They once rioted in Montreal when a Canadiens player got benched. Now, many Montrealers would rather see that happen to the whole lot of them – players, managers and owners alike.
Professional hockey’s most storied franchise is in such a funk that seats at Bell Centre, which once fetched a hefty premium, can often be had for less than face value. TV cameras home in on the empty rows and on fans that file out in disgust well before the end of the third period.
Canadiens fans may not yet be sharpening their pitchforks, as their counterparts in Ottawa seem to be doing, but that’s just because they’re at a different stage of grief, somewhere in between denial and depression. The only consolation is that it will be all over soon, at least until next season begins and the train wreck starts once again.
Academic theologians have long compared the devotion of Montrealers and Quebeckers to the Canadiens to a form of religion. But perhaps never in the 109-year history of the Sainte-Flanelle, or Holy Flannel as the team is known, have its patrons been so close to losing the faith. The latter has been sorely tested in recent seasons, none more so than during the current dismal one.
The Canadiens were officially eliminated from playoff contention with a 5-3 loss to the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday. The Habs, the team that has won more Stanley Cups than any other National Hockey League franchise, will not be vying for a 25th trophy this spring. They will, however, be vying for a last-place finish in the NHL eastern division. Only two other teams have scored fewer goals than the Habs this season.
The only Canadiens player fans still get suitably excited about – goalie Carey Price – has spent most of the season nursing injuries. He returned to the ice against Pittsburgh this week, but the team still lost.
This spring marks the 25th anniversary of the Canadiens’ last Stanley Cup win, a milestone the team’s management has avoided acknowledging. It reportedly nixed a plan to honour players from 1992-93 championship roster at a coming home game. The team has had its ups and downs since 1993, but no one can remember morale being this low among players and fans alike.
How did it get so bad?
The Canadiens were not exactly coming off a winning streak when general manager Marc Bergevin traded star defenceman P.K. Subban to the Nashville Predators in 2016. But the transaction continues to stick in the craw of many fans for whom the larger-than-life Mr. Subban incarnated team spirit. Winner of the 2013 Norris Cup as the league’s top defensive player, Mr. Subban provided excitement on and off the ice. He was often criticized for hogging the limelight. But he was a powerful ambassador for the team and Montreal. No other player has stepped up to fill his shadow.
There was no love lost between Mr. Bergevin and Mr. Subban, who helped lead the Predators to the Stanley Cup final last season. But there is outright scorn toward the general manager among Canadiens fans. Mr. Bergevin’s decision to trade or failure to retain other fan favourites such as Andrei Markov and Alexander Radulov has left many hockey commentators scratching their heads.
“We need to ask whether we have all the right people in the right place,” a visibly frustrated Canadiens owner Geoff Molson said this month in what many interpreted as a public warning to Mr. Bergevin that he needs to turn the team’s fortunes around soon or face the heave-ho. Many asked: Why wait?
The Molson family has owned the Canadiens since the mid-1960s, except for an eight-year stint after 2001, when the brewing dynasty ceded all but a minority stake in the franchise to U.S. businessman George Gillett. The Molson history is intertwined with Montreal, but many fans wonder whether the family has become too complacent.
As with the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose (until recently) long-suffering fans remained faithful even during the worst of times, the Canadiens are a cash cow for their owners. The team is the third-most valuable in the NHL, according to Forbes magazine, and the Molsons stand to cash in big-time on naming rights for the team’s Montreal arena when the current deal with Bell Canada expires in 2023.
That is, as long as fans and season-ticket holders don’t start boycotting the team – and losing their religion.