(OFB note: There is a hockey blogger within the graduate student of 17th century English biography. This we learned with recent outreach from Sara Murphy, a Ph.D. candidate in English up in New York who patronizes our blog, loves the Caps, and recently traveled to Montreal to take in a Caps-Habs game, and share a bit of the experience with us. Welcome her.)
In the service of honesty, I will open two crucial caveats. First, I am a Caps’ fan, but I have lost the fanatic team loyalty of my youth, when I would videotape and rerun Greg Maddux on the mound for the Atlanta Braves during my teenage years or when I convinced myself that the Buffalo Bills lost their fourth Superbowl in part because I unfroze my clenched lotus position during halftime to eat dinner. I follow the Caps, I follow hockey in general, I’ve loved this blog . . . but my fandom is one primarily of player-attachment (I have a great fondness for Ovi) and a general sense of teams or players I like (the Caps, Brooks Laich, the Wings) and teams or players I can’t stand (the Rangers, Matt Cooke, Alex Semin when he seems like he doesn’t care). So, this post resonates more with the lovely meditation on Montréal hockey culture recently posted by pucksandbooks than a close reading of Holtby vs. Varalamov vs. Neuvirth. (Although, I do allege that the Holtby demotion is nonsensical.)
The second caveat? I am a doctoral student in English literature living in Manhattan. Which explains why I’m going to quote William Wordsworth on how to write poetry. (Sorry.) The key, he says, is to write only after a profound experience in order to best capture “emotions recollected from tranquility.” Have the upheaval, be boulversé if we’re going to be bi-lingual, and analyze it later. And that’s what I’m trying my best to do here.
I had the opportunity, through a conference, to score a ticket for the Habs-Caps game on March 26. I was pretty high up in the third tier of Centre Bell, and yet the night was one of the most exciting of my life. Language is always a futile effort at capturing experience, but I shall try to do it justice.
To begin: Centre Bell, simply, is hockey’s Mecca. I could have spent hours documenting each of these: the Canadiens Hall-of-Fame exhibition inside; the courtyard filled with statues dedicated to “Rocket” Richard, et al, and paved with marble slabs celebrating the Canadiens “100 Meilleurs Moments”; and, especially moving, the walls of team photographs dating back to about 1915. In literature, there is a term called a synecdoche, in which a part of something represents the whole thing (i.e., an arm for a whole human being). The Canadiens are the synecdoche of hockey, I think. They embody the sport completely, even as they transcend it, and Centre Bell is their shrine. And, thus, it is hockey’s shrine, too.
The game, frankly, was mediocre. The first Caps goal occurred so quickly — a Habs fan behind me had ironically urged his team seconds before it happened to “wake up, please” — that the rest of the game seemed anti-climatic. The Habs couldn’t pass the puck, and the fact that the Caps averaged a 2:1 ratio of shots on goal indicates something of the atmosphere of futility. The Habs appeared beaten very early on, and they lived down to those expectations.
But, honestly? It didn’t matter. At a shrine, the idols matter less than the faithful who worship them. And the fans were stunning. Perhaps the most interesting — and, I think, most important — observation I made was that, while the lowest and thus most expensive level of seating (the 100s) had a few chairs empty every now and then, the 200s and especially the 300s were utterly full. I can bet that the 400s above me were the same. While I cannot claim to understand Montréal’s demographic by scanning a hockey rink, Centre Bell seemed populated by true rouge-blanc-et-bleu-collar fans. No corporate suites and company tickets here. These fans alternately cheered, cajoled, and finally booed their team with such vigor, even at the bitter end when the Caps’ final goal sealed the deal late in the third. And while those in the 100s flooded out in droves in the final five minutes, no one around me moved an inch until the final five seconds — even the grandmother and parents of the young woman who sold me the ticket. They had come in from New Brunswick and happily informed me that they were, in fact, Penguins fans.
Living in New York, I know something about the pressure fans put on their teams to succeed. The Habs aren’t the Yankees of hockey; the Yankees are a watered-down version of the Habs. The city of Montréal, 1 million plus strong, exists for this team. New Yorkers exist to complain, so even when the Yanks or the Giants lose, there is a certain pleasure in the ability to lay blame and be coolly jaded.
This is purely impossible for Habs fans, I think. And, as I watched their team bumble around on the ice, missing passes right and left and seemingly lacking the confidence to shoot the “%&@# puck!” (to paraphrase my neighbors), I couldn’t help but feel like this team was, well, Hab-less. Pardon the horrible pun, but it fits. With the Canadiens, it’s not a matter of a standard to live up to (La Coupe Stanley). The Canadiens can only be defined as the best team in hockey. Anytime these players fall short, they cease to be Habs. They wear the jerseys, but as with Macbeth, they don’t fill them: “like a giant’s robe/Upon a dwarfish thief.” I cannot surmise how the players withstand this pressure.
I confess: I wanted the Habs to score. (2-1 Caps would have been perfect.) I wanted the experience of the faithful reacting with ecstasy. That would have tipped me over the edge, too, I think. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
A final observation: sometime in the first period, the scoreboard focused on a young boy no more than ten years old. The Canadiens “welcome John W. Leopold,” it read, as he smiled and squirmed with joyful embarrassment. Underneath? “Family Season Ticket Holders Since 1950.” Exactly.