Like you, Spencer Ross is a die-hard Habs fan. Unfortunately, to the Montreal Canadiens organization, he doesn’t exist. When it comes to acknowledging fans beyond the borders of the home province, they have a severe case of myopia. It is both a shame and questionable business practise. Worldwide, more fans speak English yet they are the unacknowledged yet loyal supporters.
Spencer has agreed to share his views on belonging to that ignored group of Canadiens fans, in the first installment of his continuing column “Affairs of the Habs Heart.”
When Rick asked me to board the All Habs “train” as a semi-regular contributor, I attached a few strings to my acceptance. One of those strings was my ability to do so within the time constraints of my schedule (i.e., grad student life is not really a 9-5 job where I can catch all the games and then write). The other was that, despite my current academic training, I am not a stats and figures man when it comes to sports. While there is a relevancy of sports statistics, I prefer to take a big picture, broad-based viewpoint and write accordingly. That is what I will attempt through my subsequent posts.
It’s possible you’ve already read my previous All Habs post, “Musings of a Concerned Habs Fan”, where I already elucidated my point of view and how I became a Habs fan. Therefore, I’m not going to repeat myself in introduction and instead, am going to jump straight into Affairs of the Habs Heart.
The ‘H’ Does Stand for ‘Habs’
SPRINGFIELD, MA — So often in response to decisions taken for political or linguistic reasons, Habs management replies that they are demanded by ‘the fans.’ It refers to a small segment of its fanbase – a fanbase that is large, socioeconomically diverse, and global. A fanbase that is devout to three colours, whether or not the team on the ice is playoff-bound or whether or not the team behind-the-scenes is making the most egregious management errors. A fanbase that watches every game on RDS, CBC, Gamecentre, Centre Ice, etc., regardless of whether or not it works in the C-suite of Bombardier, Bell, Desjardins, Gildan, Saputo, Jean Coutu, etc. And yet, in spite of this, the organization seems to feel compelled to continue making the same mistakes of yore by virtually writing off its non-francophone fans. Officially, the ‘H’ does not stand for ‘Habs;’ it stands for ‘hockey.’ Unofficially, the ‘H’ does – and should – stand for ‘Habs.’ And it would serve management well to take heed of this.
For those who haven’t been acclimated to the Montreal Canadiens vocabulary, ‘Habs’ is short for ‘habitants,’ a Québécois term used to describe the settlers/inhabitants who farmed the land along the St. Lawrence River. These were the workers – the backbone of the province. As the industrial era came along, habitants were no longer just the farmers, but also the factory workers down in places like Saint-Henri, epitomized by books like Gabrielle Roy’s The Tin Flute/Bonheur d’Occasion. The formation of the Montreal Canadiens in 1909 came during this time, enabling the ‘common blue-collar working-man’ to follow sport and idolize heroes.
Through the decades, Montreal Children followed the exploits of Plante, Vézina, Richard, Béliveau, Lafleur, Robinson, Gainey, and so forth; the Montreal Forum was the Temple of Gods – perhaps even more so than the Hockey Hall of Fame. And while the Toronto Maple Leafs became despised political and linguistic rivals to the beloved Tricolore, the Québec Nordiques were the in-province rivals. The 24 Stanley Cups only served to bolster the league’s interest and “storied” reputation of the team.
But something funny happened in 1994 that changed it all: The league went into a lockout, compounding financial woes for the Nordiques and forcing them to move to Denver, Colorado. The NHL, with its usurpation of power by Gary Bettman, would never be the same. A province turned toward the Montreal Canadiens for support but no longer would Montreal Canadiens’ management look at its fans the same way.
When the lockout ended and the abbreviated season continued in 1995, the Canadiens failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 25 years (since 1969-1970). To that end, nearly a third of the roster was gone before the end of the season, including many Cup veterans from the winning 1992-1993 season. The Molson Centre was already under construction. Just after the beginning of the 1995-1996 season set in motion the events that would ultimately lead to The Trade [of Patrick Roy], and the end of the season brought the Canadiens into the new arena.
Blame the Ghosts of the Forum if you will, blame The Trade, blame whatever else you’d like… but let it be known my contempt for the Reign of Gary Bettman, for I believe his shrewd interests for the league wrought the demise of our beloved Glorieux.
Since the lockout, the franchise has never seemed to reclaim its destiny; a series of trades, hires, and perhaps just bad fortune, has stuck its neck in our business as fans. A string of playoff near-misses and dud players never struck gold (or rather, silver) in the Molson Centre. I remember arriving at McGill in the 2000-2001 season and seeing hundreds of empty seats as the losses piled up. Even scalpers couldn’t move their inventory. In this “New NHL,” the team – whose habitant fans put season tickets in their wills – now had corporate seats, luxury boxes… the whole nine-yards… sitting vacant.
