Traditionally, Canadian hockey executives can expect one of four reactions from their customers – they are either ignored by them, underrated, lampooned or despised.
At times during his nine years in charge of the Montreal Canadiens, Marc Bergevin has managed the rare feat of provoking all of them at once.
Until about six weeks ago, according to most true-blue Canadiens fans, every single decision Mr. Bergevin had ever made was, very obviously, stupid.
He hadn’t just brought low his own hometown team. He’d fixed it so that they could never be good again. Not until the 35-year-or-whatever-it-is extension he gave Carey Price expires.
Apparently, Mr. Bergevin has survived this endless wave of derision by restricting himself in public to the emotional range of a trout. It helps when you look more like a pro now than you did when you actually played. At 55, in a short-sleeved button-down and arm tattoos, Mr. Bergevin gives off an accountant-for-the-Hells-Angels vibe.
But, given the background, you’d expect a little sneer. Just a smidge of self-congratulation. Some eagerness, at the least.
But no. Not Mr. Bergevin.
On Sunday, when someone asked him what it’s like for a man born in Montreal, raised in Montreal, and now runs the hockey team in Montreal to be in this position? What emotions is he feeling?
Mr. Bergevin pretended he’d been asked a different, far more boring question and answered that one instead. Before he’d finished his answer, you’d already forgotten what he was talking about.
Okay, let’s try this another way. How’s the team feeling?
“They’re very humble. They’re very calm. They respect the process, but they’re enjoying it at the same time.”
The process? Mr. Bergevin makes it sound as if they’re all about to spend two weeks applying for a building permit.
Listening to the Montreal Canadiens on the eve of what might be the biggest Canadian NHL series in the 21st century, you’d describe the mood as fine. Adequate. Maybe even perfectly adequate.
Take Mr. Price. He’s fine.
At the best of times, the blankness of Mr. Price’s on-camera presentation makes Mr. Bergevin’s seem like Tammy Faye Bakker.
But on Sunday, Mr. Price was in rare form. Someone gave him the old Barbara Walters, like-sands-through-the-hourglass question – drafted by this team, been here 16 years, some ups and, recently, a lot of downs … what are you feeling?
“Just excitement,” Mr. Price said.
He said it in a tone that suggested that feeling is something humans do. At least, that’s what he’s heard.
Up and down the team, the media-day marching order was ‘No headlines.’ Not even a lousy pull quote. Don’t say anything interesting. Don’t even seem interested.
Hockey players aren’t very good at enacting media strategies because so few of them are convincing liars. But they can do one thing well – be boring.
Given the town they play in, the recent history and the occasion, has any team ever been more boring than the Canadiens right now? We’re not speaking about the on-ice product. That is a reliable blood-pressure accelerant.
But there is none of the off-field stuff most great teams like to provide as an added service during historic playoff runs.
We’re not asking much here. Maybe a little bad blood. Somebody say something wild about any topic you’d like. Hot-button political issues would be great.
The Canadiens are falling down on the job in this regard. You’re beginning to suspect that they think the only work of a hockey player is playing hockey.
This is where the obligation to sell the Stanley Cup final runs up against the effort to win the Stanley Cup final.
For Montreal, a team that plays in a town where the only way to survive is to spend your off hours in a news blackout, excitement is the enemy. They haven’t even gotten past the playoff heats and their fans are already rioting.
On the other side, the Tampa Bay Lightning play in a market where the only way people are going to find out the hockey team is any good is if someone on the football team tells them. They have the luxury of speaking freely.
The Lightning are loose and fun because Florida tolerates that sort of behaviour.
Montreal does not. Montreal expects its players to sleep in sackcloth. Montreal is Toronto with expectations.
A lot of things make this final fascinating, 98 per cent of which are only of interest to Canadians.
There’s the 28-year drought. There’s all the other Canadian clubs who are just figuring out that they built their teams wrong and Mr. Bergevin did it right (at least for now). There’s the evergreen argument about whether or not to root for your country once your city is out.
Plus, it’s summer. Nothing else is going on. But people still need something to mindlessly scroll through while they should be vacationing.
Therefore, through the immutable laws of the news business, the Stanley Cup must now be used as a prism to discuss every national issue of the day. By Day 5, they’ll be changing dates so that they can republish 20-year-old think pieces about the two solitudes. Politicians will self-servingly rush to either embrace or eschew the sport, which means more think pieces. Eventually, there’ll be think pieces about think pieces and their place in a changed Canada.
There has been a lot of talk in recent years about hockey’s declining importance in the national conversation. But this series will reinforce its power – because even the people who hate the game and/or what it represents love using it as a metaphor. As long as that is true, hockey is king. That is especially the case in Quebec.
This is the one way in which hockey stands above other team sports – for good or ill, it defines a country.
Every time a Canadien talks from here on out, he risks slipping into this amorphous and potentially limitless debate.
So if you gave me a choice between being interesting and being all “give it my 110 per cent,” I’d go the Marc Bergevin route, too.