A friend of mine has been a Canadiens fan for thirty years. He grew up with the great '70s dynasty on Hockey Night In Canada every Saturday evening. Now, his boys are fans too, with posters of their heroes on the bedroom wall and dreams of being those guys when they shoot countless orange balls until the street lights come on. Last week, my friend ordered a St.Louis Blues sweater with Jaroslav Halak's name on the back. When I asked him about it, he said "They finally lost me."
I think there hasn't been as polarizing an issue among Habs fans as the Halak versus Carey Price debate, at least not in recent memory. In comparison, the Kovy vs. Koivu leadership argument, the "Gainey good/Gainey bad" discussion and the lamenting over the 2003 draft are mere quibbles. We may have to look back to the Patrick Roy trade to find an issue about which Habs fans were quite so emotional.
I confess, I don't really understand why this has happened. Nobody was going nuts about whether Lapierre or Latendresse was the better player to the point of personal insult, even though people had opinions on the subject. Even though Lats got traded, nobody went off the deep end about how the team will regret it forever and how Lats will lead the Wild to the Cup...just you watch! Sure, people expressed disappointment in or appreciation of the trade, but it didn't divide Habs fandom down the middle like Moses parting the Red Sea. I know only one goalie can play at a time, and fans of one think their guy could have done better than the other in every loss, but the depth of passion around the two netminders is astonishing.
Today, Halak's agent, Allan Walsh, announced Jaro's plan to sign autographs in Montreal on Saturday, and donate the proceeds to a children's hospital. This has apparently caused some Price fans to suspect it's a PR stunt arranged by Walsh to embarrass the Canadiens. Then there are the ones who won't speak Halak's name anymore; the ones who say he's "the enemy" because he's no longer a Canadien. Lots of people who were "converted" and raving about Halak's heroics in the playoffs now dismiss him and say his efforts weren't really THAT important to the post-season run. On the other side, there are the Halak fans who say Price hasn't signed yet because he's trying to stiff the team for an oversized, undeserved raise since he's got the team over a goaltending barrel. Others are mocking Price's rodeo passtime and painting him as a lackadaisical cowboy, more interested in country music than hockey. The nasty comments are completely out of whack for a fanbase that was lucky enough to have two good, young goalies that most other teams' fans would have been thrilled to have.
With the new season approaching, though, it's time for all Canadiens fans to start over. I know hockey fanatics thrive on the "what ifs" and "if onlys" years after a trade is made, but for the good of our team and our mental health, all of us have to look forward.
This is how I'm looking at it: I really thought Halak was the goalie who gave my team the best chance to win, and I thought his competitive spirit was something special. I was hoping the team would hold onto both him and Price for another year because I thought it was too early to pick one or the other for the long term. However, Pierre Gauthier decided to trade Halak away. I didn't like the trade and I think Halak will have a really good NHL career. BUT, I'm a Habs fan, so whether I agree with the trade or not, Carey Price, when he signs, will be my team's goalie and I will cheer for him with all my heart. If he has a bad year, it's bad for the Canadiens and anybody who hopes he'll suck just to vindicate their opposition to the trade or support for Halak isn't a Habs fan. I'll always have the greatest respect and appreciation for what Halak did in the playoffs, but I'll now be cheering for Lars Eller and Carey Price to fulfill their promise.
When Price leads the team out on the ice at the ACC on October 7, there will be a ton of Canadiens supporters in the crowd. If they're really fans, they'll cheer themselves hoarse for him and the rest of his teammates just because they're the Montreal Canadiens, and they're playing on enemy ice. When the home-opener comes around on October 13, I hope the Bell Centre crowd will cheer Price on, even if they bought Halak sweaters during the playoffs. The kid, and the rest of the team, need support and patience. They're not going to win every game, and they're not going to get a shutout in every win.
The bottom line is, we fans have no say about what managers do or why they do it. Our job is to support all the players wearing our team's sweater. Price may have his struggles again this season, but it won't be any easier for him if fans start booing him after every mistake. We have to remember that, whatever we thought of Halak or the trade, it's in the best interest of our team to support the goalie we've got left. As long as he's a Canadien, he's on our side and we should be on his. It's a new year and a new beginning.
Of course, all that being said, we're fans and fans like to study stats, compare players and propose imaginary trades. We also like to criticize. While I think there's certainly room for that...after all, in the heat of a game, if Price gives up a stinker we're not all going to say "That's okay, Pricey. You'll get 'em next time." We're going to complain about his five-hole or his giveaways or his losing sight of the puck AGAIN. That's okay, but we need to be a little bit forgiving and let it go afterwards.
Like it or not, Price is the goalie our team's got now. He deserves a clean start, no matter what's happened before. Fans need to be willing to give him that much. Otherwise, I hear there's a good deal going on St.Louis Blues sweaters.