Not sure how this will be received, or if it will be at all, but as a life long Bruins’ fan there is a part of me that feels the need to share this reflection with fans of the Montreal Canadiens. In my lifetime, no rivalry has compared with the one the Bruins and the Habs have shared, albeit mostly one-sided for many generations, the healthy animosity between the two organizations breeds respect in addition to the expected animosity.
After all, what team has single handedly inflicted more mortal wounds to the heart of the Bruins, and their fans than the Habs?? Say the names Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Guy LaFleur, Maurice and Henri Richard, Jean Beliveau, Boom-Boom Geoffrion, Bob Gainey, Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, and so on and so forth, and a recognizable knot begins to build in the gut of the die-hard fan of the Spoked-B. First there are the banners, the ever present reminder of which Original 6 franchise is the big brother who seems to celebrate every historic occasion on a night where the little brother bear comes to town. As has been said, familiarity breeds
contempt, and no two organizations have faced each other more than the Bruins and Habs in the post-season.
There is the legendary heartbreak, 18 straight post season defeats for the B’s at the hands of the Habs beginning in 1946, and ending in 1988. In the mix the dreaded “too many men” penalty in 1979, seemingly sending the Bruins into the abyss of playoff relevancy, leaving many B’s fans to bemoan their team’s only chance to advance was to avoid the Habs altogether. The Bruins were an organization in complete disarray through the mid 90’s until their climb back to respectability in the last five years.
How do Bruins’ fans measure that rise — by their performance against their most hated rival. In 2008, the No. 8 seeded Bruins backed into the playoffs, but with their rebuilding of a proud organization underway, there was no better way to test the resolve of the team, and fans than with a first round match-up against the Habs. After falling behind 3-1 in the series, the Bruins rebounded to force a seventh game before bowing out to the superior team. However, for Bruins’ fans it was a foothold, one that arguably was a reflection of not only how far the Bruins had come, but how much further they needed to travel.
The ensuing post-seasons were steps in a direction of growth for the Bruins, and last season the teams seemed to be on a collision course for a historic Eastern Conference Final match-up, until the Bruins failed to close the deal, and the Habs who had bounced both the Penguins and Capitals simply ran out of magic against the Flyers. It seemed improbably that the hockey gods would have robbed fans of such a dramatic series, but as agonizing as the loss to the Flyers was, perhaps it was salvation for Bruins’ fans not to suffer that fate at the hands of the Habs.
So yes, both sides of the rivalry know all too well the tendency for the fans of big brother to kick sand in the face of little brother’s fans; which to no one’s surprise leads little brother’s fans to fits and tantrums. The animosity and tension of this season and post season rivaled any I have experienced in my 40 plus years as a fan of the Bruins. Perhaps it was fueled by the media’s pot stirring techniques, perhaps the social media boom and the positives and negatives of hearing from fans with and without blinders, perhaps it was because for the first time in nearly two decades the teams were on more equal footing and both eager to square off for bragging rights.
The two teams are as opposite as they have always been, with the Habs built on the principles of speed and finesse and the Bruins built on their cornerstones of power and punishing physical play. Both teams feature two of the leagues top netminders, capable of stealing games, sharp shooting snipers, both teams have feisty rookie agitators who get under the skin of players and fans alike and then dazzle with their skill while you are cursing their existence. Both teams play a smothering defensive system, which does not always sit well with their respective fan bases, but all of this led to one of the most compelling first round match-ups of the
It should come as no surprise to even the most casual Habs fan that the first-round match-up between the Bruins and the Habs brought a level of angst to Bruins’ fans not experienced for some 30 years or more. Not just because the teams were so tightly matched, or any of the regular season meetings, but because the fragile psyche of Bruins fans was still reeling at slightest mention of the colossal collapse of the B’s a year ago. It would simply be too much to take for even the most ardent Bruins’ fan to bow out in the first round to the Habs’ and after dropping the first two games, in Boston, the all to familiar twinge was felt in the hearts of Bruins’ fans.
If the B’s were ever going to return to an organization worthy of this heated rivalry, they would need to bow their backs and prove it now. While it is an absolute given that the Bruins will never earn an iota of respect from their neighbors to the north, it more than serves to repeat, this B’s team needed to demonstrate to their own fans that when faced with a challenge they were worthy of the fans’ deep respect and admiration. While I have a long and deep hatred for the Habs (and even more for some of their fans) I learned a long time ago that you are a fool if you can not recognize that the rich tradition and heated rivalry between these teams has only served to make each other better.
There are plenty of things to respect about the evil Habs, and I have often said there are things about them that simply make me cringe, but I can not think of a team better suited to serve as a measuring stick for my beloved B’s present and future potential for success. For the Habs fans who can not take off their blinders long enough to see any of the same may be true on the other side of the equation, I can only say that you are missing one of the best things about this rivalry. I knew before this post-season began if the Bruins were to have any hope at redemption and doing something special, the road would need to go through Montreal!
Winning the Stanley Cup means you have to beat the best to be called the best, and in my lifetime and long before me, that has always meant the Habs. I am sure the same is not true for Canadiens’ fans, but I do know that the most knowledgeable Habs fans I have encountered can at least begrudgingly recognize that the Bruins are maybe their most favorite villains (if not patsy) and when their Habs win their next Cup they want to plunge the same sword deep into our heart. It’s the way it should be for these two great Original 6 teams.
So when the Bruins righted the ship (and for those wearing a tin foil hat if you are still reading please spare me the Gregory Campbell favored son BS and stop reading now) and managed to salvage the first step along the road to redemption with a dramatic game 7 win it really was one of those moments that will define a generation for Bruins’ fans, young and old. It will never heal the wound of too many men, or exorcize million other ghosts from the days of Orr, but it was “their” moment. It was The Moment that signaled the rebirth of a rivalry for another generation of fans and players in the most storied of rivalries. Even as the Bruins lifted the Cup in Vancouver, I could hear the skates of Habs players being sharpened in anticipation of the next battle.
Yes, it took 39 years for the Bruins to return to a position of respect in the NHL, and to be worthy of the position of most hated rival in Montreal. It should come as no surprise to anyone who loves their hockey that these two proud organizations are poised to do battle for the next decade, and it seems their rivalry has always served to fuel not only the passion of their respected fans bases, but of the game itself. When the NHL was at its best in the late 60’s through late 70’s, it was the Bruins and Canadiens that defined it, and the league is poised to ride that wave again.
Yes Habs fans, you hate us, and that hate fueled our organization to rebuild, retool, and return to do battle with you. So a note of thanks, I honestly believe that especially in this postseason your Habs not only prepared us to defeat the Lightning, but also to vanquish the Canucks. Yes, the Habs in no small way contributed to the Bruins lifting the Cup, a fact that I am sure you abhor to admit. Your team is at the same time an admirable and hated rival, and I am proud that my Bruins team can finally say they are worthy of your loathing.
Here’s to the next chapter in the Bruins/Habs rivalry…does it get any better than this??