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

Say it ain't so, Joe

Last Wednesday I flew to Atlanta for a conference. I sailed through customs and security at Pearson and thought I was en route to the most effortless flight of all time, but then the Air Canada workers strike bit back…the ground crew forgot to file some paperwork to get us across the border, so we sat on the tarmac for an extra half an hour. That delay allowed a huge thunderstorm to roll into Atlanta ahead of us, and that storm shut down the airport, so we circled for almost an hour. By the time we got on the ground we were two hours late. It then took me (I’m not kidding here) twenty minutes to get out of the airport; no one warned me that the terminal is so long you have to take a train from one end to the other. Anyway. I checked in to the Westin Peachtree (avoid if you’re in Atlanta — it has great views, but is old and shabby once you get past the lobby), headed to the bar and watched the end of the seventh game of the Stanley Cup finals. I never actually left the hotel for the next 24 hours, heading straight to the airport for my return flight…pity, I’d found a few decent-looking beer places in the city and was hoping to try one or two of them on for size.

.:.

Back to that game 7 for a minute. In the official order of my preference for who wins the cup, it goes Montreal first (obviously), then any of 26 other teams, then Philly, then Boston, then Toronto. So it really does pain me to say that Boston deserved to win the series. They played like the better hockey team, even if they weren’t. It also pains me that the likes of Zdeno Chara and Brad Marchand get to hold a cup, but that pain is somewhat offset by my happiness for Tim Thomas winning his first cup, and for Mark Recchi ending his career with yet another championship. As I watched the final game end and the Bruins start to celebrate, I thought that what would sting the most was that Montreal came so damnably close to knocking the Bruins out in the first round — losing only in overtime of game seven. But, of course, what would sting the most the next morning was the insanity of the rioting in downtown Vancouver, an embarrassment felt by the whole country. Surely, with Canadian teams having lost in the finals five straight times since 1994, you’d think we would be used to it now.

.:.

After the traveling and frantic catch-up at work, I was hoping for a quiet weekend of doing as little as possible. That almost happened. Friday we just had a simple dinner out and drank some wine. Saturday we did some errands and generally enjoyed the gorgeous weather and then I actually had a nap. Seriously, a nap. I never have naps. I usually can’t sleep during the day no matter how hard I try. But yesterday, since I was on twelve hours sleep over the previous three nights, I curled up on the bed and went to sleep for a couple of hours. Until an emergency came up.

We found out Smokeless Joe, one of our favourite beer joints, would be closing in two weeks. And that night was the last time our friend Kaylea would be working there.

A dire situation indeed.

We sprung into action, throwing some food down our necks and arriving to find two plum spots waiting for us at the bar. We got the scoop, and sat down with the intention of having three each. Which, of course, ended up being five each. Or possibly six, if you count the vanilla ice cream and Nickel Brook Green Apple Pilsner float that Steph made for me. We drank and laughed and listened to blues and were especially happy to see Colin and Eddie, our favourite bartenders before Kaylea began working there, show up later in the evening. We said (and hugged) our goodbyes, not knowing if or when we’d see them all again, and left the place that’s been one of Toronto’s best beer bars and our unofficial living room for the past…I don’t know, eight years?

Hopefully it’ll come back in some incarnation, but it’ll just never be the same.

Steph, Kaylea, Eddie and Colin

Burnsy

I’m fortunate to cheer for a hockey team which has won six Stanley Cups during my lifetime. That’s right, Leafs fans under the age of 43: six. Suck it. Anyway, I’m too young to remember much about the first four of those Canadiens cup wins (in consecutive years from 76 to 79) except that it was during those years that I decided Montreal was my favourite team, much to my father’s chagrin. I only vaguely recall the arrival of St. Patrick (Roy) to win the cup in 1986, as I didn’t really start paying attention to hockey until I was fourteen. It was 1989, and Montreal had made the cup finals again in Pat Burns‘ first year behind the bench.

The Canadiens lost to Calgary that year, but it set a precedent for Burns: he had a habit of making a big impact in his first year with each team he coached. He won the Jack Adams trophy that year as best coach in the NHL. Making the traitorous move to Toronto in 1992, he led an underdog team of Maple Leafs to game 7 of the conference finals, before Wayne Gretzky eventually shot Doug Gilmour in the neck, peed on his corpse and threw the puck into the Toronto net with his bare hands. Or at least that’s how Leafs fans describe it. Nonetheless, Burns won the Jack Adams again for his role in turning Toronto into a contender. He would eventually be fired, but won a third Jack Adams trophy in his first year coaching the Boston Bruins. In 2003 he led the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup, his first and only cup win. A few years later he would step down because of the cancer that would eventually spell the end of him. Pat Burns died last Friday.

It was a fitting coincidence, then, that Montreal and Toronto were to face each other the following evening. Montreal — as is their custom — held a touching and tasteful ceremony of remembrance before the game. It is well the game was not set for Toronto; I shudder to think how that tribute might have gone. The Canadiens then went out and stomped all over the Leafs, winning 2-0 for Carey Price’s third shutout in six games. Price looked, as he has all season, calm and focused and confident. After the game Price revealed to reporters that his inspired play of late may have had something to do with the very man the fans celebrated last night.

“He was a special person and he did a lot of great things in this league for both teams,” Price said of the 58-year-old who had success as coach in Montreal, Toronto, Boston and New Jersey before his illness drove him to step down in 2004.

“He left me a message before the season started and I was really touched. He gave it to (assistant coach) Kirk Muller and he passed it on to me.”

Asked what Burns said, Price just said: “That will always be here with me.”

Thanks Burnsy.

Father's day

As you might remember, the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup ten days ago. This made me happy for several reasons, but it made gave Nellie an extra reason to celebrate. Her dad was a Blackhawks fan all his life, right up until his death twelve years ago.

After he died she always said that if the Hawks won the cup, she’d take the picture from the newspaper, frame it and have it placed on his grave.

And so:

Enjoy it, sir.

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.