The league didn’t care. It didn’t have to; Detroit, New Jersey, Colorado, and Dallas were media darlings in a country that deemed hockey a fourth-rate sport. The rise of José Théodore and the jubilant ovations for Saku Koivu (one of my two fave in-person memories) were irrelevant compared to Martin Brodeur’s shutouts and Steve Yzerman’s goals. Corporate seats and luxury boxes just served to fund Gary Bettman’s “Sunbelt Strategy,” plying the NHL into hockey markets where there were none (Nashville, Columbus, etc).
But guess what? As the Habs started to dribble into the playoffs again, the seats at the Bell Centre filled up. Alongside the increase in attendance, the Canadiens started to benefit from the power of the internet as it drew hockey communities together to not only talk about the sport, but to watch it as well. The story of La Sainte Flanelle spread around the world… but the league didn’t care. And neither did the Canadiens’ management.
Instead, management started to take a myopic view that the only “fans” under consideration – the only fans by “market research” – were the francophone, white-collar, corporate types. The ‘H’ took on new meaning: ‘High Society.’ So long as the Canadiens could make the playoffs (even if it meant marginally hanging on to an eighth- or seventh-place conference finish), white-collar Canadiens “fans” could afford the new pricing schemes concocted by management and the rest would be turned away. It didn’t matter if the team would win another Stanley Cup because support from the regular working-man was a given factor – forget the rest of the world’s fans.
And in that manner, only satisfying the team’s sacrosanct francophone roots would ensure that Montréal would have a monopoly on Les Glorieux. If “we are/nous sommes Canadiens,” then that slogan refers to ALL the fans, not just the ones who are still searching for the elusive local francophone superhero – a.k.a. the next Patrick Roy. (n.b.–If Patrick Roy was the reason a little boy in the Hartford suburbs could eventually grow up to understand the symbolism of the Richard Riots, then management has to recognise that phenomena in sport have no borders.)
So what of the rest of us who follow the Canadiens? What of those in Chile, in France, in the US, in Indonesia? Has Canadiens management forsaken us? What of the heroes we internationals have bonded with in the past several years – the Russian Andrei Markovs, the Czech Tomas Plekanecs, the Francophone Maxim Lapierres, the Canadian Carey Prices (yes, even those who are international fans understand the historical importance of goaltending in Montreal lore). Those of us around the world who call the Canadiens “notre équipe,” we understand – even comprehend – the historical and linguistic ties to the province of Québec. For to be a Canadiens fan, one cannot operate in a cultural vacuum. We come from different backgrounds, but appreciate one thing: the Montreal Canadiens. Are we not all ‘habitants?’
So what is it like to faithfully follow a team that essentially doesn’t acknowledge my existence?
For starters, it is apparent that Gary Bettman has deemed Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin (and to a lesser extent, Jonathan Toews and Mike Richards) as more marketable and more accessible. The league has thrown its weight behind its Sunbelt Strategy, yet I remain a Habs fan now more than ever (and perhaps, also feel entitled to holler and hoot at the near-sighted decisions of Canadiens management, now more than ever). There is something about the history of the team and my connection to it that will ever be intertwined with my life’s story. I suspect this is the case with many of the Habs fans out there, regardless of whether or not management keeps us on the periphery of focus groups when it makes its “fan-demanded” decisions. It is unfortunate they choose to pass over our stories and, as businesspeople, pass over the potential of profit growth and external revenue streams. As the NHL moves to the future (whatever and however cockamamie it may be), Canadiens management has decidedly dragged its stale worldview into the 21st century; ultimately it does so at every fan’s expense.
Yet with the return of the Molsons as team owners, the franchise is at a crossroads of possibilities.
I have opined elsewhere that the history and mythology of the Montreal Canadiens has the ability to make its way into the annals of world sport. Manchester United has seized on globalization to be one of the most loved and most hated teams the world over. Yet their sponsorship deals are through the roof, the real fans still go to games at the Old Trafford, merchandise sells like hotcakes, and globalized superstar talent like Scholes, Rooney, and Owen still propels the team to 18 league titles, four League Cups, and 11 FA Cup wins. Manchester United has leveraged the power of the internet to attract new fans into the team’s narrative (and making it one of the most lucrative franchises currently in sport). From India, Korea, Brasil, and more, the fanbase of Manchester United is more than just British corporate types – it is a globally diverse base of habitants.
There is no reason why the Habs organization should continue to deny itself the potential to expound upon the history of the Montreal Canadiens. It is not up to Gary Bettman to define the boundaries of the team’s potential; it is up to the Molsons, to Pierre Gauthier, to the rest of the Canadiens organization to refine the team’s mission and global reach. In an era of globalisation, Québec doesn’t have a monopoly on the franchise’s potential. Why wouldn’t/shouldn’t they take us seriously? We are ALL habitants now, and the “H” does stand for habitants.
(Feature Photo: Can-West)
Category: Fan Focus