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My superb weekends in Montreal are becoming too numerous to count. Here’s the really, really short version.

  • Thursday: an easy taxi / flight / taxi combo had me from door to door in 3.5 hours; late-night Pizza Hut (the BEST)
  • Friday: a little leftover pizza to tide us over; shrimp pizza and beet salad at Café Parvis; an exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain; beers at the Benelux Brasserie; a game of chess; our usual stellar meal at Maison Publique (albacore tuna crudo, calamari in its own ink and aioli, TH Wines Viognier, Garganelli pasta with pesto and walnuts, duck breast, Burrowing Owl Cabernet Franc, pôt de crème, butterscotch cake) with some extra drama thrown in when some dude passed out during dinner and had to be taken away by ambulance.
  • Saturday: sausage rolls and almond croissants; a few hours of work; an attempted visit to supposedly-top beer joint Vices & Versa waved off due to how crowded it was; a visit to Birra instead, which was outstanding; an espresso stop at Caffe San Simeon; dinner at Hostaria (burrata, gnocchi, strigoli pasta with duck ragu, some kind of rolled veal+spinach+mozzarella covered in prosciutto and mushroom sauce, and an absolutely stellar bottle of Cavaliere Michele Satta 2011 Sangiovese)
  • Sunday: brunch at Mamm Bolduc; Canadiens vs. Oilers at the Bell Centre (another loss; that makes three games I’ve seen in Montreal, all of them losses); lunch at Brutopia; TV and cheesies; a messed-up trip to the airport (Uber doesn’t know where the Montreal airport is, apparently) and a snowy flight home.

À la prochaine, Montréal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by woody1778a, used under Creative Commons license

20 years ago today

This day twenty years ago was one of the happiest of my life. I watched my Montreal Canadiens defeat the Los Angeles Kings 4-1 to win the Stanley Cup in five games. Sure I’d been alive for five Canadiens cup wins up to that point, but don’t remember ’76 through ’79, and was only vaguely aware of the 1986 cup win. I didn’t become a hardcore fan until the early 90s, and by 1993 I was obsessed.

It’s all stuck with me so clearly. I can still remember the results of each game in order. I can still name the forward line combinations and defense pairings to a man. I can picture all the crucial points in the playoffs. Vincent Damphousse winning game 3 of the first round against Quebec, the only time the Habs were really threatened. All those overtimes against Buffalo and the Islanders. Guy Carbonneau asking to shadow Gretzky after 99 ran roughshod over Kirk Muller in game 1 of the final. Eric Desjardins’ improbable hat trick in game 2 after coach Jacques Demers rolled the dice with an illegal stick call. Patrick Roy winking at Tomas Sandstrom. John LeClair owning overtime in LA. Demers dressing Donald Dufresne for the final game so he could get his name on the cup. Carbonneau, the captain, letting Denis Savard lift the cup first.

Until that point the Canadiens had never gone more than seven years without a cup win. While it’s nice to celebrate the 20th anniversary of an unexpected win, it’s sobering to think of how much the team, and the league, have changed. Not just for the Habs: no Canadian team has lifted the cup since that night in Montreal, two decades past.

.:.

Photo by woody1778a, used under Creative Commons license

How to fix the Montreal Canadiens, 2012 edition

As I type this I’m watching the Montreal Canadiens play their 13th-last game of this dreadful season — they currently sit last in the Eastern conference and 28th out of 30 in the NHL. They have no hope of making the playoffs. They ditched some trade bait at the deadline and have picked up some decent prospects and picks (five picks in the first two rounds in the upcoming draft) so that’s cause for optimism. Still, more changes are made if they’re going to make the playoffs. Not that the Habs management is calling me up for advice, but here’s what I (and, I think, anyone who’s thought about it for twenty seconds) would do:

