Saturday, June 19, 2010

Class Dismissed

From my blue plastic seat, closer to the better-than-real-life action on the massive screen hanging from the Bell Centre's rafters than to the real-life game on the blue-tinted ice far below, I can see him. From here, he's a dressmaker's pin; silver-suited and white-tipped, straight and sharp. I know it's him because he sits in the third row behind the bench, and he's as consistent as a heartbeat. I think about making an intermission pilgrimage to spend a moment in his presence, just so I can say I was this close to greatness. As the thought crosses my mind, the big screen intercepts it and there he is: Jean Beliveau in glorious HD, nodding graciously in acknowledgement of the warm applause that swells to fill the building. I see other pilgrims climbing the steps to pay homage, scraps of paper ready to collect his carefully-drawn signature. He patiently signs them all, and shakes every extended hand. What a nice man, I think. Even after all this time he's still committed to these people who stand in awe of him. That's class.

I think about that. "Class" is a term so easily overused, its meaning is just as easily lost. Very often, it's what we say when a rich man who plays a boy's game for a living shows basic human kindness to another. Or when a man who plays that game better than any of us ever could shares some of the spoils he earns. I wonder why an athlete who donates to charity is "classy," while a retired teacher who does the same thing is unremarkable? Why, when my dad stops to help a stranded woman change her flat tire, nobody knows about it, but when the Capitals' Brooks Laich does it, it makes headlines all over North America? Maybe it's because these guys play the game so much better than we can, we treat them with a godlike deference. When they lower themselves to be just like the rest of us and do something good or kind, we're grateful and they're "classy."

Class is more than that, though. It's something tougher to label than a simple act of decency or generosity. Class isn't just making the grand gesture. It's doing the little things, and even more important, thinking to do them. A nice man visits the hospital and distributes team memorabilia on schedule. A classy one remembers a child's name afterwards, and mentions it when he's interviewed on Hockey Night In Canada.

The Canadiens have always been labelled a "classy" organization because they've done the little things right. When a star player retired before his contract ran out, the Habs would pay him his remaining salary anyway. When a guy like Steve Shutt wasn't playing well anymore, the Habs let him choose the team to which he'd be traded. Then, when he wanted to retire a Hab two years later, they traded for his rights. When other teams forgot their alumni, the Canadiens honoured theirs. When a guy like Doug Harvey was down on his luck, the Habs offered him a job. Of course, they haven't always done the classy thing, but they've done it often enough that they became known for it.

As time has passed, though, the Canadiens have become more like everybody else. It's obvious in the arena. The sound system, big screen and gimmicks that fill every lull in play are no different from those in any other NHL rink. There's no soul in the Bell Centre because it's no longer the home of a hockey dynasty. It's the storefront of a business operation, and when business is of the greatest importance, class is the first thing to go.

Once, they might have offered Saku Koivu another role within the organization rather than just unceremoniously cut him loose. They would have said their captain at least deserved a choice about whether to stay, even if it wasn't on the ice. When a player like Hal Gill missed the team flight with an injury during a gruelling playoff, the Canadiens could have paid for private transportation for him, instead of forcing him to take an all-day commercial flight on a small plane while he bore a leg full of stitches. When a team icon like Larry Robinson called about a job, the classy Canadiens would have made it a priority to show him some courtesy and phone him back.

The Canadiens want to be the team they used to be. Management wants to be seen as extraordinary, but they can't do it while they're acting in a very ordinary way. If "class" is doing the little things right and treating people with respect, the Canadiens aren't very classy anymore.

Jean Beliveau is the last link to that world in which the Canadiens were the class of the NHL. He's a classy man because he always makes an extra effort to show respect and kindness, even when he doesn't feel like it. He thinks about other people. Watching him graciously shake hands with fans around him at the Bell Centre, I can see it. He is the Canadiens, as they used to be. When he no longer sits three rows behind the bench, nobody will remember the Habs were once synonymous with "class." I feel sad.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. You express beautifully my thoughts and emotions concerning the Habs. I can understand Boivin being a douche but Gainey's apparent lack of class with Koivu and Carbonneau surprised me.

Anonymous said...

Thank you J.T. for expressing with such eloquence exactly what has been lost for much too long. CLASS Something that was never questioned when considering the Montreal Canadiens. I have brought it up many times in the last few years and have been saddened by the pure profit mentality of the Boivan regime. When the great Beliveau leaves his mortal coil the final link to the past glories and what it once meant to be a Montreal Canadien and all it stood for will be lost. I had high hopes that a renewal of the Molson ownership would signal a return to the core values but it was a fool's dream. The treatment of Saku was simply uncalled for and the cavalier attitude towards Larry Robinson just the final straw.

