Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Bio of a Serious Fan

I have, and always will be a Montrealer.

I'm 25 years old, I was born and I grew up in Montreal almost my entire life except for the ages of 1-4 in Winnipeg and 1/2 a year in Sarnia, Ontario working for Canadian National Railway. I've completed high school, nearly finished off CEGEP but left because of personal issues, I spent several months working as a Railway Conductor with Canadian National Railway, but was let go because I couldn't keep up with the demands and safety requirements of the job. I am currently planning to attend Mohawk College in Brantford, Ontario to study Law and Security Administration.

I was never the most passionate hockey fan and was a bit of late bloomer really. I was always a Habs supporter but I never really sat down to really watch the game enough aside from playoff series until the 2008 playoffs when Montreal, after having captured their division title in 15 years and their first conference title in 20 years Montreal went to face the Boston Bruins. I truly fell in love with the game of hockey then, the speed of the game, the focus the goalies presented in the face of being bombarded by the opposing players, the last-second dekes and top-shelf goals that made you jump out of your seat and scream "HELL YES!". The tempo of the game is the most exciting sport I've ever seen by far.

After a disheartening second-round exit to the Broad Street Bullies, I got RDS (something I'd never had before) for the coming season and watched over 70 Habs games the next season and went through the heartbreak as their 99th season fell into disaster, crippled by injury and a team that lacked unity. I do still have fond memories of that season regardless. When the season started, the early magic of Koivu, Tanguay and Markov was a pleasure to watch, slick crease passes and one-timers that sealed the deal very often at the start of the season. Tomas Plekanec and Alex Kovalev each getting two goals in the 3rd period to beat the New York Islanders 5-4 which I saw on Canadiens Express when I got home as I had been at work. Matt D'Agostini getting called up and going on a goal-scoring streak as he played alongside Saku Koivu, who set the kid for several quick goals that confounded the team's opponents about who the heck this D'Agostini kid was. Alex Kovalev getting the All-Star MVP award, Robert Lang spurring the Kostitsyns to play some of their most inspired hockey and his getting a hat trick against the New York Rangers. The Chris Higgins goal against the LA Kings where he manhandled a player off of him to score the goal that inspired the team to win the game. The Kovalev/Tanguay/Koivu line that finally found chemistry in the dying weeks of the season that ruthlessly terrorized several teams and got Montreal just enough points to make the 8th spot in the playoffs.

I also grew an affinity for the Washington Capitals and the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2008-2009 season when I saw them play. The Capitals boast the most entertaining player in the NHL in Alex Ovechkin, the impossibly good young centre Nicklas Backstrom who beat the sophomore jinx, the second-best sniper in the NHL named Alex in Alexander Semin and the prodigious scoring prowess of Mike Green on the back end. The Blackhawks I find embrace many of the great traditions of the Montreal Canadiens, an absurdly fast offence that confuses and confounds an opposing team with how to counter it and then it's tempered with a very smart, coordinated defence that keeps the team dominant in almost every game they play. Jonathan Toews is the 21-year old captain of this team and he is a great leader, I watched him lead a group of kids to knock Canada out of the Western Conference playoffs in the first and second rounds.

Coming into the 2009-2010 season, I was as curious as anyone to what shape this team would take. I was prepared to see either Alex Kovalev or Saku Koivu depart along with others and I was ready to go Adios Amigo to Mike Komisarek, who had been an utter waste of space since Lucic beat him up and skated away with half his brain and both of his testicles. I expected Alex Tanguay to resign and the feisty Tom Kostopolous to return, I felt Chris Higgins had improved towards the end of the season playing alongside Glen Metropolit on the penalty kill and with off-season training and therapy, he could get his shoulder and shot back to where he could score 25 goals per season. Kovalev I respected for his superb stickhandling skills, but his enigmatic performances were becoming too distasteful for me to endure, if he responded to staying on while Koivu left and became the captain, I suspected he might get better with the spotlight on him, but at the same time I was more of a Koivu fan and untrusting that Kovalev would respond well enough to repeat anything like his 07-08 84-point campaign. Saku Koivu has always been one of my favourite Canadiens players, he has battled through cancer, constant destruction of everything below his waist and an eye injury but he kept playing. He didn't have the stickhandling of Kovalev or his shot, but he was a clutch player and reliable every night in the ice. Koivu feared no man, he stood up to Zdeno F***ing Chara who only stood about a foot taller than he did on more than one occasion. Although sadly, one could watch Koivu in the past several years and see him slowing down, those third periods more taxing than ever, the end of the season a grind on his aging, injury-plagued body, you couldn't kill his spirit but he was slowing down too much for a team that lived and died on firewagon hockey. I was prepared a bit to see him go but I salute him eternally for his selfless service to the team and his great work of charity to the Montreal community as a whole.

