Corey Perry gets it.
At the end of Montreal Canadiens’ dramatic 3-2 overtime victory against the presumed Stanley Cup-champion Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, the 36-year-old Montreal veteran told reporters, “It’s just hockey. Be prepared to work, but at the end of the day it’s just hockey. Have fun.”
Just hockey, indeed. And perhaps never so appreciated as it has been these past several weeks of an impossibly-Cinderella run through the third wave of a soul-crushing pandemic.
Every game, it seemed, provided a new storyline, usually surprising.
In Game 4, held Monday in Montreal, interim head coach Dominique Ducharme took on the mantle of genius. He had scrambled his lines and defence in a last-ditch, desperate move to inject some life into his team, down three games to none against the Tampa Bay Lightning. And the coach saw his gut pay off at once as inserted defenceman Brett Kulak led a charge up ice that resulted in a goal by Josh Anderson, a last-minute addition to the Canadiens’ charming “Kids Line” of Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. Suzuki set up the goal with a perfect saucer pass from behind the Tampa net.
The Canadiens needed to win if they were going to avoid being swept in the Stanley Cup final for only the second time in their history, having once before lost four games to none to the 1952 Detroit Red Wings. The last time a team came back from being down three games to none in the final was 1942, when the Toronto Maple Leafs came all the way back against the Red Wings.
Corey Perry would never have called it “fun” when, well into the second period of Game 5, he was one of the Habs guilty of not clearing a puck that ended up in the Montreal net, leading to the only goal of a 1-0 win that clinched a Stanley Cup championship for the Lightning, their second in two wonky, unimaginable seasons. All the same, cue the scriptwriters for the book/movie/tale of the 2021 Montreal Canadiens.
So many stories. After an absolutely irregular regular season – no Canadian fans during the pandemic – the Canadiens became the underdog’s underdog. They came back from being down 3-1 against the much-favoured Toronto Maple Leafs to take the opening series, swept the second round against the much-favoured Winnipeg Jets, then took out the much-favoured Vegas Golden Knights in six games. They brought in the kids, who excelled. Brendan Gallagher’s slashed and hacked face alone became a chapter. The goaltender, Carey Price, became again the best goalie in the world for a while. The general manager had lucky suits. The interim coach had to be replaced with an interim interim coach when the interim coach tested positive for COVID-19.
It was a team that transformed Montreal from a sorry state to a state of bliss. And the affection for this oddly charmed team spread across the country, with jerseys, caps and car flags found in every city. You can debate all you want as to whether this charming group of multinationals is “Canada’s Team,” but there is no debate as to whether or not this has been Canada’s welcome distraction.
A Canadian team – even if made up of multinationals – advancing in the Stanley Cup playoffs when no one expected them to became a welcome respite from nearly two years of soul-crushing news. When a day is filled with impending pandemic waves, new variants, Donald Trump’s lost election and attempted insurrection, blazing oceans and lately, historical discoveries so grim and incomprehensible that many Canadians wanted to cancel Canada Day, these playoffs became a healing forest bath for many.
A meaningless game to which we may well give far too much meaning, but a distraction much needed by so many. Some 50 years ago, Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane wrote that, “Hockey is the dance of life, an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive.” Despite winter, yes, but this year we can add daily case counts, overflowing ICUs, vaccine delivery hitches and that red shockwave that screams “BREAKING” below the news broadcasts. The Stanley Cup playoffs, even if played in July and August, are the affirmation, this year, that we are still alive.
Author Morley Callaghan long ago called hockey “our own national drama.” It has long been so, even though there has been no happy ending in this drama since 1993, when this same Montreal Canadiens franchise briefly returned the Stanley Cup to its birthplace.
Hockey matters to Canadians and perhaps mattered these past two difficult years more than ever. It was the needed distraction, the necessary small talk to blunt the aggressive, angry talk about Trump and the depressing endless chatter about the pandemic and vaccines. We know this game matters even when others say its import is vastly overrated and overstated. When Keith Spicer’s Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future was going about the country following the death of the Meech Lake Accord, they eventually concluded that “ordinary Canadians” placed a priority on two Canadian values – health care and hockey.
Former Toronto Star columnist Joey Slinger once took a delicious poke at novelist W.P. Kinsella, who wrote the short story that became the baseball movie classic Field of Dreams. Slinger wrote that, “The field of our dreams is flooded and frozen and has a net at either end.”
Only a fool would suggest that the national game is as pure and clean as a frozen slough. It has huge imperfections, including sad realities that include physical, psychological and sexual abuse. It is also a violent sport, as evidenced these playoffs by that end-to-end charge by the Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Scheifele that sent Montreal forward Jake Evans off the ice on a stretcher. In 2021 it remains a mystery why this sport, unlike virtually every other contact sport, supports fisticuffs despite so much scientific evidence of tragic death and brain damage suffered by those who essentially made their hockey living by fighting. Not much has changed since former Toronto Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe smirked at a question about fighting by saying, “If we don’t put a stop to it, we’ll have to start printing more tickets.”
But it does have its moments when played as well as the Tampa Bay Lightning showed in the final and the Montreal Canadiens in the previous rounds. There is no shame to be felt here in Montreal. There should, instead, be an appreciative applause from a country desperately in need of distraction. It’s just hockey. But it was also so much more.
Thank you, Montreal Canadiens.