  • Trade (or, worst case, buy out) Scott Gomez. His 0.297 points per game for $7.5 million just doesn’t work. You can’t play him ahead of Desharnais or Plekanec, and you’d be holding back Eller’s development (not to mention Louis Leblanc’s) if he’s not the #3 centre. Unless Gomez wants to take a pay cut and become a defensive specialist (hee!) on the fourth line he needs to go.
  • Try to get something — anything — for Kaberle, Campoli and Nokelainen. At the very least let Campoli leave town.
  • Move Rene Bourque to the 3rd line. Bourque, Eller and Travis Moen (if they can keep him around) would be a very good, very physical 3rd line.
  • Use some cap room to sign a second-line winger to play with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta. A scoring winger with some size would give the Canadiens a second scoring threat to compliment the Pacioretty-Desharnais-Cole top line. Add the afore-mentioned third line and an intimidating fourth line featuring Ryan White and Brad Staubitz (if he re-signs) and your forward lines are actually in pretty decent shape, I think.
  • With P.K. Subban, Andrei Markov, Josh Gorges and Alexei Emelin the core of the defense is solid, if a little fragile. Assuming Kaberle and Campoli leave town, Montreal would need a veteran 5th D-man to bring along prospects like Raphael Diaz and Jarred Tinordi. Yannick Weber seems to be a spare part under coach Randy Cunneyworth, but having a guy who can play D or forward is helpful.
  • No help needed in net: Carey Price is it.

I’m sure I’m missing a bunch of nuance, but at least if Mr. Gauthier calls me in the off-season I’ll have some conversation-starters ready.

Oh look, a pumpkin

The Philadelphia Flyers have just defeated my Montreal Canadiens 4-2, thus eliminating them from the playoffs and moving on to play Chicago for the Stanley Cup. It was an improbable run by the Habs, barely squeaking into the playoffs and yet knocking off the #1 regular season team (Washington) in the first round, and last year’s Cup champion (Pittsburgh) in the second. Philly manhandled them, though, shutting them out three times.

It might have been that Montreal was just exhausted after slogging their way through two consecutive 7-game series. Jaroslav Halak stopped over 500 shots in the playoffs. Their best defenseman, and maybe best player overall — Andrei Markov — was hurt in the first game of round 2, and his absence showed in the anemic power play. Ultimately, though, the Flyers did what Washington and Pittsburgh didn’t: they adjusted. The Capitals and Penguins seemed convinced that if they just kept playing the same way they had all year, their talent would come through and win the day. That played right into the Habs’ strategy, but the Flyers had none of it. They crashed the net, unlike the Caps and Pens who just talked about doing it, and Montreal coach Jacques Martin seemed unwilling to use Ryan O’Byrne on D, the one player big and strong enough to clear the crease. The Philly defense cut off the entry pass and punished the Canadiens’ small, skilled players along the wall. Mike Leighton may have recorded the shutouts, but apart from game 2 he was little better than average. The Flyers just choked the life out of the Montreal forwards.

So now the Flyers will play the Blackhawks for the finals. I will be cheering for the latter, almost as enthusiastically as I would have cheered for Montreal had they made it to the finals. Here’s why:

  1. I have come to hate the Flyers as much as the Bruins and almost as much as the Leafs
  2. I have come to hate the Flyers’ fans even more than the Flyers
  3. I like a lot of Chicago players (especially Toews) and the way they play the game
  4. Chicago has always been Nellie’s team, but she cheers for Montreal for my sake. It’s only fair I return the favour
  5. If Chicago wins, the Maple Leafs will be the team who has gone the longest without winning the Stanley Cup. My excitement at this prospect should not be underestimated

So…I’ll take a few days to recover from this heartbreak, and then…go Hawks go.

It could be much, much worse. Right, Leafs fans?

Jeez, could my teams look any more awkward stumbling toward the playoffs? My Habs slumped at the end of the year, barely locking down the #8 spot and staring at the President’s Cup-winning Washington Capitals in the first round. The Raptors, meanwhile, have lost too many good players to injury and, following today’s loss to the Bulls, have slipped out of the playoffs.

