The Politics Behind the Sport

The pressure of playing in a hockey hotbed such as Montreal is legendary. The mecca of the hockey world is also the league’s oldest team, formed even before the NHL itself. As such, the Montreal Canadiens are not only one of the most important teams in league history, but is also a team that is embedded into the culture and heritage of the city itself. Over the century that the Canadiens reigned supreme in the hearts of Montrealers everywhere, the team has collected 24 stanley cups, the most out of any other team, cementing it as a winning team with a rich heritage. The hall of famers stacking the lineups of dynasty teams roll off the tongue, from Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy, to Maurice “The Rocket” Richard and Jean Beliveau. These players captured the hearts of decades of fans, and led to the eruption of joy as fans witnessed the team capture the championships.

While history is quite kind to the team, the immense success of rosters prior have made it almost impossible to live up to the high standards set before newer, current editions of the team. With an increase of teams in the league, different rules and all in all, a different game, teams are not as filled to the brim with stars as the dynasty teams of the Original Six, and with the increase of parity among the league, luck plays a much larger role in determining the championship teams of the “New” NHL. This simple concept is lost on many fans in Montreal, who after enduring quite possibly some of the worst editions of their beloved Habs in the early 2000s, and not witnessing a championship since 1993, (this past decade being the first time in history Montreal hasn’t won at least once in the decade) are getting more and more antsy for something to cheer for. Fans are desperately searching for that next big superstar to carry the torch for the team and live up the legacy of players like Lafleur. The biggest culprit of this being the Montreal media itself, who end up hounding players, calling them out, and creating huge controversies through articles and obvious French bias, end up piling on way too much pressure, and many players end up not being able to cope, and either leave or end up flat out not wanting to sign in the city. This creates a catch-22 where that search for the next big French superstar actually ends up preventing one from being found in the city.

The issue carries itself further, permeating into the politics of the city itself. Politicians even get in on the debate about French players and how Montreal needs to be politically correct and appease the fans by having a “quota” of francophone players. This once more leads to a hostile environment for players who are unable to cope. Most recently, the most successful playoff run for the Canadiens since the Stanley Cup win in 93, ended in the Eastern Finals, and the team was led to two huge upsets by the Toronto born Mike Cammalleri, who led the entire playoffs in goal scoring despite not making the finals, and the goaltending of Jaroslav Halak, a Slovak. Despite its magical run, the biggest headlines amongst Francophone papers alluded to the ultimate failure as a lack of French Canadian talent on the team. This view is entirely negative, as instead of noting the relative success for the year, they dwell on what they don’t have, and are stuck living in the past. Due to this, current players are led to believe that they have to all be hall of famers to garner any sort of respect, and the mass publication of this form of media is almost brainwashing certain less educated fans, who ended up booing players out of the city, only to see them have moderate success elsewhere, and then point to that success and argue that the team needs those types of players.

This is leading to a change in mentality in the grassroots level of hockey in Quebec as well. While certainly the higher levels are prepping the young players to one day play in the NHL, I’m talking specifically of lower level recreational leagues. The vast difference in mindsets between province are vast, and even in certain cases, the French bias can still be found in these levels, where kids are just playing to have fun. I personally have sat in the finals of tournaments here in Quebec, and have seen fights break out over the native tongue of some of the players. Keep in mind this is not taking place on the ice, where tensions understandably run high, but in the stands, where parents and siblings fling racial slurs towards Anglophone players on the team, and get into fights where authorities do end up having to get called to diffuse the situation. “I personally think it’s disgusting,” Monteuil defenseman Patrick Modafferi said. He himself being half French, half Italian, he has no allegiances in the French/English issue so evidently enveloping hockey all around Quebec. He agrees that the media is heavily to blame, and they need to refocus. “They don’t try very hard to cover up their agenda. It’s free press but when French speaking people read the newspaper in the morning and see how everything is related back to how French needs to be more dominant in Quebec over the English, they start to go along with it and it creates a lot of tension.”