Robert L said...

"When a guy like Doug Harvey was down on his luck, the Habs offered him a job."

Is it forgotten that the Canadiens dumped Harvey after years of great service, while he was team captain, shortly after he attempted to form a player's union?

Class, from what I can tell by this article, is strictly a fan perception. Making great leaps and assumptions for what goes on between the team and its players, without the benefit of the other sides of the story, is not right.

J.T. said...

Robert, I said the Canadiens haven't always done the classy thing. They have merely done it more often than not.

It's not a fan perception to know that Boivin ignored Larry Robinson's phone calls, or that the team made Hal Gill travel for hours while injured during the playoffs. Those aren't great leaps or assumptions. They're facts. Just as it's a fact that Guy Carbonneau says he was never told why he was fired. Those facts are also what I mean when I say it's the little things that determine class.

Anonymous said...

J.T. don't ever stop blogging. You're worth the price of a connection alone. Now take a moment to slide back through what you wrote. Check the timelines, the probable cause and effect for the examples.

Could it likely be that Big Jean was the class? That the Canadiens hung their star on him? That his quiet and sage advice has long been the only grace that the organization reflects. Were the Habs ever know as the 'classy' team without Beliveau?

Now Larry shouldn't have talked out of school, but maybe as a Montreal Canadien (something Boivin, Gauthier, Martin, et al, will never be)Larry thought he had a right to, and possibly a need (a la Guy) to speak his mind. Shabby treatment? You bet. One side of the story? Yup. Then again if we never hear the other side I'd put my money on 19. Thinking about it I don't need the other side. Like he says, Lamoriello's word is his bond, and Larry's is good enough for me.

There was a time when such things held for another team as well.

J.T. said...

@anon: Thanks for your kind comments. As for Larry talking out of school, he didn't. Someone asked him if he'd ever come back to Montreal and he said he thought he might, but nobody called him back. Simple statement of fact, no bitterness involved. He wasn't railing on the team or its treatment of him, or trying to get sympathy in any way. I think I'm madder about it than he seems to be!

DB said...

There are two things that makes me think the split with Koivu was mutual.

Firstly, in a Dave Stubbs' article from this past season (Montreal at Anaheim) he stated the split was mutual. Secondly, before signing his last contract with Montreal Koivu said that he wasn't sure if he would resign with Montreal unless Gainey could assure him the team would get better. After the 2008/9 disaster I could see Koivu wanting a change.

If the split was mutual, Gainey may have felt Koivu had taken enough crap in Montreal over the years so he decided to take the heat for letting Koivu go. If Gainey did this then that would qualify as a classy move.

Topham said...

I feel the same way.

Robert L said...

J.T., just because a story is reported in the media, doesn't mean it's the entire story. It surely doesn't make it fact. Half of it is missing. Things like Robinson applying for a job when there's no openings maybe. Or perhaps there was no other way home for Gill, or that complications occured. If such thoughts exist, they may not be brought forth, but it is not until all the pieces are presented that you have a fact.

It seems at times that the Canadiens organization doesn't go out of it's way to explain certain decisions. Often that can open a can of worms. Being that it's the Habs, the "why's" would be never ending. I find that they let such stories just dry up.

We forget perhaps that we almost feel we have a one on one relationship with our team. But that's not the reality of their perspective. I know that sometimes when things happen, such as like when the team trades a goalie I really like, my first sheer instinct is to take it personal. We might be dedicated fans, but the team does not always owe us ful explanations.

Anonymous said...

Robert L: Perception is often what we accept as reality in today's world. The perception of the Montreal organization up to now has been one of class.
Whether it is fair or even true is just argumentative since perception can be as damaging as the reality. As far as I can tell this management team has done little to try to change the perception of themselves to a more positive light. That is a problem.

Anonymous said...

The Canadiens organization projects itself with the image of class, however, it is only an image not a reality. How many times have we heard that nobody does it better than Montreal eg the All-Star game, the NHL draft, the number retiring celebrations ad nauseam. The sickening centenial year cash grab makes it clear this image is BS. The class of an organization has is due to the people who make it up. The sports world in general is all about greed, as is our society. There are a few classy individuals around but most of us are just whores.

Rock on the Rock said...

Spot on, JT! I guess that makes them sleeveens?!

