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first person

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Illustration by Drew Shannon

I’ve never liked hockey. The “Great Canadian Game” was never part of my household growing up. I never understood the thrill of watching 10 miniature men skating after a puck on a TV screen. Don’t get me started on hockey jerseys either. Pure eyesores. You’d never catch me wearing one, that’s for sure. I won’t even mention car flags. And those fights and checks! Why? Hockey violence is upsetting, especially when a player ends up looking like a lifeless rag doll on the ice.

I’ve never wanted to waste a single minute of my life over hockey… until now. I don’t recognize myself anymore. Please don’t send a rescue mission. I’m too far gone to be saved.

It began when the Habs made the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring. My husband, a devoted Habs fan, had been watching the games on Zoom with his friends during the pandemic. After several months, “Zoom fatigue” took over and he started streaming the games on our living room TV instead. Then our five-year-old son was allowed to stay up late to watch the first period. All this was fine with me. I even looked forward to game nights – I viewed them as the perfect opportunity for some alone time. As soon as the puck dropped, I would head to my bedroom and pick up a book, or watch an episode of my favourite TV show. “Living my best life,” I thought. “They can have their hockey, I can have Meredith Grey.”

As the Montreal Canadiens progressed during the series, my husband and son became increasingly excited. They streamed official pregame DJ sets online, danced in their pajamas and ate popcorn while waving their Habs flag for no one to see. I found it amusing from afar. A satisfactory arrangement. But after a while, a part of me felt like I was missing out on something. I love popcorn. I wanted to dance in my PJs too. I officially had FOMO, fear of missing out.

“I’ll just watch the first period with you guys,” I said one day. Half an hour before the game, my husband turned on the live DJ set and the next thing I knew, I was wearing a Habs jersey and jumping on my couch as if I were Tom Cruise on The Oprah Winfrey Show. I enjoyed all our pregame shenanigans. But it took time getting used to watching an actual match. Everything happens so fast and it’s hard to follow a tiny puck when the eye isn’t used to it. I eventually understood why my family cheered when they cheered and booed when they booed. I learned the difference between a two-minute and four-minute penalty. I started recognizing attack and defence patterns and knew when a player had missed a huge opportunity to score. I became indignant when a referee failed to make the right call or make a call at all.

“Just the first period” turned into “Okay, I need to know how this game ends.” I was hooked. I became emotionally invested in the players and their well-being. I looked forward to seeing what outfit Habs general manager Marc Bergevin was going to wear to the game. His flamboyant red suit is a must-see. I stayed up late for overtime periods, even though I knew I’d pay with a sore throat the next morning.

I take back what I said about car flags. While I don’t have a car, our bike trailer has been outfitted with a very visible Canadiens flag. If you see a woman pulling a child in a Habs-themed trailer around Montreal, it’s probably me. I even did the unspeakable… I yelled “Go Habs go!” to a neighbour relaxing on her balcony a couple of hours before a game. I’m still shocked as I write these words.

As someone who has been a hockey hater all of her life, I can confidently say that I’m now a believer. I’ve been trying to understand my change of heart. Could Stanley Cup fever be the reason? Maybe. The Montreal Canadiens hadn’t made it that far in the playoffs in years. The last time they won the cup was in 1993. There was also something exciting about a whole city, and at the time, a country, rallying behind a team. Being part of something bigger than myself and my ordinary life felt good. Perhaps Habs fever shined like a light at the end of the dark pandemic tunnel. I also can’t stop thinking about my son in all of this. How his eyes lit up when his favourite player took the ice, how much fun he had when we watched the first period together, how he scratched my hardwood floors with his mini hockey stick during commercial breaks. His passion was contagious. Our family hockey ritual – dancing, popcorn and yelling at a TV screen – brought me immense joy.

Our family was disappointed when the Canadiens lost the cup to the Tampa Bay Lightning last July. We recovered over the summer and even made our way to Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame to pay our respects to the Stanley Cup (never thought I’d say that). We’re ready for the new season. I don’t know what the future holds for our beloved team. Will they make the playoffs this year? Will Marc Bergevin keep dressing like a fashion icon? Will I feel the urge to jump on the couch this time around? I don’t know. All I can do is wear my Habs T-shirt and get my popcorn ready.

Michelle Béland lives in Montreal.

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