The philosophy was painfully evident to one student, who preferred to remain anonymous. “When I used to live in Calgary, I played hockey and the vibe you would get from that is so much different. Back there it was a bunch of kids playing to have fun. Once I moved here and started playing, it was totally different. The whole argument over the French and English is something you don’t get back in Calgary.” While he agrees that it’s not a good thing to have, he understands where the popular opinion is coming from. “A lot of the people in the media now were growing up when the Habs had dynasty teams led by players from Quebec. The team is really a part of the culture, so I understand that they want more hometown players to feel connected to the French roots, but I don’t think they should be mixing politics into stuff like this. It’s a bad idea.”

When racism starts to permeate into the attitudes of youth hockey, played by kids and teenagers to have fun, I think everyone can agree that there is something wrong with the way people are approaching the situation. I feel that the only way to break out from the current mindset is to simply be more progressive. Many of the old-timers are set in their ways, yet hopefully with the ushering in of a new generation of people entering the workforce, hockey can go back to being a culturally significant form of entertainment for Montrealers everywhere, and stop being a political tool used by press and politicians alike to gain favour with the people.

Habs Class of the Northeast

The first month of the season now done, the Canadiens showed the league last year was more than a miracle one, placing first in the division, and second in the conference. The big players in this strong start were Tomas Plekanec, who is tied for the team lead in points, with, surprisingly, Andrei Kostitsyn, who seems to have broken out of his habits of starting the season fat and out of shape, as both players sit with ten points in eleven games. The other big piece, of course, was the Carey Price. Like the on-and-off girlfriend you hate one month and love the next, Price has charmed the fans of Montreal with his very strong start, and if he keeps this up, won’t have to worry about the rabid media hounds jumping down his throat every game.

On the disappointing end of the spectrum, Cammalleri sits with seven points, but only three goals. Being Montreal’s top sniper, he needs to find his groove and start relieving the goal scoring duties off of Kostitsyn. Spacek continues his streak of laughably bad play, not contributing anything on either side of the ice. Hopefully he learns soon that his technique of falling down and doing nothing isn’t effective, and starts to vary up his gameplan. His poor play, however, has been overshadowed by the pitiful combined performance of Gomez and Gionta. Gionta, after being named captain over the summer, looked poised to have a decent season, however seems to let the pressure get to him, and has only one goal in the first eleven games. Gomez overall, has played a little better than his counterpart, but Gionta’s lack of production and the lack of another scoring presence on the line is making it hard for the Alaskan native to put up some points.

Overall, it has been a strong month for the Canadiens, however they need to start getting some help if they are to continue the level of their play.

Habs 1-1-1 Through Three

Through the first three games of the regular season, Montreal has experienced highs, lows, and heartbreak, setting the tone as to the cacophony of emotions to be present throughout the remainder of the season. Losing to the Leafs, scoring a comeback win against Pittsburgh, and having the roles reversed against the Bolts, there was a mix of opinions pertaining to the performance of the team. The one constant positive has been the incredibly reassuring play of netminder Carey Price, who on most nights has been playing incredibly solidly, and in the case of the game against Pittsburgh, flat out stole the win for the Canadiens, robbing Crosby on multiple occasions to keep the score close, giving time for the Canadiens to tie and ultimately win the game late. Cammelleri and Plekanec, keeping the chemistry from the playoffs last season have started off strong. Cammalleri with two goals already, and Plekanec with a goal of his own and adding a dominant offensive and defensive presence while on the ice. Halpern and Boyd have payed beyond expectations, and Lapierre is still playing playoff hockey, which is good to see.

