Monday, March 28, 2011

Impressions

I always pitied the fans who filled the stands at terrible hockey games. I'd watch on TV from the comfort of my couch, with the option to flick it off if things got too bad, and say "At least I didn't pay to see that." It was always sad to see frustrated fans, out a good chunk of their hard-earned change, boo the team off the ice. Now I know how the other half lives.

I didn't boo on Saturday, but I was sitting in the nosebleeds at the Bell Centre, in the midst of people who had painted their faces, made signs of support and paid scalpers double or triple the $41 face value of the tickets. Those people went to the game with the expectation that the players they adored would at least look like they cared about winning as much as the fans did. When they ended up with an ineffectual power play, a brutal 18 shots and a third straight shutout instead, the disappointed fans, who wouldn't get a refund after the lousy game for which they'd had such hope, booed. It wasn't my choice of expression, but I understood.

The booing post-game was the culmination of a couple of things, one of which had been building in my subconscious as I walked around the city on Saturday. The whole of downtown Montreal was buzzing, and the buzz expanded all through the day. It started at breakfast, when Max Pacioretty showed up to eat at the restaurant I was at and had the whole place whispering about his presence. It continued at the Bell Centre, when people from all over the continent were meeting each other at the Habs Hall of Fame and telling stories about watching Lafleur or Roy or Richard in their primes. Later, in the streets, there were more people in Habs gear than not, and more cars with Canadiens flags than without them. It was if the entire city was drawn toward a centre point, and that was the Habs/Caps game to come later that evening.

The immense interest in the Canadiens made me think perhaps the team has become too big. The impression increased as I sat high above the ice in the Bell Centre, and watched the fans, almost all wearing some kind of Canadiens-themed clothing, stream in with a great air of excitement. Looking down on 21 273 people, all cheering for the same cause is a powerful thing. As I observed Carey Price retreat into his own little world during the anthems, I could almost feel the weight of all those eyes on him. It's nothing short of miraculous that a young man like him can find the confidence to perform well every night. Not every player will be able to do that, and when the eyes of the fans turn hostile, it must be devastating. Playing for the Canadiens means thousands of people are living through you, and feel personally betrayed if they feel you've let them down. I don't know if that's a healthy thing, but I do think it can affect the decisions of players regarding playing in Montreal, and the performance of the team when the fans turn on it.

The enormity of the fans' expectations of the players is one part of the whole bubble of Habs' addiction I noticed on the weekend. The other was the way the team's marketers feed it and build on it. All of those thousands of jerseys and caps didn't sell themselves, after all. The problem with the spectacle, however, is that it doesn't let fans feel what they want to feel.

I sat there as the game trudged along, neither team really doing much to earn applause, while it became more and more apparent the Canadiens would roll over without a whimper. Yet, all around me, music blared, lighted signs demanded more noise and dancing girls banged tambourines while prompting the crowd to chant "Go Habs Go." That was okay when there was hope, but after the Caps second goal, with fewer than five minutes to go, it was over. I was disappointed, defeated and angry, and I wanted to feel those well-earned emotions honestly. I didn't want the Habs' marketing machine glossing over the fact that the team we're paying a ton of money to support has just sucked badly and given us absolutely no return on our investment. They didn't even make it competitive, but the happy noisemakers rolled on as though nothing happened. That wasn't fair. They weren't fooling anyone, and it probably had something to do wtih the booing the team got as it slumped off the ice.

Fans who are encouraged to devote themselves to a team beyond logic or reason have to have an outlet when that team turns out to be made up of ordinary human beings who can't perform like gods on ice every night. If they're like me, they resent being told to ignore the on-ice product and just enjoy the spectacle. The problem is, the reason why we buy into the spectacle in the first place is because we're hockey fans. We know when the product on the ice isn't worth the spectacle, and we resent it when the bells and whistles get blown at us to cover up that fact. At least I did, and I think the thousands of people around me who were booing felt something of the same thing.

I've been lucky. Saturday was my tenth game at either the Forum or the Bell Centre, and I'd never witnessed a loss before. All the pomp and circumstance was secondary to the hockey, which lived up to the billing. Having now seen the machine and the hype roll on even when the team doesn't deserve it, I have a new perspective.

In a way, I think, those of us who watch most games on TV have a clearer picture of the reality of the Habs. Sitting here in our living rooms thousands of miles away, we aren't influenced by the marketing crew or absorbed into the collective frenzy of a city that's become the victim of the unrealistic expectations fed to it daily. And if we see the team sucking, nobody's telling us at top volume that we should be singing Ole instead.

8 comments:

dusty said...

Very interesting read. Not living in Montreal, I have no knowledge of the marketing frenzy that is the Canadiens. My only experience of Habs hockey is from my living room and thanks to satellites I get to see every game for about 2 bucks a pop and beer is 50 cents a can. So I'm spoiled rotten and have no right to complain if the team stinks as it most certainly does.