I sympathized with Robert Lang for his slashed achilles tendon and loved his 39 points in 50 games and what he did with the Kostitsyns, but a 38-year old with a tendon injury I felt was a bad gamble for Gainey to take. Mathieu Dandenault was a handy utility man, but if reports of his dissatisfaction were true, it wasn't a huge loss and he wasn't the biggest or fastest D-man on the team by a long shot. Francis Bouillon was on the good-riddance list, an angry little man with a big heart but he thought with his gut more than his head. Franky could never effectively clear the crease it seemed and on more than on occasion, I would see it coming, he would cross-check someone in the crease and his little push would help the guy he was shoving put the puck in the net, the resigned slump of Price's or Halak's shoulders was painful to watch. His passing play in the defensive zone irritated me as well, having perfected the pass that had frustrated both my father and I for years watching the Canadiens, the no-look behind the net pass that so often became a scoring chance for the other team. Mathieu Schneider, again a guy I loved for helping with what he could, but at 39 years old and a shoulder injury, I wasn't sure about him being able to help into next season and considered him a gamble more than an asset.

I was ready to pull out my hair when the Gomez trade occurred and was shocked when both Kovalev and Koivu were let go in the free agency. I thought Bob had lost it when he moved Mcdonagh and Higgins in the move that delivered one of the fattest contracts in the NHL on to Montreal's payroll. I was dubious about Cammalleri, curious if he could really have success away from Power Forward Iginla who had helped him hit his 39-goal career high last season. Gionta seemed a bit of a risk, but his past history with Gomez had me convinced in a team that was based around speed that Gionta could excel. The Spacek signing was welcome as it addressed the need for more depth in the puck-moving defencemen part of the Canadiens roster, Mara and Gill were nice bulk upgrades to a Canadiens blueline that had been lacking a certain amount of size. Moen I was pleased, he seemed an upgrade on the ever hard-working but less than gifted in the stick and fists department Tom The Bomb.

I remember at this point, the knives had come out and the malcontents were in full force. Gainey was out of touch, Gainey was destroying the team, Mcdonagh was going to be the next Paul Coffey and we gave him up, the smurf lines would be annihilated by the Truculent Maple Leafs and Broad Street Bullies. Jacques Martin had the job because he could speak French, Pierre Mcguire should be the GM (now that was a good laugher, until I realized some were serious on that). I had patience, Gainey had exchanged our forwards for faster ones in the prime of their careers rather than players with injury troubles and were more in the twilight of their NHL careers than their peaks. I was confident Carey Price could rebound and get back to his old form, I knew any blue line that featured Andrei Markov was not doomed to failure.

I harboured no fear that Brian Bigmouth Burke's Maple Leafs would finish ahead of Montreal in the standings, for all his bluster, he had taken on Mike Komisarek at about twice what he was worth for a player who at best, would have 10-point seasons and had regressed terribly in his final season with the Habs. Beauchemain concerned me but again, he was like Komisarek, and he played alongside elite defencemen who made him look better than he was. Exelby was a goon, so was Colton Orr, Toronto had given up two first-round draft picks and a 2nd-rounder for Phil Kessel, a well-known locker room troublemaker and from my perspective, he just had that look of that jerk in high school you wanted to beat the crap out of. Fine, Toronto had a Top 6 forward, they still needed five more and I was not in brown trousers mode for a Swedish goalie who had yet to suit up for a single NHL game and was being anointed the next Sawchuk based on 3 periods worth of pre-season play.

Jacques Martin, I didn't know if he was the right man for the job, but I was very hopeful when I read he had a good reputation for working with the younger players. I believed that players like the Kostitsyn Brothers, Gui Latendresse, Max Lapierre, Matt D'Agostini, Max Pacioretty, Ryan O'Byrne and Josh Gorges could all benefit from that.

I went into the season with some expectations and a good deal of hope that Gainey had built a team that could compete, to date I have generally been pleased with how the team came together, even through all the injury trouble, there are signs of hope as the team has battled adversity admirably.

I will post my after-thoughts on each game the Canadiens play, granted I see it of course and on various hockey stories as they come about if I think there is actually something worth saying, I will speak as Bob Gainey speaks, when there is something worth saying, not as Brian Burke, which is to speak into every microphone and TV camera I see, because only by seeing myself on TV do my religious beliefs confirm that I exist.

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