My last blog post is titled “The Worst Fans in the Hockey: Take 2”. This is the second blog entry I’ve written in the last couple of years bemoaning how splintered, fickle, and irrational Habs fans have become. I felt even more strongly about it after the Habs were unceremoniously beaten by the New York Rangers in the first round of the NHL playoffs. Immediately, the voices of disappointed Habs fans filled the air, and to be honest, I was one of them. I had high hopes for this team, and picked them to beat the Rangers in 5. However, those voices quickly turned to cries, and then…whining?
It doesn’t take an investigative journalist to trace the core unhappiness of Habs fans to the Subban trade. This was exasperated by the Nashville Predators’ run to the Stanley Cup final, and the overwhelming support for P.K. Subban that arose in this city. I was one of those fans who were pulling for Subban and the Predators, but I was also growing increasingly annoyed with those same fans. These Subbanites were using Subban’s success to juxtapose their newfound hatred of the Habs. It didn’t sit well with me, a loyal Montreal Canadiens fans since I had moved to this city as a young child. When the trade occurred I did not hide the fact that I was squarely on the side of Subban in the great Subban vs. Bergevin/Therrien debate. I was somewhat disenchanted and I feared that poor Shea Weber would be left much maligned not due to poor play, but due to the simple fact that he wasn’t P.K. Subban. As the season began, I was once again cheering Les Canadiens, and slowly converted back over to the Habs’ side – especially once Therrien was fired. Let me be clear – I still don’t like the trade overall. Given the speed in the modern NHL a dynamic, puck moving defenseman like Subban, is more vital than a big, tough, hard shooting defenseman like Weber. Throw in all the analytics and the one irrefutable number of 4, as in Subban is 4 years younger than Weber, and there are plenty of reasons not to like the trade.
In the spirit of some perspective (not a strength of many fans in this city) I’ll look back at my favorite player growing up: Patrick Roy. Roy won Vezinas, Conn Smythes, and Stanley Cups in Montreal. He has his number retired by the organization. He is responsible for spawning a whole wave of elite netminders from the province of Quebec. Yet, he was traded, and in a much more dramatic fashion than Subban. I was upset when he was traded; I contemplated cheering for another team. I hated Mario Tremblay and Rejean Houle. I held out hope he’d somehow miraculously be traded back, but in the end I accepted it. While Patrick Roy went on to have an incredibly run with the Colorado Avalanche during the second half of his career, I was left cheering for the hapless and comically mismanaged Montreal Canadiens. Over the next 10-15 years, the Canadiens became the epitome of mediocre, consistently existing on the playoff bubble. As a perennial underdog, they would occasionally upset a top team, but they were never a true threat. The team lacked any stars, and were missing those generational talents to build around (with all due respect to Saku Koivu). Patrick Roy was traded from the Montreal Canadiens and they were worse as a result, and yet they persisted. They built the Bell Center. They increased their brand awareness by honoring their past stars, and created new fans in the process. Eventually they were able to create new stars: Carey Price, P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty. Regardless of your feelings about these 3 players, you cannot deny that they are elite players at their positions…and yet none of these players are Patrick Roy.
Roy was traded, and the team lived through it. Dare I say numerous “fans” of the team now were made during the stumbling, bumbling era of the post Roy Canadiens. They found new heroes like Koivu, Markov, and Theodore, and yet these seem to be the same fans who are ready to abandon ship because P.K. Subban was traded.
That’s what makes it so difficult to read article by Dan Delmar in the Montreal Gazette. He mentions that the Canadiens business seems to be “devaluing fandom” and “Like most, my rift with the Habs did not happen overnight. My disinterest was cultivated over years of mediocre performance and myriad blunders; the latest disappointment being the failure to re-sign reliable 16-year veteran Andrei Markov, so devoted to the franchise that his recent wedding was somewhat Habs-themed.” It needs to be noted that in the last 5 years the Habs have had a cumulative winning percentage of 60.9%, have finished first in their division 3 times, have made 4 playoffs, including a trip to the Eastern conference finals. They have had a Norris trophy winning defenseman, a Vezina and Hart winning goaltender, and one of the top 5 goal scorers in the NHL. I understand the immediate reaction to these facts is, well they still didn’t win the Cup, and that’s fair. Fairness has to go both ways, and not every team wins the Cup, in fact only 4 teams have won the Cup in the last 8 years. Furthermore to describe them as giving “mediocre performances” is a serious disservice to the players who put that crest on before every game and have given fans numerous memories in the last 5 years.
I would have loved to see Andrei Markov go out differently. I wrote about him a few years ago when I justified his 3 year contract that many fans were criticizing at the time. From an emotional standpoint, this one hurt me more than Subban. Markov had always flown under the radar, and if not for some brutal luck with injuries in his prime, he would likely have a built a much stronger case for a place among the Habs’ legends. Alas it wasn’t meant to be, and he was a very good player for 16 seasons with the club. While common sense and Habs fans have seemed to exist in a paradoxical nature since the Subban trade, most fans know Markov will get his day in the limelight if he chooses to have it.