Harry said...

If you look up the word 'smug' in the dictionary,you will find pictures of Habs management !!
Thanks for the post JT-I saw your comment on HIO and I knew you wanted to say more than that about the Robinson affair...
Boucher and now Robinson-oh but wait we have Martin and Pern ..........

Ed said...

Robert L's replies reflect the state of our culture. He's correct in saying that we don't know the full details of every story, but that misses the point. We want the Canadiens to be a family, not merely a company.

If my brother needs some money, I find a way to make that happen. If my wife is sick and I can't get out of work, her sister-in-law comes over to help. A family finds ways to make good things come from bad situations. It takes faith, charity and love.

To say, well, maybe there were no opportunities or a flight wasn't available, is to say that people are less important than something, anything, else. This is the way things are right now in our culture.

JT is saying that some of us don't like it. She illustrates her point by pointing to Mr. Beliveau, who is a hero for "merely" treating others with basic dignity. He returns the love and honour given to him in kind, by looking the fan in the eye, shaking their hand and signing his name legibly. These simple acts give people a sense that they are in the presence of a living saint.

The solution to JT's dilemma is extraordinary. The Canadiens, as an organization, would have to become a counter-cultural force that promotes family above all else. The team would become a transcendent beacon of hope in a secular culture that has become pedantic and cynical.

Example: Jaroslav Halak is a human being, not a commodity to be traded when his value is at its highest. This is why we have a bad feeling about the recent trade. My suspicion is that Bob Gainey was trying to build a family and that Pierre Gauthier sees things differently. Robert L will point out that I don't have all the facts, and he'll be correct.

Robert L said...

Ed, I like your addition to this a lot, but the Habs can't operate as a family and as a business. That becomes conflicting, at times, with what it is ultimately trying to achieve.

Your statement...

"My suspicion is that Bob Gainey was trying to build a family and that Pierre Gauthier sees things differently"

....is an opinion, to my eyes. Facts do not enter into it as long as it pre-phrased as "My suspicion is"...

Anon,

"perception can be as damaging as the reality"

That is very succinct, but I think that sometimes journalism has to present thoughts more responsibly to fans and readers. It is something I have to work on myself at times. I think sometimes that the human elements, the notion we are dealing with living beings, is often forgotten in the sports world. A lot of that humaness id frailty and failings.

Clay4bc said...

A very well written and thoughtful piece, JT, and I have found myself echoing this sentiment a lot over the past several years - but I saw it really coming to a head with the Koivu situation, and continuing with recent events.
This organization is a mere shadow of its former self, and it's no wonder that we have trouble attracting talent to come and play here.
Detroit is the new Montreal, I think...

Clay

Ed said...

Thank you, Robert.

What is the Canadiens ultimately trying to achieve?

moeman said...

J.T. knows.

DKerr said...

Very interesting comments. Things just are not like they used to be nor were they probably back then.

Mike Komisarekl drafted and groomed by the Habs; seems like a freat guy, interviews often and well. His mother has incurable cancer - our owner at the time, Mr Gillett offers to fly him him back to Long Island during any break in the teams schedule, a gesture that most of us would consider classy. Komisarek also mentioned this as being very appreciated. But, when the contract came up, he went for the money. That's just the way it is - I'm not condemning him, but there is a balance in that it is a business.

The Blackhawks as a team took a bus to be at a funeral, as their GM lost a family member (I'm thinking Dale Tallon here - not sure). As gracious and classy as the gesture was, there were players there that were going to be moved and not made happy in the near future as the boss has to make decisions. It is a business, we just need to try to be as gracious as possible while performing that business. Sometimes that seems conflicting, like a great medical mind with lousy bedside manners - in the end, which would you rather have?

Anonymous said...

On another subject, the Flyers got Hamhuis from the Preds, now is the time for Gauthier to throw some serious cash at Braydon Coburn and get a good, physical, young defenseman and screw with Philly's plans for the cup in 2011. Come on Pierre do it!

pfhabs said...

JT:

-thanks for the post...I would encourage all that feel that something is amiss to send Geoff Molson an e-mail or letter or call letting him know of your feelings and how it may reflect at the turnstile...Geoff continues to tell all he is a fan of the Team and I can't help but wonder if he's still scratching his head wondering what edition of the CH Perry Pearn played on

-I will continue to beat the same drum...this is a bubble team not interested in excellence

-Robert L...is quite right in saying we do not always have all the facts but if it looks like crap, smells like crap then Robert it's more than likely crap

-as for facts Robert; if it were my team I think I'd sooner have a Hall of Fame D man who played almost 1400 NHL games scoring about 950 points and 6 Cups and an NHL proven coach than Jacques' shadow as the D coach who btw never played a single pro game at any position at any level....but then that's me taking the best person not someone's buddy...