With all these positives however, there are still quite a few negatives. The defense is practically non existent. Quite the concern when the system relies on defense. Hamrlik’s return to action did little to stabilize the defense, as dumb penalties and defensive breakdowns cost the Habs a late one goal lead and the game in overtime. Gill proves to us all that a man of 35 years of age doesn’t magically get faster, and continues to be beaten by speed to the outside, giving added workload to his partner Gorges, who himself has looked solid, along with Subban on a shaky defensive line-up. Gomez and Gionta also have to start playing better, with Gomez getting a goal on a fluke shot that fooled Fleury, however the team needs its newly appointed captain to step up and start adding some secondary support to relieve some of the burden off of the Plekanec line.

Over all, through three games there has been a lot to consider, and it’s far too early to pass real judgement, however one would hope that Markov’s return would help the powerplay, which has been abysmal, and the defense, which could use the presence of the general back on the ice.

Mike Boone, The Man Behind The Blog

One of the more popular journalists in Montreal covering the Montreal Canadiens, Mike Boone’s Habs Inside/Out is one of the most reliable sources of information for everything Hab related, but he didn’t always want to write for the Gazette, or even cover the team when he was younger. “When I was a kid, I wanted to be a lawyer.” While this may shock most of those who now see Boone as perfectly qualified to be running a blog on one of North America’s most popular sports teams, his education in the field is far from top caliber. A graduate of McGill university, Boone credits his learning as a writer with the school paper. “McGill doesn’t have a journalism program. I studied English Literature and learned to write for newspapers at the Daily.”

Naturally a good investment in hindsight, this experience led to the first of a string of coincidences that ended up launching a career. His journalistic experience steered him away from his childhood ambition of being a lawyer, ” at McGill, I had no idea what I wanted to be.” Boone said with a chuckle. This led to him taking his first steps in his new career. “I got started by accident. I had covered sports for the McGill daily but could not get a job in journalism when I graduated with a BA in English.” Spurred to various jobs by the greatest human motivator, notably a lack of money, Boone did whatever it took to stay off the streets. “I did a bunch of stuff to pay the rent and was working as a proofreader for a computerized typesetting company specializing in legal texts.” Closer than ever to his former ambition of being a servant of justice, Boone made it clear that it was not an avenue he would have been interested in pursuing after that point. “It was as boring as it sounds.” It was only a matter of time before the pieces began to fall in place for the writer. Soon enough, an old friend came back into his life, showing once again that it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. “I was contacted by Pat Hickey. He had covered college sports for the Gazette when I was at the daily and remembered my writing. By then, he was sports editor of the Montreal Star and offered me a job.” This came in 1974. Just in time to assist in covering the Habs dynasty of the late 1970’s.

Unfortunately, the job was short lived as not all good things are meant to last. “I was a sportswriter for five years at the Star before the paper folded. The Gazette hired me but they said there were no openings in the sports department.” Thus began a hiatus on writing about sports that would last longer than anticipated, and would seem a lot longer due to the nature of of his next job. “As an interim measure I was signed to write about rock music, and hated every minute of it.” Thankfully this particular job didn’t last either. He moved on from the music column to become the TV and radio columnist for the Gazette for the next twenty years of his career, however this job was one he didn’t mind doing. “I actually liked doing that” he said, smiling. It was only in the year 2000 that he changed once more. “I was asked to take over the city column. I write three city columns a week and, since 2006 write about hockey for Habs Inside/Out: a live game blog and post game commentary.”

A far cry from many who know Boone strictly as the man who write about hockey, he has proven to have quite the illustrious, albeit completely unintentional career, and has accomplished much throughout his time writing for the Montreal Papers. Still, people are curious as to whats next for the writer. “I’m 62. I’ll be happy if they let me do what I’m doing until it’s time to hang them up.” Put in perspective, the man behind the blog certainly has much more to his name than simply commenting on hockey games, and it’s only when you hear the whole story that you start to realize the dedication, time, and luck that goes into doing what you love best as a career.

