Sunday, December 6, 2009

Hab-py Anniversary Canadiens!

I am a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. Cut me (preferably somewhere on the face, with a sharp hockey stick blade) and I'll bleed blue and white.

It's true that I am also a San Jose Sharks season ticket holder, but that's only because I lived in the Bay Area when they got their franchise, and couldn't resist sending in money when tickets were available. Because the season tickets are not transferable, my name remains on the block of 4 excellent seats (21st row, just inside the blue line) that are shared by a group that presumably still includes some of my buddies. But when I returned to Toronto 15 years ago, my allegiance immediately swung back to the buds.

That said, I was moved to tears by Friday night's 100th anniversary ceremony for the Canadiens in Montreal. That team really knows how to act with class.

The ceremony started with their trainer of many years dumping a couple of buckets of pucks onto the ice. Then players wearing white Hab sweaters started to skate onto the ice for a warm-up. At first I thought it was a little strange that the team would come out to warm up with the game still an hour and a half away after the ceremony. Then I looked closer and saw that this wasn't the current Habs team, it was a collection of their former players, many of them from when I was a kid (and that's a long time ago!). I recognized Steve Shutt, Bob Gainey, Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden (now my MP). Frank Mahovlich, and many others. There was no commentary, no hype, just a bunch of former stars skating around, shooting the puck, and having a great time. It was so simple, and so profound at the same time. The crowd loved it, and so did I.

The rest of the ceremony was more conventional. The skaters and many more were brought back out one by one with an introduction. The last 3 players got more elaborate introductions. Serge Savard introduced Patrick Roy, reveling in his return to Montreal in style. Viggo Mortensen showed mastery of both official languages in introducing Guy Lafleur. [I have a personal memory of Lafleur's greatness. When I was living in Ottawa many years ago, I went to Montreal for a game. Lafleur had taken a penalty, and just as he left the penalty box, he received a pass heading into the offensive zone. The crowd sensed something was going to happen, and you could feel the electricity in the air as he flew in towards the net and scored. It was one of the most exciting things I've ever seen. Lafleur owned that crowd.] Finally Gordie Howe (carrying a #9 sweater representing the great Rocket Richard) introduced Jean Beliveau.

The current Habs team came out to stand with the legends, and then the numbers of the two longest surviving Canadiens players, Elmer Lach, 91, #16 and Emile Bouchard, 90, #3, were retired and banners raised to the rafters. I especially liked the moment when Habs defenseman Ryan O'Byrne, skated over to Bouchard and took off his #3 sweater, revealing his new number 20 underneath.

All in all just a really classy event, similar to when they moved out of the Montreal Forum. That night Bouchard had handed a torch down a line of former Habs captains.

I will always be a Leafs fan, and a part of that means hating the Montreal Canadiens. Friday night reminded me that part of why I hate them is because they have for many years been a classier organization than the Leafs.