It would be hard to explain to people just how emotional I have been over the Cinderella story that has been the Montreal Canadiens’ playoff run. It would be harder still for most to understand, knowing that I am not an avid sports fan, and that during the regular season I watched a grand total of two hockey games.
The first component to this is that I have been a lifelong Montreal Canadiens fan. I was taught to love the team as early as I remember loving anything. It was easy to love them as a small child – By my seventh birthday they had won five Stanley Cups. I became a hockey fan in the era of Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe, Bob Gainey, Steve Shutt, Yvan Cornoyer, and a dozen other incredible players who were part of my childhood. Not only did I learn the game sitting on my father’s (and grandfather’s) knee, but I collected and traded and gambled hockey cards with my friends, each of which was as big as fan (or bigger) than I was.
I grew up reading Roch Carrier’s story The Hockey Sweater in French class… although the French name was much more colourful. Une abonible feuille d’érable sur la glace (An abominable maple leaf on the ice) was read at several levels… and we even got to see the National Film Board of Canada animated film (The Sweater) once or twice. Pride in our Montreal Canadiens – Nos Habitants – was drilled into us, as was our hatred of the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins. It was with our mothers’ milk, at home and at school.
The second component is that I am homesick. While I have moved away from Montreal twice (in 1993, and then again in 2006), I still love the city. While it might be unlikely that I will ever move back, I love visiting it. I have so often given friends and family tours of the city, showing them the city I love from my eyes… from the scenery to the history to the food. I share stories with them, some historic, some about my childhood… and that of my father.
The last time I visited Montreal was in October of 2019. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, I have not been able to return to Canada – not to see my children, not to see my friends, and not to gain a couple of pounds from the food. It is now 21 months since I set foot in the city I love, making it the longest draught in my lifetime. I miss the city, I miss the energy, and part of that makes me more emotional, especially knowing that the last time Les Canadiens hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup was precisely thirty-four days before I moved away from Montreal the first time. Silly as it is, I have wondered occasionally if my departure did not affect the team.
The third component is that all of this was done with my father. He and I watched Hockey Night In Canada together every Saturday night. Dad took me to my first hockey games – at least 4-5 games every season, including some amazing playoff games, and a couple of Summit Series games against the Soviets! He taught me the rules; he taught me about the players; he drove me every Saturday and Sunday to play hockey when I was growing up (for my American friends who ask if I ever played, the answer is of course a resounding YES).
Dad taught me about the Forum Ghosts (see video). The spirits who helped our Habs. So often, when something incredible would happen at the end of the game to help eke out a win, it was the ghosts of all of the incredible players who wore the bleu-blanc-rouge, the blue, white, and red colours of the Montreal Canadiens teams past that helped us to victory.
My father and I spoke every day. When we spoke the evening of April 18th he was, as usual, denigrating the team. They did not deserve to make the playoffs, but if they did (unlikely) they would be swept in four games by any team we might face. He then went to sleep… and died. While I did not follow sports or news or anything for the next two weeks, it was around that time that the team turned themselves around.
Our Boys did make it into the playoffs. After falling behind three games to one, they came back and trounced the hated Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games, and then we trounced the Winnipeg Jets in four straight games. There was not an oddsmaker on the planet who picked Montreal to beat the Las Vegas Golden Knights… and yet we did. The sixth game of the series was played in Montreal, on the Fête nationale, in front of a Covid-limited audience of just 3500 fans… with 20,000 fans cheering outside the building. We won that game in overtime.
I have spoken with my father’s widow after every playoffs goal, and before and after every game. We are convinced that my father’s spirit went down to the Montreal Forum – the Canadiens moved from there in 1996 to the now-named Bell Centre – and gave the ghosts a pep talk, and then took them by the hand and marched them from the corner of Ste-Catherine and Lambert Clossé to the corner of St. Antoine and Mountain Streets. Esti, of course, reminds me that with my father’s sense of direction he would have had to ask directions a few times, despite it essentially being a straight line in a part of town that he knew like the back of his hand.
When the Habs came back and beat Toronto, he and the ghosts were there. When they swept Winnipeg, they were there. I’ll bet you it was the ghost of Jacques Plante who followed Marc-André Fleury behind the net in Game Three and caused him to mishandle the puck, leading to the game-tying goal… and a Montreal win in overtime… but my father pointed out the opportunity!
Every Habs goal, every Habs victory, Esti and I remind each other how much Arthur would have loved this amazing and unexpected Cinderella story… from the oldest and most storied franchise in the game of hockey.
I miss my father so much… and my emotions are partially – maybe primarily – because of the incongruence of the emotions of how happy I am with The Canadiens, and how sad I am losing the man who taught me to love the team, and the game.
G-d bless you Dad, wherever you are. Your team needs four more wins to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup for the twenty-fifth time in franchise history. I don’t care what anyone else says… if they do it, it is dedicated to you.