Methinks I’ll get to enjoy the spring weather outdoors this year, rather than spending very many evenings in front of the TV. Too bad I didn’t care about baseball a little more; the Jays are off to a pretty good start.

On the first four days of Christmas…

Here’s what we’ve been up to in the four days since we left you:

On boxing day we enjoyed the main part of Nellie’s gift to me: gold seats at the Air Canada Centre for the Montreal Canadiens / Toronto Maple Leafs game. We were eleven rows from the ice, right at one of the blue lines, and had a great view of the ice. I was actually surprised by the number of Montreal fans in attendance…I’d say maybe 20% of the fans were cheering for the Habs. It was amazing for me to be that close to the ice — in my previous visits to Canadiens games (both in Montreal) I’d been in the nosebleeds — and to see and hear everything. It was also nice to see my team win for a change (the Habs won 3-2 in overtime) as the first two games I saw were losses. Nellie had fun too, eating a hot dog and drinking beer and making eyes at Carey Price. It was a blast, and an experience I was worried I’d never get to have in Toronto. Top-notch Christmas gift, baby!

.:.

December 27th was actually our anniversary. Typically we’d go out to dinner to celebrate, but it being Sunday everything was closed. We hung out with CBGB for a little bit and generally just took it easy.

.:.

Yesterday we thought we’d get out of the house and see what all this Avatar fuss is about, so we walked in the freezing-ass cold to the Scotiabank to buy tickets. Little did we know that tickets to the IMAX screenings had been sold out for days. Bah, forget it. We cut back across King Street and decided to stop in at the beerbistro so that the afternoon wasn’t a complete loss. I had a Tilburg’s Dutch Brown Ale and a Maudite, while Nellie had a Durham Hop Addict and an Urthel Hop-It, which I think is her new best friend. We went to movie plan B at home, watching Defiance (imdb | rotten tomatoes) on the PVR (it was okay…given the subject matter it probably should have been a little more engaging than it was). Then we got ready for dinner.

Much like North 44, Scaramouche is such a quintessentially Toronto restaurant we couldn’t hardly believe we hadn’t yet tried it. An anniversary seemed like an ideal time for such an adventure, and it was settled. First, the room: pleasant, if a little dull & dated, and while we were seated at the window to appreciate the famous view, the evening’s snow squalls made it difficult to see much. Second, the service: a little off, to be honest. Our server was efficient enough but not exactly friendly, and somewhere between dessert and the bill he just disappeared. We never saw him again, and after several minutes of waiting we finally got someone else’s attention and they tag-teamed our bill, etc. So that was weird. Third: the food, and this — most importantly — was the best part. I had warm duck salad, venison wrapped & roasted in smoked bacon and coconut cream pie for dessert. Nellie had butter poached lobster, a grilled kerr farms filet mignon and her dessert was three kinds of cheese. We had various glasses of wine before dinner and with our apps, but the real star of the evening was the 2006 Petite Sirah/Zinfandel/Mourvèdre ‘Phantom’ Bogle. Excellent without the food and downright superb with it, neither of us wanted to finish the bottle, but we couldn’t help ourselves. Nellie’s port and my Calvados with dessert were good, but I know we were both thinking about that wine. Oh, and the restaurant did make a nice final flourish with our dessert plates:

scaramouche dessert

.:.

Today was a bit more pedestrian: grand plans of shopping withered on the vine when we realized it was -20 with the wind chill, so we opted instead for leftovers, chocolate, napping and more movie-watching. Today the PVR served up the Warner Herzog documentary Encounters At The End Of The World (imdb | rotten tomatoes). Really, I could watch anything by that man and be happy, but from a strictly mechanical sense it did precisely what documentaries are supposed to do: answer some questions and raise still others.

