt and more immediately lived, I think, than the more spiritual faiths. It’s a remarkable, beautiful history, the sort of history that, like the Shahnameh, is all the more powerful because it blurs so easily into legend.

The history is always hovering around the team, but there are particular moments when it takes over, when the Montreal Canadiens become not the team that I follow but rather The Montreal Canadiens, a sort of transcendent archetype of a hockey team. The history, at times, descends from above like the Holy Spirit over the Bell Center. Jersey retirement nights are such moments, a ceremony wherein some fortunate soul is raised in effigy to sit amongst the elect, forever and ever, a part of the legend. Usually this process is in some way a formality, bestowed only upon players who have already become folk heroes, but the ritual is important nevertheless, because it marks that strange moment when a player- a person- becomes part of history.

Tonight we canonize Ken Dryden.


When the time comes for such rituals, I know that I am still a stranger in a strange land- nose pressed up against the window glass, looking in at something that I can’t really understand but desperately want to be part of. It is at these moments when I realize how little right I have to use that first-person plural when I speak of the Habs. What right do I have to claim this old and complex faith as my own? I did not even exist when Dryden worked the miracles for which he is being honored, and I was not raised with this religion, its rites and parables. I am a recent convert, and though a zealous one, this is a faith where seniority counts for a lot. I am a foreigner, and though an adaptable one, this is a community where local origins count for a lot. I am an outsider, it tells in my passport, and my accent, the languages I speak and those I don’t. Although I am in this place, I am not of it.

After the loss to Toronto last Saturday, Mike Boone, the blogger over at Habs Inside/Out, mentioned how pathetic this year’s team is in comparison to the 76-77 Habs, and suggested that these guys don’t deserve to share the same ice with Dryden. That’s the ugly side of the legends, and the heritage, the glorious and storied past- even if this year’s Habs pulled out a miracle and brought the Cup back to Montreal, all they would have achieved is to give the franchise what the keepers of The History claim as its due. There is a sense in which all Habs fans believe, deeply, that the legends have purchased them the right to the best team in the League, and as happy as everyone is when they do well, there is a sense that the best they can hope for is do credit to the history, or at least not shame it too terribly.

The stories are so often told, and their heroes so often portrayed at such a distance from the present, that it becomes an image of irreplicable greatness. Such a history, I think, may sometimes be as stifling as it is inspiring, gleaming but abrasive. As the ceremony begins, I am actually quite anxious, afraid for my guys- as I think of them- arrayed on the bench. They look a bit like a group of fidgety children compelled to sit in the front pew. Freshly shaven and hair neatly combed, in identical jerseys for the occasion. They seem nervous, and they should be- this is a critical game against their closest division competitor, and on any night would take the measure of their skill and resolve. But because of this ceremony, they will be playing not only to the Senators but to that great heavy history, and I fear how terrible the response will be if our actual Montreal Canadiens fail tonight. The legend is as terrifying as it powerful, as damning as it is comforting. It is two-faced, for what it gives us with one hand it takes away with another. I do not envy them the cruel comparisons they’ll face in the media, and even less the comparisons they will make themselves.

When I hear the more critical fans say that this year’s Habs aren’t worthy of the legacy, I think, not them, and not me either. Maybe none of us, here in this fallen world we call the New NHL.

Ottawa does not come out for the ceremony. This is not their history, they are a young team and have little interest in such things. I envy them, the Ottawa Senators, who have no such burden, who have the existential challenge, and the privilege, of building their own legend right now. Today.


