I smelled hockey this morning. It was an overcast, late-summer day with no sign yet of the leaves turning or the spiders dying. But I looked out my kitchen window and saw my health-fanatic neighbour returning from a run, dressed in his cool-weather getup. I cracked the window and smelled it. No doubt about it: hockey's finally in the air. It's in the hint of frost, the coolness, the sense of crisp renewal after the sultry blanket of summer. It's there too in the visible joy of the kids across the street who've broken out the hockey net and relegated the basketball hoop and soccer ball to the backyard shed. Their shouts and the clatter and scrape of sticks on asphalt proclaim "hockey's back!" I cranked the window wide and let hockey in.
And it seems I'm not the only one. I was reading the early accounts of the Habs' official return to the rink, and I'm encouraged. The players seem happy to be back and anxious to get started. I remember last season, the all-absorbing turmoil of the Sundin Saga and Bob Gainey's subsequent acquisitions of Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang. I remember the signing of Laraque and how excited a large part of Habsdom was to believe "our guys won't get pushed around now." But last year, most of the excitement was coming from the fans. The players themselves seemed much more circumspect, with the weight of a hundred years of expectation on their shoulders. They were the guests of honour at a Centennial party they never really asked to attend. And being the superstitious bunch hockey players are, they seemed reluctant to buy into any of the hype around early-season predictions of their superiority, based on the conference title of the year before. Their comments were weighted with caution and reluctance, as though they were just waiting for something to go wrong in the face of all the hype.
In the end, everything that could have gone wrong did and the unhappiness of the players became palpable. The result on the ice was the complete absence of fun. The team on paper was better, but last year's team would never have pulled off the unifying 5-0 comeback it did against the Rangers two seasons ago. They looked miserable and the on-ice product reflected that.
You know what's funny? I was at the Habs/Phoenix game last year in which Kurt Sauer nailed Andrei Kostitsyn and concussed him. Sergei Kostitsyn attempted to go after Sauer, but nobody else on the team, save Laraque who was sent out afterwards by Carbonneau on a mission of revenge, took umbrage at such treatment of a teammate. I didn't think much of that at the time. After all, it was Laraque's job to stick up for his teammate and he did attempt to do so. But then, later in the year, Josh Gorges got slammed in the head by Denis Gauthier and nobody went to his aid. He staggered to his feet while play carried on around him and Gauthier skated to the penalty box unimpeded by anyone in a red sweater. There was a lot of talk at the time about how that incident underlined deep fractures in the cameraderie of last year's team. I didn't buy it then, but now I think those who made that argument last year were right.
Now some hints of the feeling in the room last year are starting to leak out. Josh Gorges said it yesterday, when he faced the media following medicals and physical testing:
``The excitement is there, guys sitting before practice, chatting and laughing. It's like these guys have been here two or three years already. There's a buzz in the dressing room I didn't feel so much last year. You can just sense it in the room.''
Guillaume Latendresse gave a hint of what he felt last year:
"We had some older veterans with old mentality a little bit and I think the new guys will bring in more of the NHL and they're more the new style of hockey. It's going to be good for the young players to play with the kind of guys who are good and good as a team too."
Saku Koivu said it too, from his first day of training camp in Anaheim:
"It is different, there's no doubt," he said, smiling. "Like today here it felt good. You can just be among your teammates and have fun and practice hard but it's more of a tighter feeling than it was in Montreal."
So it seems the players are admitting last year's team wasn't all that close. Maybe it was the crushing weight of the Centennial. Maybe it was something else running deeply under the team's surface. Whatever it was, the universal sentiment appears to be that it's a good thing Gainey purged the dressing room and everyone gets a new start; from the remaining players and those who are starting over elsewhere. I think it may take a little while for the positive feeling in the room now to manifest itself on the ice. But I think it can't hurt to have a bunch of players who are as yet unjaded by the expectation and cynicism in Montreal.
They have a chance to become a team without a history of disappointment around it. If they can enjoy each other's company off the ice and appreciate each other's skills on it, they'll have fun. And that, in the careful words of the players themselves, was the X-factor missing from last year's Habs. It showed in their faces and their body language. It showed in the results on the ice and the trouble off it. And it showed in the Purge Gainey executed this summer.
When I watch hockey, I want to see a team having fun. I want to see speed, excitement and teamwork. I want to see players smiling on the bench and working hard toward a common goal. I didn't see a whole lot of that last year, but as I open the window and let hockey back in for another season, I have hope maybe the fun will come back to the Canadiens. And if players are having fun, they're winning, and that means the fans are having fun too. That's all we really want.