I was thinking a lot today about what the Habs have given us, their fans, this season. I know it's something significant and something (hopefully) long-lasting, but also something hard to define. It's not the redemption of an up-and-down season by a great playoff run, although that's definitely something for which to be grateful. It's not the joyful moments either, or the pride we feel in their effort, even if those things are honest and good. I thought a long time about what this gift really is and how to articulate it, and I think it's something deeper.
The best way I can put it is to say they've given us back a culture of respectability. It's not the culture of winning in which the team was once steeped, but it's something as important in its own way.
For too long a part of the last two decades, the Canadiens have been ridiculous. (And I mean that in the original sense of the word; not in the way the cool kids use it.) They've been a bad hockey team with fans who take a great deal of overblown pride in a history most of them have never witnessed. They've been losing on the ice while the team's marketing department pushed the legends and the accomplishments of the past at us, sheepishly brushing the ineffective group currently wearing the CH under the red ceremonial carpet. Worst of all, where once the Canadiens were the envy of other teams' fans in a miserable, grudging way, years of failure brought them down from their Olympus to wallow in the mud like everybody else. Other fans loved the decline, and they laughed at us for supporting a team of losers. Our only response when faced with the truth of their taunts was "Yeah, well, our team still has 24 Stanley Cups." Pitiful, and ridiculous.
That started to change when Bob Gainey returned to Montreal. He arrived with nothing on the farm and little on the NHL roster worth salvaging. When he took over in 2003, the Habs had missed the playoffs four of the previous five years. Gainey's arrival brought an aura of honesty and good sense back to the organization, just because of his own stellar reputation in the hockey world. He slowly turned things around on the ice too, although not dramatically enough to make the team a Cup favourite.
In the last five years, the Habs have been a playoff team in all but one. The conference title two years ago surprised everyone and made people start to think maybe they should take the Habs seriously again. Last year's first-round sweep by the Bruins could have been a setback in the renewed image of competitiveness Gainey was trying to create for the organization, if he'd let the culture that lead to that sweep continue to fester. He didn't, though. He started over with the kinds of players whose characters matched their skills. Whether he lucked into some of the good moves he made or not, he deserves our appreciation for dragging the Habs out of the ranks of the ridiculous.
It's the group of players he pulled together last summer who have really solidified the team's transformation, however. They've been professional, hard-working and deserving of respect all throughout this playoff run. Proving heart can win games even when it's not housed in the bodies of a lot of superstars has given the team back its dignity.
I'm sad the run is over. I really hoped they'd be able to pull it off and meet the Hawks in the finals. But under the sadness is a sense of deep satisfaction that the move toward respectability started by Gainey has been greatly advanced by this playoff run. Respectability may be regarded as a small thing, but I believe it's an essential state to achieve before a team becomes a winner. If a team is respectable, free agent players want to be part of it. If it's respectable, its members can be proud of their effort even in defeat. Fans can smile and say, yes, that's my team. It's in the playoffs every year and the men wearing its sweater leave everything on the ice when it really matters.
This playoff, when viewed as part of an upward trend in on-ice success overall, has made the Habs relevant again. It means the players will have to come back in October and pick up where they've left off this season. For now though, they, and we, can feel no shame. They've done their best to make our team respectable and for that, I thank them.