Montreal’s Cup fever has been matched by a brutal heat wave, a city’s mood made manifest in high-30s humidex values – too hot to wear a jersey to watch Game 1. Inside Le MTL Bar on Rue Saint-Hubert, where dozens of hardcore partisans gathered for the first Canadiens appearance in a championship final in almost 30 years, Mathieu Paré had his hockey sweater spread out lovingly on a stool.
He hadn’t slept in two days – or at least not well. The melting weather didn’t help, but it was the dreams and fears of a lifetime of frustrated fandom that had him tossing and turning.
“I’ve been wanting this my whole life,” he said, as the minutes ticked down to puck drop.
Mr. Paré is part of a generation of Montrealers – the first generation – to pine since childhood for a Cup. His father hoisted him on his shoulders during the last championship parade in the city, in 1993. After decades of dynastic dominance in the sport, from the great teams of Richard to Béliveau to Lafleur to Roy, Nos Glorieux simply stopped being glorious.
But now, as Montreal emerges from more than a year of pandemic lockdowns, its team is on the verge of tasting champagne from Lord Stanley’s mug again. If the Canadiens win it all this year, Mr. Paré said he is going to put his father on his shoulders this time.
“To live the same feelings that my Dad felt, my uncles and aunts felt, it’s incredible,” he said. “Montreal is really vibrating right now.”
The vibrations shook Le MTL whenever the Habs had a chance on goal – “Rip it! Rip it!” Holden Wajcer cried, his shirt refreshingly unbuttoned. They even shook some of the more erudite corners of the Québécois internet.
Benoît Melançon, a professor of literature at the University of Montreal, maintains a blog about the French language called l’Oreille tendue. He also happens to bleed Canadiens red, white and blue. From time to time he writes learned treatises about local hockey jargon, and lately his site has seen a surge of traffic that tells him the national hive mind is buzzing about the Habs.
“I’m not doing numbers like Le Journal de Montréal,” he said, referring to Quebec’s most popular newspaper. “But by the standards of my blog, it’s crazy.”
Four articles in particular have drawn many of the clicks – and help explain the province’s current infatuation with the Canadiens. Take Prof. Melançon’s entry on the team’s famous flambeau – a reference to the “torch” in John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, a passage of which adorns the walls of the Canadiens dressing room. (McCrae was an adoptive Montrealer.) It has become a team tradition for great players such as Ken Dryden to ceremonially pass the torch to current stars such as Carey Price.
That sentimental flourish reflects, in part, the team’s decline, Prof. Melançon argued. The Canadiens have had less and less to offer fans in recent years – not Stanley Cups, not even the pride of cheering for homegrown players. During one game this year, for the first time in team history, the Canadiens skated no Quebec-born players. Instead, management has heavily marketed the team’s glorious past.
“They stopped selling winning because there wasn’t any. They stopped selling francophone players because there weren’t any,” he said. “So they started selling tradition.”
That may now be changing. Another of Prof. Melançon’s most-searched articles in recent weeks has been on the popular phrase “Ça sent la Coupe” – “It smells like the Cup.” Fans can almost taste victory for this unheralded team that has surprised almost everyone by making it this far.
The city hopes they’ll be helped by “les fantômes du Forum” – the fabled ghosts of legendary Canadiens players such as Howie Morenz, who are believed to have helped tip games in the team’s favour at its old arena. On the evidence so far, the ghosts have migrated to the modern Bell Centre, too. The Toronto Maple Leafs looked haunted, anyway, on their way to blowing a 3-1 lead in the first round of the playoffs.
This mystical streak in Montreal fans extends to an almost-religious devotion to their team, responsible for its enduring nickname, La Sainte Flanelle – a reference to the material of old hockey sweaters. (Prof. Melançon has traced the name’s origins to a Montreal journalist’s writing in 1975.)
But that didn’t stop fans from exclaiming their share of blasphemous osties and calisses Monday night whenever the Tampa Bay Lightning scored – too often for Montrealers’ tastes. (The final score was 5-1, giving Tampa Bay a 1-0 series lead.)
But not even a rough first outing could break the spirit of the local faithful. They’ve witnessed enough magic on the ice with this team to hope against hope. “They’re improbable, but they’re not impossible,” said Mr. Wajcer, as the sun set and the heat broke. “I’ve seen miracles.”
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