As I watch Michael Ryder prepare to don the black and gold of the Bruins and Sergei Samsonov pull the Hurricane's swirl on over his gear for the coming season, I can't help wondering why Habs fans always seem to need a whipping boy to bear all the abuse that rightly belongs to an entire group in what's supposed to be a team game.
I'm not saying I don't see where those players went wrong, or even that I don't get frustrated with underperformance or lack of team play myself. But the vitriol those players draw is a bit over the top sometimes. I mean, I agree Ryder didn't achieve the numbers we'd come to expect of him, but did he deserve to have fans blame him every time the team lost more than one in a row? Or to be called stupid and lazy because he didn't score much? And I'm the first to admit I didn't like David Aebischer as a Hab, but I wonder how much of the downward spiral he experienced had to do with the tidal wave of hate so many people directed at him. I wonder if he'd been shown more patience whether he'd have been so very awful late in the year two seasons ago.
It's not just idle talk on the part of fans either. Not in Montreal. It starts with a few bad games, or a slow start to the season. Then the fans, on their call-in shows and in blogs and letters to the editor, begin to turn on the player. It grows from there so that in daily sports columns, the player's name is preceded by phrases like "much-maligned" and "embattled." Then the player has to start answering questions about how he's handling the scrutiny and constant criticism. Then, before long, the kiss of death...the booing...begins. As a fan, I think there's nothing lower than booing your own player in his own rink. That's demoralizing to the player in question, but also his teammates, at least some of whom probably like the guy. It's also giving a boost to the opposition, a cardinal sin of fandom in my book. Before long, the player is considered a distraction and he finds himself wearing another team's colours...just ask Patrice Brisebois how that works. Some will say every team's fans have a player they love to berate. But in Montreal it's different. In Montreal the fans have power, if only derived from their relentnessness, to affect that player's very livelihood and place of employment.
It kind of reminds me of primitive societies that sacrificed a tribe member to the gods so they could guarantee a good harvest. I wonder if Habs' fans think sacrificing the player-non-grata of the season buys them favour with the hockey gods? Of course, the bile is a little less poisonous when the team's winning. Ryder got it last year because he wasn't performing, but everyone else (mostly) escaped. Regardless, he paid the price and now he's gone. It makes me wonder who'll be the whipping boy this year. Early indications are that it will be Mathieu Dandenault, if he's still around when training camp opens. Not that Dandenault's ever really done anything wrong, but his abilities have been outstripped by the talent on the team and he won't really contribute much since he's been bypassed on defence and there's a backlog of fourth liners...most of whom are better than him. His fault doesn't matter in any case...the fans just need someone to blame.
If Dandenault's gone, though, the other candidates include Francis Bouillon, who's already trade bait on many fan sites, and whose main fault seems to be the fact that he's not Andrei Markov or Mike Komisarek. Then there's Guillaume Latendresse, who, at 21 years of age is apparently on his "last chance" season among many Canadiens' supporters. If there's one way to guarantee that an underdeveloped talent ends up reaching his potential elsewhere, burning the Habs in the process, it's to make him the whipping boy and drive him out of town.
I hope the team is so good this year and all the players contribute so well that there's no way anyone can be singled out. But I suspect...no, know...that's an unrealistic hope. Someone who's home training his butt off for the coming season right now, thinking of nothing but the potential of a fresh new season, will end the year in the doghouse or even on another team. I understand players come and go. Some fit with the team and some don't. I just wish they didn't have to go the way they do sometimes...with the boos ringing in their ears and the feeling that leaving Montreal was an escape rather than an opportunity.