Opening Cuts Made; Games Played

With the first week of the preseason over and done with, few know whether to be optimistic or not regarding the teams season. The biggest question mark going into the exhibition games was the play of goaltender Carey Price, who responded to his critics by losing his opening two starts with a goals against average of 6.67 before finally winning his latest start Monday night against the Panthers, and while Price might not be losing any sleep over his lackluster opening starts, some die hard fans will. Also in the negatives through one week would be the defense man Jaroslav Spacek, who through the first couple of games seemed to have forgotten which team he plays for, handing the opposition golden scoring chances and a few goals as well before scoring one for himself in the first period against the Panthers.

On the other hand, there have been more than a few positives, some surprising, some not. Tomas Plekanec has been by far the most dynamic offensive threat, making creative plays every time he has the puck while leading the team with four goals in the three games he has played (tying the league lead with Foligno and Perry), and looks poised to have another great season on both sides of the ice. Another notable has been Ryan White. The young gritty forward has been a dynamo in these opening games, hitting everything that moves, playing solid defensively, protecting his teammates by fighting, all while chipping in a few goals. White may be one of the players who is a victim of circumstance, with barely any room to crack on the roster. At the very least, he’ll be one of the first call-ups in case of injury, as he is one of the more NHL ready young players fighting for a spot with the big club.

All this, however, led to cuts on Monday, leaving 16 hopefuls down to try and crack the minor league roster. While none were overly shocking, the quick assignment of Alexander Avstin to the AHL without playing a single preseason game leaves one thinking that he might be injured, potentially aggravating his wrist injury sustained last season in Russia, despite what some might have you believe about Montreal simply hating Russians. Cutting Palushaj was also one of the more controversial choices, as he was one of the brighter offensive sparks among rookies through the first couple of games.

All in all, it has been an eventful week with much discussion. Price needs to prove he can play at a consistent level, while others simply need to prove that they still remember how to play, period (Spacek being one of the few vets that this applies to). The Canadiens continue their preseason against the Sabres on Thursday night, and if this first week was any indication, we should be in for some interesting plays, hits, and potential defensive meltdowns.

Training Camp Thoughts

With the start of the season right around the corner after an improbable run to the Eastern Conference finals last spring, the talk of the town is all on the training camp. Fans raging over the trade of playoff hero Jaroslav Halak have been keeping a keen eye on acquired forwards Eller and Schultz. While neither player can be expected to play as large a role as Halak played last season (playing a different position being a major factor why), the two young men have garnered quite a bit of attention. Schultz, the 6′ 1 winger, impressed many with his work ethic and attention to the physical side of the game, while showing that he can chip in offensively, scoring a goal in the second day of camp. While not expected to make the team (possibly due to the apparent aversion Canadiens brass has to physical forwards over 6′), fans now see that “the other guy we got for Halak” can at the very least play the game. More importantly, Lars Eller, the main return in the Halak trade, has also impressed fans and coaches alike, for different reasons. While not scoring a goal in his inter-squad scrimmages, Eller displayed nice poise with the puck, good playmaking skills and above average vision, finding some nice chemistry with Russian prospect Alexander Avstin, who scored twice this camp and he himself displayed some skills of his own.

The vets are of course the real center of attention, however for the most part have remained fairly quiet stat wise, which is not too concerning due to the fact that these games mean essentially nothing. While the depth players have been getting some attention with Moen and Pyatt scoring goals, and Lapierre adding two of his own (not to mention O’Byrne showing that he actually does know how to hit the net with a shot, giving him the only goal he’ll score all year), the big guns have remained fairly quiet, Plekanec being the most impressive. Coming off a great season, Plekanec, scoring a goal and adding another in the shootout, looks poised both physically and mentally to justify the five million dollars he’ll be making over the next six years.

The first five cuts of training camp were made Monday, leaving Lefebvre, Ellis, Gallagher, Stejskal and Champion all off the final roster, deemed not ready for NHL duty, although I for one wouldn’t be surprised if the local media were to claim anti-french bias to defend local boys Lefebvre and Champion. I mean come on, his name is Champion. It’s obvious he has all the tools to succeed in the NHL, right?