Spring arrived in the early hours of a sunny morning this week, when an unlikely hockey victory awakened civic pride without the usual, bitter communal hangover.
In defeating the Boston Bruins, the Montreal Canadiens remain eight wins away from a Stanley Cup, but this unlikely playoff run by an undersized but unified team has already had a winning effect on the city.
After a punishing period when the city’s dark side was exposed, corruption was proven to be rampant, when Montrealers were riveted by the religious and linguistic lines that divide them, the Canadiens have rallied a city in desperate need. (With apologies to the surprising number of Bruins fans in our midst.) And so far, we’ve even celebrated victory without the customary riot.
“No matter what happens next, this will define the summer,” said Sam Roberts, the Montreal rock star who leads the Sam Roberts Band. “It takes our minds off the divisive politics and social strife we’ve been dealing with the last couple years, and maybe, just maybe, we can set our eyes forward a little more. I think there will be a healing effect,” he said, pausing. “As long as they don’t set the city on fire.”
The Canadiens victory Thursday sent thousands of people into the streets from one end of Montreal island to the other, with the usual celebration epicentre downtown on Ste-Catherine Street. There were a handful of arrests by the well-prepared police, but riot did not replace jubilation, as it did in the 2008 and 2010 playoffs when shop windows were smashed, goods looted and police cars incinerated.
Of course, it was just coincidence that the morning after victory, winter’s leftover chill finally lifted and the sun came out with full summertime force, but the heat felt like a reward for improved behaviour and several long years of collective civic penance.
Men, women and children shed layers of insulated clothing as freed prisoners shed their stripes. A city rubbed its eyes and shook off the grime. Then, there were high-fives all around.
“We went through such a dark winter. One of the darkest winters I’ve ever been through. Literally, spiritually, politically. Really, one of our darkest hours,” said David McMillan, the celebrity chef, Canadiens fan and civic booster. “I’ve never come close to moving, but … Thursday morning I woke up and said, holy… it’s summer. I got goosebumps. We won. The sun is out. We’ve got a good mayor, a good premier. The darkness is over, there’s light ahead.”
Opposing partisans will still no doubt have contrary views on how good Quebec’s new premier (Philippe Couillard) and newish mayor (Denis Coderre) are likely to turn out, but that’s why politics do not draw half the province to TV sets to cheer in unison, as the Canadiens did Thursday.
“Everyone is part of the same gang, without regard for politics, culture, age. There are no barriers when it comes to the Canadiens,” said Karel Picard, a PhD student in psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and diehard fan. “In the streets people are giving high-fives, singing, celebrating each victory. It’s beautiful to see. It’s quite moving.”
While Toronto has felt enduring embarrassment over a mayor’s misbehaviour, bad news and division have throttled Montreal and Quebec in wave after wave. Corruption long-assumed was proven rampant, even as the infrastructure the system built crumbled into dangerous rubble. Montreal mayors resigned; one was hauled off to court.
The previous Parti Québécois provincial government proposed a charter of values that would have pushed some religious minorities from public-sector workplaces. The issue deeply divided citizens and caused considerable hard feelings in many of Montreal’s minority communities.
Terrible disasters hit the province, with the Lac-Mégantic train crash last summer and the L’Isle-Verte fire last winter, which each killed people by the dozens.
Now, pages are turning. The Charbonneau commission examining corruption is reaching its conclusion. The city elected a new mayor last fall who seems to have departed from a decade of dithering and dissembling. The election of provincial Liberals April 7 put an end to the charter in its most divisive form.
A calm seemed to descend on Quebecafter all that trauma, just in time for some good hockey news.
“It’s been unifying,” said Laura Saba, a contributing editor at habseyesontheprize.comwho comments on games and the social aspect of hockey. “In general, sports are an escape, but this is not just a distraction, it’s something we have in common. People say ‘Go Habs Go’ in English and French.P.K. Subban plays beautiful hockey in any language, in any culture. And we rally behind.”