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.