Tonight the plan (well…my plan) is to watch Canada’s junior team play the Slovaks, and then tomorrow it’s back to work for a bit. In other words: wow, it’s been a relaxing vacation.

Hopefully it will be less successful than Operation Eat Chocolate Until Even My Puke Smells Sweet

My my, what a Christmas morning. The crazy wind outside woke us up at 4AM, and we never really got back to sleep. We chatted with my brother and his missus on Skype for a bit at the end of their Christmas day (they’re in Brisbane), then extracted the goodies from our stockings, then had a breakfast of delicious Cumbrae’s bacon, biscuits straight from the oven and prosecco mimosas. Then, to the business at hand — the unwrapping of gifts. Here’s my haul:

  • Five books: Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind, The Disappeared by Kim Echlin, Empire Of Illusion by Chris Hedges, The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels, and a book about Cumberland County, NS (where I grew up)
  • Three Blu-ray discs: Die Hard (which we watched last night, actually), Inglourious Basterds and Children Of Men
  • This t-shirt
  • Chocolate. Oh, sweet merciful frangipane, the chocolate.
  • A jar of beets. Which, on any day other than Christmas — when I actually really want beets — would be a weird gift.
  • A proper, game-style Montreal Canadiens jersey, which I shall wear tomorrow night at…
  • The Montreal/Toronto game at the Air Canada Centre! Nellie somehow got us gold seats. I don’t know whose soul she had to sell to do it. I don’t even care. If y’all tune in to CBC Saturday night, I’ll be the guy getting his ass kicked by angry Leafs fans.
  • There was also an Amazon.ca coupon which I promptly used against a massive order to clear off my wishlist: Star Trek, Heat, Fight Club, Band of Brothers, Enterprise 2.0 by Andrew McAfee and The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
  • Of course we got lots of little things in our stockings, my favourite being the latest issue of GQ (which Nellie got for me after reading this tweet, because she is simply awesome)
  • We got some shared gifts like some cool art from my brother and his wife, some blown glass coasters (with a backstory) from my mom & dad, and four bottles of delicious Alchemy from Nellie’s mom
  • Best of all, though, were the donations my family made in lieu of gifts, which through some good timing, generosity and a little voodoo were matched 300% and given to the United Way of Greater Toronto.

Right now the turkey’s in the oven, the mess has been carted away, Nellie’s watching the Blu-ray copy of Serenity I gave her, the cats are coming down from their catnip high and we’re sliding into sweet relaxation mode. Tonight there’ll be revelry with friends. Tomorrow we’ll do battle with the deluded sports fans of Toronto. Following that I plan on launching Operation Watch Movies Until Mine Eyes Do Bleed.

Merry Christmas, kids!

Things I learned this weekend

  • Nellie’s vacations are always bittersweet for me. As an introvert I love the alone time, but I always miss her too.
  • Two years after I saw Once for the first time, I watched it again. Still just as amazing. The scene in the music store where he teaches her “Falling Slowly” gave me chills, just like it did the first time.
  • The city of Toronto is holding a design contest for a revamped north building at St. Lawrence Market. Good. I love the farmer’s market on Saturdays, but that building is both hideous and a logistical nightmare.
  • Eighteen pound cats do not enjoy falling into bathtubs full of water. They enjoy it even less when their owner takes too long drying them off because he’s nearly strained a rib muscle from laughing.
  • The Santa Claus parade seems ridiculously out of place when it’s foggy and 14 degrees. Oh, and fucking November.
  • That said, I’m excited that Swiss Chalet has the festive special up and running already.
  • There are few three-word sentences in moviedom as cool as “Gregor fucked us.”
  • If I ever own a house I’m going to make my living room into a replica of Cumbrae’s, complete with butchers and bags — bags, people — of pulled pork.
  • My team was teh suck last night (except for Carey Price) and hasn’t been very good at all this year.