The entirety of what I knew about Ken Dryden before today can be summed up in two points: 1) He was a great goalie, and 2) He wrote a book which I am supposed to have read. Before he is introduced, though, the ritual kindly takes the time to familiarize me with the salient points of his career. He looks, in the videos, almost nothing like what I know as a goalie. Everything about him- his style of play, his equipment, the very shape of his body- is different from Huet, and Aebischer, and Emery, and Luongo, from virtually every goalie I know. And yet those stats… damn. How on earth do you get that good? Today, with specialized trainers, better equipment, battalions of sports psychologists, and practice virtually from infancy in some cases, goalies are not that good. How intractably mysterious such skills are. None of us- maybe not even Dryden himself (although I’m sure he’s written about it)- know why they take up residence certain people at certain times. It is incomprehensible and indefinable, that strange power that makes great hockey players. One begins to understand why, on nights like this, people feel compelled to offer praise to it and those it blesses.

When he finally comes out, after a whole series of introductions and video montages, I am not really surprised that he is a supremely unremarkable-looking man, for I have seen enough ex-players by now to know that, somehow, they all eventually come to look quite unremarkable. Unlike most ex-players, however, he’s a compelling speaker. He has a good voice, a sincere, soothing sort of voice, the sort I inevitably associate with National Public Radio in the States. His speech is eloquent and well-orated, but I expected no less from the writer and politician which he has become. However, I do not actually expect to be moved by it, any more than I was by the numerous speeches that anticipated his arrival. As I said, this is a night for hierophanies, the recollection and reliving of a shared glorious past, but I cannot really participate. As badly as I may want it, I have no role in this.

But listening to him, talking about his team, the way he remembers all of them specifically, the famous and the forgotten alike (although I doubt that any Hab is ever really forgotten), I realize he, himself, did not experience this venerated history, this monstrous legend, any more than I will, any more than any player or fan will. At the time, what he experienced was just a team, just a bunch of real guys- some exceptional, some less so, but real people nevertheless. Time eventually strips them of their humanity. They become certain numbers and certain images, certain stories, a collection of things that represent the player that was but are, in fact, totally different from the person himself. For a few minutes, at least, Dryden almost brings all the greatness and glory, the hallowed and sactified and storied past, down to the simple scale of real life- makes it seem like something that could be touched, and might be achieved again. It gives me hope, some, for the guys on the bench, that maybe someday some of them will be deemed worthy of similar rituals. Maybe not on this team, maybe not in this arena, and probably not on this scale, but I wish for them the chance to be at some point recognized as some portion of a history. Maybe this is what hockey players, in Montreal at least, are trying to buy with all their sweat and blood- an outside shot at transcendence.

I watch as Ken Dryden, of whom I know nothing, consecrates the memory of his career to the realm of legend. It’s a commemoration, the creation of a memorial, which is one step removed from a gravestone. It’s a celebration and a funeral, for a glorious career that is over, and though Dryden himself lives, has lived 30 years since his retirement and will live 30 more beyond tonight, that part of him- the goalie, those numbers, those pictures- is now among the venerated ancestors.

But in the end, I’m not thinking of those great names up in the rafters. As much as I respect them, and what they achieved, I did not know them and they have no claim on my devotion. I’m thinking of my Montreal Canadiens, who are most definitely not of that strength which in the old days moved heaven and earth, but who are- it turns out- of sufficient strength to effectively forecheck the Ottawa Senators.

Though much is taken, much abides.


Julian said...

Wow... excellent post E, maybe your best one yet.

I've always had a soft spot for the Habs, I suppose they've been my second favourite team, consciously or not. I've thought about expanding on it in blog form someday, so I don't think I will here, but it's safe to say that the wieght of their history (I'm not near big enough a fan to say "our history") is a major reason for it.

Robert L said...

If you can understand what the history speaks to those who haven't lived it, imagine what effect it has on those who have.

I was just catching onto the Canadiens when Dryden was called up. What I witnessed in the next two months made me a fan for life. Then they drafted Guy Lafleur, who I watched play just down the street from where I live (Cornwall) and went on to win 7 more Cups. When you are in your youth, wide eyed, you just can't ever get over it! Once you have been a witness to everything being done properly, nothing compares. It might be smart of us not to measure today against yesterday. Nothing compares.

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