The truth is with the salary cap era, hard decisions have to be made by every GM, and teams exist on a fine line of contender and pretender due to the league’s preference for parity. The fact remains that despite some of the excellent points that Mr. Delmar brings up in his article it all circles back to the the Subban trade.
The Subban trade created an interesting rift amongst the Habs fans, and it extended to the media. It was a massive trade, and right or wrong, any move Bergevin makes will always be framed by this trade. Subban is perhaps the most polarizing hockey player in history. The authenticity of his charity work with the Children’s hospital was never in doubt, but he is hardly the first athlete to donate his time and money for a good cause. Subban is just among the best at promoting it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that; in fact, I wish more athletes did it. It sets a good example, and is a breath of fresh air in a world where the news waves are filled with so much doom and gloom. When it comes to his play on the ice, Subban fell squarely in that Cam Newton, Russell Westbrook camp; ridiculously talented, but a little too flashy and selfish for the old guard. It is NOT how everyone sees him, but you’d be sticking your head in the sand if you denied that a large portion of the hockey world had this view of him. I know what the analytics say about Subban, and I know how the old school rules define him. This clash in philosophies is yet another reason why this trade has created a chasm that runs deep in the Canadiens’ fan community. That chasm carries over as the media, as the perforation of analytics into the hockey mainstream has resulted in younger and fresher takes on the game. The old school media members have remained resistant to the importance of those numbers in the overall analysis of the game.
The Subban trade was the perfect lighting rod. He stoked the fires on every angle. There was simply no way that this trade could not have resulted in a fiery storm of emotions and fall out.
Sports has always been a breeding ground for irrational passion. When you factor the 24/7 access that is literally at the fingertips of most people, there simply isn’t enough room to contain all the opinions and outbursts. I’ve always prided myself on being a rational fan; I appreciate analytics and have tried to incorporate them in how I view the game now. Team sports is more than just about numbers, and while the numbers may be an exact science, relationships are not. A hockey team is made up of many relationships. A player has a relationships with his team; with his line mates; with his coach and GM. He also balances that against his relationship with his agent; his personal trainer; his doctor; and of course, his family. Show me the analytics on how to balance all that. I would love to drop some form of relationship advanced stat on my wife during an argument, but I imagine that it would end with her dropkicking me off the balcony. In the end, the same way that players have to balance all these factors in their lives, I believe fans have to balance their expectations. We want our teams to be balanced – to be on the cutting edge of analytics, and yet respectful of traditions in the room and the relationships fostered there.
I can’t tell fans whether to cheer or not for the Canadiens. I sincerely respect any fan who has decided not to cheer for them any longer; they have their reasons and since everyone can be a fan based on so many many different factors, who am I to say that those factors aren’t important? All I know is that I grew up loving the Montreal Canadiens, and will stick with them through the good times and the bad. I appreciate the current team and players, but also so much more. The history, the legends – the fact that the Canadiens remain a core aspect of what makes Montreal so special. The Delmar article tries to build a picture that millennials don’t have that built-in affinity for teams, and that “life-altering, inspirational connections […] are less common among young fans today”. He may be right, but just three years ago, I sat amongst thousands of fans as the Habs made a run to the conference finals. Just this past season I was amongst a wonderful cross section of people as we collectively lost our minds when Radulov scored an OT goal to win a game 2 vs the Rangers. Back in February, I took my 3 year old son to the an afternoon game that was filled with young parents and their kids. My son was cheering along, waving his flag, and giving me high fives. Although he won’t remember it, I will never forget it. It’s obvious that winning is the best ingredient for building new fans, but it’s not the only ingredient. Since the Subban trade, there have been mixed feelings on the Canadiens long term outlook on winning. But regardless, I feel confident in saying the next generations of Habs fans will be ok.
My son still sleeps with his P.K. Subban Montreal Canadiens stuffy (along with Price, Pacioretty, Elmo, and my personal fave, the Cookie Monster). After the trade, I explained to him that Subban no longer plays for the Canadiens, and that we have a new player named Shea Weber. Months later, as he was getting ready for bed, he looked at me and said: “Daddy, can you buy a Weber stuffy?
I said “Of course! But what about P.K.?”
He said “I still like P.K. but I like Weber too.”
I said: Me too little guy…me too.”
At the end of the day, as fans, we have every right to criticize our team when we don’t agree with the direction, but it shouldn’t come at the expense of the special memories and moments they’ve provided. We will always cheer for our favorite players, and that name across the back of the jersey is so important to building the love for our team. But it should never be bigger than that crest on the front of the jersey. As for this blogger, it’s all about that CH crest, and the Canadiens forever.
Go Habs Go.