-of course we could extend that little argument to Gauthier and his little buddy Jacques or to Boivin and his little buddy Gauthier....one of the posters was wanting a 'family' affair well looks like we got one...however; a bit dysfunctional in my view

Anonymous said...

DKerr: you made the analogy of a great medical mind with lousy bedside manners and making a choice. well the doctor made a distinct choice not to cultivate a better personality when dealing with his patients, and he does himself and his patients a huge disservice. the Montreal management also has choices when dealing with situations that come up and in my opinion all to often lately have made the expedient rather than the good and prudent decisions.

Patrick said...

Let's not forget that the whole NHL switched under Bettman from hockey as sport/culture/mythology to mere spectacle and entertainment. That's why the Bell Center looks more and more like some noisy and flashy attraction at La Ronde. The "South Strategy" is also about entertainment, and shifting from sport as culture/living mythology to sport as business. It's all about getting it bigger, about supersizing the sport. Obese nation!

Class is not a commodity...

E said...

i'm with robert on this one. like it or not, a lot of what really goes on in team management happens behind closed doors, with a general agreement between all parties that the particulars are not disclosed. most of what we think we know is soundbites and speculation, which in the case of montreal is often put forth by media with a vested interest in drama and controversy. i wonder if the habs of yesteryear would have seemed just as 'classless' if they'd been covered in the same media environment. i don't have any reason to believe they were classless in their treatment of koivu or halak, and i don't believe either player has said anything to indicate such.

additionally, j.t. just had a whole post about demoting players to the minors for cap reasons, in which the opposite argument was made: that the team can't worry about sentimentality when hard business decisions have to be made. i'm betting if you talked to most players, they'd think that sending a player you signed/traded for to ride a bus in the ahl even while he's playing nhl-level hockey is way, way more classless than straight up trading or not resigning a guy who isn't in future plans.

it seems to me that the definition of 'classy' here is what fans like: if it makes a fan happy or a fan-favorite player happy, it's 'classy'. on the other hand, where unpopular or problematic players are concerned, screw class, it's a business.

who, exactly, has called out the canadiens organization for being cheap or crass or nasty or badly run? where is the direct evidence from anyone who would know for certain that their treatment of players or fans is not classy? there's gotta be some piece of evidence other than intuition and implication to justify this charge.

J.T. said...

@E: Sure, a lot of what really goes on is not for public viewing. It goes both ways, though. The few "classless" things we DO hear about make you wonder how many other things happen behind closed doors.

As for proof of my conviction, I have been privately told things I haven't written in this post, mainly because it's a blog. It's a place for opinion and emotion and shouldn't be confused with actual journalism. So, if I believe the Canadiens are behaving in a classless way on some occasions and I write about it, I'm merely blogging an opinion. I'm not performing an act of investigative journalism which would, obviously, involve quotes and a balanced representation of both sides of the issue. You, as the blog reader and a fellow fan, can choose to share my opinion or disregard it as conjecture.

On the issue of McGillisizing players as a cap-saving measure, sure it'd be classless. That's why teams like the Habs will be watching what the Blackhawks do with Huet this summer. After all, if the Cup champs pull a move like that, it opens the door for other teams to do the same without standing alone in the "classless" line. My feeling is that both opinions aren't mutually exclusive. The classy Canadiens may be a thing of the past, but in for a penny, in for a pound. If you're going to be a business-first operation, then do it properly and fix your mistakes to make the team better.

Howard said...

Another "little" thing that really bothered me:

-An arena was dedicated to Pat Burns in Stanstead, Que. and not one member of the Habs' organization was there. Lou Lamorillo was there! It figures, I think he defined his organization based on the Habs only he practices what he preaches.

Anonymous said...

I kinda think class is like porn, now follow me please. In that we have difficulty precisely defining what it is, but have no problem knowing it when we see it.
One only has to look at Jean Beliveau and know he is the epitome of class. It is a gut reaction a visceral one, and what I see recently of Hab's management gives me no such feeling.

Robert L said...

Howard, the Standstead event was low key, not a photo-op. It might have been by invitation also. Jacques Demers, who followed Burns behind the bench was there. Lou was there because he is Pat's employer still.