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Pity the Canadiens – they alone carry a country’s hopes

First off you must appreciate – and most of us fail to – how desperately important this mere game is to our dear neighbors to the oft-frigid North.

When the current round of passion plays commonly known as the Stanley Cup playoffs got under way a month ago there was rampant weeping and gnashing of teeth in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, and Ottawa where the lads vested in each burgh’s highest degree of civic trust had once again miserably failed their colors with varying degrees of disgrace. Only in Montreal had the national honor been spared, although widespread was the belief such shaky dispensation was temporary.

Do you even begin to understand how humiliating it is for Canada’s great hockey unwashed to live with the sorrow of it all? Of not having won “The Cup” in 21 years. Of having only one of their teams qualify for the post-season, which hasn’t happened in 41 years. Of having to endure the ugly spectacle of 15 teams based in the widely indifferent US contending for said Cup which had never happened before?  Asked by the New York Times to place it in perspective,  Canadian humorist Ron James quipped, “It’s a hard pill to swallow because the truth is, hockey is encoded in our DNA!”  

In Boston, where presumption about this, among many subjects, comes much too easy, it’s believed our passion for the game is comparable. In other US hockey hotbeds like Detroit, Chicago, Minnesota, and Colorado, they think likewise. But they are wrong. They are all wrong.

For sure you love the Bruins. You ride high on their bandwagon when it’s rolling. You march a million strong when they conquer. But it’s not the same as it could yet be in Montreal this spring, or surely will be in Toronto if ever they win again, or would even be in one-horse frontier towns like Winnipeg (oft pronounced Winnie-pig) if ever they’re blessed with such a moment. It’s not even close.

Sure, you felt bad when your Bruins got ingloriously bounced the other day, especially after they’d cheekily raised your expectations so high with seven months of quite glittering play only to fritter it all away in a single lousy week in May. That was unwise of them, and it stung, eh! But with very few precious exceptions, you got over it in about 48 hours. On to the next sporting cause verifying our manifest destiny! Increasingly in our town we have little time, let alone patience, for losers. 

The Bruins got severely beat up by the media after the loss, which was inaccurately and unfairly termed by the ill-informed as a “major upset,” which it decidedly was not. The hockey scribes, those regulars on the beat who cover the entire season in near infinitesimal detail, got it right, correctly arguing essentially that the series was a toss-up ultimately decided by stray breaks and bounces including curious penalty calls and pucks that clanged off crossbars in the night upon which the ever artful and aggravating Habs, with a slight edge in grit, successfully seized. Simple enough, and quite reasonable! We’re not talking about nuclear physics here. 

It was the big-shots, those alleged pundits including all-knowing columnists who on average attend roughly a half dozen hockey games a year (and only the “most important” tilts), who delivered the heaviest hammering and it got rather personal. Essentially, they argued, if one can summarize their shallow thesis in a single line, that the Bruins lost because they choked on the challenge, lapsed en route in valor and character before surrendering to the moral superiority of the Montreal Canadiens.
What was it one of the more esteemed of them declared – that in the shame of certain players the entire organization had been left with “a black eye.”

Oh, my! It was all, of course, pure tommyrot!

These Bruins need not apologize to anyone. We all share in the disappointment and Lord knows they do. After a splendid season that they perhaps unwisely pushed to the limit they came up short. Mistakes were made. But then every game played in every sport for all time has been decided by mistakes. The Bruins matched up badly against this team, an oddly disconcerting factor in this game that pundits frequently find hard to grasp. Blame can be attributed evenly. In the end, the difference was thinner than the final margin, only a single bloody game out of 94 played season-long.

In my opinion, if the Bruins had won that first game – which they substantially dominated only to be thwarted by quirks and twists that might easily have gone their way, especially in that first agonizing period of overtime when they had the Habs desperately playing rope-a-dope – they’d have won the series handily, perhaps in five games, but in no more than six. The energy Montreal derived from the opener, a sheer gift, actually, was the difference. It was unnerving, perhaps only to be adequately explained by all the other bitter ironies of the historic Boston-Montreal relationship.  

Had the Bruins won Game One, I’d further bet they’d have gone all the way, which is easy enough for me to now say given there’s no way I can be proven wrong. And then we’d have had another grand parade with the pundits, as ever, leading the cheers. Sis, boom, bah! Now, wouldn’t that have been dandy! Galling, is it not? But then hockey is unfair, just like life.

It was an odd series, ending a nice season on a curious note that raises interesting questions management will now enjoy unraveling, although one hopes they don’t act precipitously because this is, or was, a good team, however unlucky. Learned media friends, earlier cited, sniff at such talk, arguing that “luck” has little to with it while suggesting “good manners” are somehow more important. Poppycock! We’re talking about hockey here, not tiddlywinks. Sometimes I wonder what game they’re watching.       

All the fuss made about water bottles and showboating and “respect” and handshake-line etiquette was all just much ado about nonsense. When Shawn Thornton showered P.K. Subban with a water bottle, it was straight out of “Slapshot.” Thornton’s impish grin was priceless. Better still was Subban’s reaction as he asserted it correctly as no big deal. Subban, a terrific young player, grew in this series. He did a lot of showboating, but when Milan Lucic responded with an exaggerated flex of his muscles, the young Habs defenseman responded perfectly. He laughed.

Subban also handled the brief flare-up about racial antagonisms perfectly, correctly branding anonymous racist diatribe the work of fringe lunatics. He went way out of his way to do that as did many Bruins, who also denounced the racist claptrap with impressive sincerity. Give them all good grades on that one.

The topper was the idiotic controversy over the handshake ritual at the end wherein Lucic apparently clipped Montreal’s Dale Weise, who, while playing well, had been a pest guilty of cheap shots with some ragtime. It’s said the Bruins’ roughneck cursed him.

Well “Saints preserve us,” says I.

Please know that the guilty party here is not Lucic but Weise whose pettiness doubtless makes even his teammates blush went he went public about the incident. You should have heard Phil Esposito on a national radio hook-up denouncing Weise for violating the lodge’s fundamental canons and Espo, since they traded him to the Rangers almost 40 years ago, has been no fan of the Bruins. Lucic says he won’t apologize. Good for him, says I.  

Whether you like the result or not, it was a wonderful series, properly so in the fine tradition of a classic relationship.

Vaguely, I think, other disputable factors aside, the result was somehow necessary, mandated by all of Canada’s desperate need to bring home the Cup. Can you appreciate how deeply runs this mad urgency? Did you watch those Wagnerian, neo-pagan ceremonies flushed with sound, fury, and fire launching each of the Bell Center games? It rather looked like the opening act of Lohengrin, rousing yet crazed. 

Scary! This clearly is no longer merely about sport.

You should pity the Canadiens. The responsibility they bear is beyond awesome. Moreover, with their semi-final round against the Rangers starting badly, it may already be just another lost cause. Heretical as it may seem, one wishes them well. The poor buggers!