I remember the Habs winning five straight Cups and then getting pushed around for the next 4 years until Ferguson came to town and the team got tougher and started winning again. I was only a kid at the time but I remember the pain watching the Habs getting beat up by the Hawks in '61. Losing a game is one thing but being intimidated and not pushing back is something altogether different. That's why I'm so sick of the Habs of today. Without some real team toughness, speed and skill means squat. That's why I want new management because there doesn't seem to be a recognition that the Habs are soft and not to be taken seriously when the money is on the line. Even the leafs enjoy playing the Habs. This must stop next year.

Kamal Panesar said...

Great perspective JT!

I always find it eye-opening to take in a game at the Bell Centre.

It's very true that you get a completely different perspective while sitting with the 21,273 than watching it on TV.

I actually laughed out loud when you said "Habs addiction"...because you are so right with that one!

That's actually why I called my site HabsAddict.com, because I feel that in this city it is truly an addiction.

So much so that one of the local universities actually has a theology course that looks at the Canadiens as a religion, with its Saints (Patrick?) and all.

The bottom line is that in visiting the city and going to a game, you absolutely got a taste on the insanity in Montreal re: the Habs.

People have experienced—not the younger generation—decades of success and are living off of the legacy of the team. The Habs marketing department is just riding those coat tails.

This is why it is so difficult for most Habs fans to look at the team objectively, and why you hear them too often talking from their hearts, not their heads.

Marco said...

Great article JT, as always.

I have a little question for you: was Paccioretty wearing a collar or something similar? Did he look ok? Since the incident, we know he's been tweeting and going to the movies (Thanks Recchi), but apart from that, very little.

Thanks again!

J.T. said...

@Marco: I didn't actually see Pax. He was downstairs, and by the time my companions and I had finished our meal, he'd paid and gone. The waiter who reported his presence said he looked perfectly normal, though. No collar or anything. (Yeah, I was tempted to go say hi, but thought the poor guy would be bothered enough without getting interrupted at breakfast!) :)

Marco said...

Thanks JT, appreciated ;)

Anonymous said...

When you take off the rose colored glasses you realize the team is weak. The hype is daunting. Imagine having no life as a player but 24 hour a day coverage. Pretty easy to figure out why Vinnie never wanted to skate there.

The team is there to make money. They do that very well. The on ice product hasn't been very good since before Serge left, and I doubt very much that it ever will be again. It doesn't need to be.

There was a time when if someone reported the boards at the forum were the worst in the league, or the glass was causing injury, the matter would have been fixed the next day. Now with the Bell, well, maybe next year...yeah, we ordered that stuff. Corp-speak.

Players get hurt. Some games you lose no matter what. The fans weren't booing that. The fans booed because the Club de Hockey Canadien did it to them first. No respect for the fans paying the freight likely means they have no respect for the Corporation either.

In excess of 21000 people actually showed up. Counting you that is about 17000 more than some NHL barns. Most paid for their seats, and on the road you can bet the fans wearing CH logos did as well. For that they received...well I don't know what you'd call it, maybe a "Gomez".

Check out the individual stats Leigh Ann. The whipping boys from last year (Price and AK) along with Subban are the only ones who brought it all year. AK did just what he always does. Subban and Price showed what competition can bring.

Watch and see if all three don't bolt at the first sniff of UFA.

punkster said...

Still and all, it's only a game. That's it, nothing more, just a game.

V.J. said...

Good perspective on being a fan. Fans exalt the team when it wins and they tend to dump on it when it loses. In Montreal, fans have come to expect that the team must not only be competitive, it must win - period. Fans are supreme coaches and expert GMs.

As an armchair GM, I put the blame squarely on the shoulders of management. The culture of the team has changed since the Gillett era. From a distance - SE Asia at the moment - it appears that two major tenets of human resource management have been ignored: not all personalities are created the same, so you find a way to motivate and retain talent even though it means bending over backwards, and secondly, fairness must be perceived to be practised. The team has given away too much talent because of a lack of adherence to the above principles. So, when the coach and management are out of touch with the reality of today's culture, we have the mess that has become the Habs. Desperation leads to Gomez, Gionta, Moen, Mara, Sopel and to a lesser extent, Cammalleri. And Trevor Timmins has contributed greatly to the mess. They let gems escape in favor of USHL duds - and I include Pacioretty, the diva, among the duds. Some say Timmins has picked up late round gems. I say NONSENSE. Every team has done that and you cannot compare with Detroit, for instance (Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Holmstrom, Ericksson). Late round gems mean that you left a gem dangling for 4 - 7 rounds for another team to grab and you picked Chipchura, Fischer, McDonaugh etc!! About 90% of Timmins' picks no longer play for the Habs. I would be on EI today if my record had been half as bad.

Unfortunately, the media and the bloggers are too intimidated by the team's management and players to express their true views and, as such, they have become apologists for a wreck of a management team.