Chemistry

Tonight my beloved Montreal Canadiens will hit the ice for their first exhibition game of the fall. I’ll miss nearly the entire pre-season, as well as their season opener against the Leafs (blurg!) while we’re in France, but I’m intensely curious about how the team will look.

I’ve held off talking about all the off-season changes Bob Gainey’s made as I wanted to see the final product take shape before commenting. This was the most change I’ve seen my Habs, or maybe any team, go through in one summer. After the disastrous 08-09 season, the centennial celebration in which the Canadiens were supposed to contend for the cup, Gainey knew he had to do something. And what he did was blow up his team’s leadership core and start over.

Saku Koivu, the heart of the team and one of the club’s longest-serving captains, wasn’t signed. Likewise Alex Kovalev, their most talented player and assistant captain. Mike Komisarek and Chris Higgins, both of whom have worn the A and have been projected to eventually don the C, are gone. Alex Tanguay, Robert Lang, Mathieu Schneider, Patrice Brisebois, Tom Kostopulous, Mathieu Dandenault, Francis Bouillon…all gone.

Plenty of players came back in return, and on a talent-by-talent basis they’re as good or better as what went out the door. The interesting part of the great reset of 2009 was the fact that Gainey looked at his core of veteran players and decided he simply wasn’t going to win with that group. Loathe as I am to admit it, he was completely right. There’s been something lacking on the Canadiens team for a long time, something intangible…usually teams use words like chemistry or cohesiveness to describe it. Maybe it was heart. Short of Koivu, who would probably run through walls or kill a hobo if that’s what it took to win, there were a lot of guys on the team who would disappear when their backs were against the wall. But even Koivu, with all the heart in the world, often couldn’t get his name into another gear in crunch time. The effort was there but the execution wouldn’t come.

So, Gainey brought in Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta, Jaro Spacek, Hall Gill (!), Travis Moen and Paul Mara to reform the bulk of the team. Whether they can produce the chemistry Gainey’s looking for, or whether the departure of the old guard allows others to finally step up, remains to be seen. There are already early whispers of better chemistry in the room, so we’ll see if that sticks. Interestingly, those comments about chemistry came from Carey Price, upon whom success this season hinges more than anyone. If Price doesn’t bounce back from a bad year, all of Gainey’s machinations may be for naught.

However, the time for introspection is passed. The time for hockey is…uh, tonight. I can’t wait to hear the sweet sounds of blades carving ice and boards being rattled.

Go Habs go.

So it goes.

As I write this Boston is running away with game four against Montreal, and is about to sweep the Canadiens out of the playoffs. This isn’t unexpected — the Bruins finished first in the east, Montreal eighth — but it’s certainly disappointing.

Had Montreal been healthy and played well they might’ve stood a chance against Boston, but they weren’t and they didn’t. Tonight Montreal was missing Andrei Markov — their best defenseman, leading scorer and best player overall — and three more top-seven defensemen: Mathieu Schneider, Francis Buillon and Patrice Brisebois. They were also missing top-line winger Alex Tanguay and #2 center Robert Lang, who’s been out for months. With a roster full of spare-part defensemen and discombobulated lines, they stood no chance. Boston rolled four lines at Montreal who just couldn’t keep up, couldn’t get to loose pucks, couldn’t get the puck out of their own end. Part of this was due to Montreal not consisting of, or playing like, a playoff-worthy lineup of late, but some of it was also due to the kind of systemic breakdown that a good team like Boston can grind you into.

And so Montreal will slip into the postseason with a whimper, and tomorrow the Montreal dailies and sports blogs will cry that this is not how the famed centennial season was supposed to go. A season which started with so much promise and faded so badly in the second half, which hosted an amazing all-star game but saw the coach fired shortly after, which ended with a team virtually unrecognizable from the potent weapon that began the season. I remember watching an exhibition game against Detroit when the Canadiens and Wings looked like sure locks to meet in the Stanley Cup final. How things change.

Let’s go Canucks.