Monday, January 21, 2013

The Torch

Pundits and fans, both for and against the Habs, were nearly unanimous in their opinion on Saturday that the home-opening ceremony, featuring a burning torch passed from former captain to former captain, was both touching and well done. Nearly everyone who mentioned it made a comment like "nobody does these things like the Habs." So it feels rather traitorous to say I didn't think the same thing.

It's not that it's not wonderful to see legends like Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard and Yvan Cournoyer showing they're still connected to the team they helped make great. The memories they evoke for those who remember them playing are sweet. The problem is, it's been a very long time since those men skated out in the sweater, and many of the people packing the Bell Centre on Saturday never saw them play. Half of them probably didn't even see Vincent Damphousse, the most recent captain to take part in the ceremony. So, while including the past in the ceremony was nice, focusing on it serves to underline the stark fact that the franchise hasn't won a Stanley Cup in twenty years. The Habs bring out the heroes because there's nothing else left of greatness within the organization.

The saddest part of the ceremony was the frailty of those great men. Beliveau, at 81, held the torch with a trembling hand. Seventy-six year old Richard had trouble negotiating the Bell Centre stairs. Showing them still having to carry the torch, literally and figuratively belies the lines of John McCrae on the Canadiens dressing room wall. "To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high." Those words mean the men who have brought glory to the franchise are ready to pass the responsibility to the young men who will protect and carry on their legacy. Only, there's been nobody fit to do that in two decades so the weary old men are still called to duty.

The torch, too, was a symbol overwrought with in-your-face sentiment. When it emerged, I felt vaguely embarrassed and slightly uncomfortable; a little bit like Ottawa fans must have felt when their team broke out the Spartan to launch their 2008 playoff bid. The Senators looked like they were trying to stir their fans' emotions with a gimmick, and so, on Saturday night, did the Habs. Maybe the problem is the frequency with which the organization does this kind of thing. After so many versions of ceremonies in which the Canadiens remind us of past glories, we start to get bored with it all and want to experience some glory for ourselves. We don't want stories, we want the real thing, and without it, the ceremonies lose their meaning.

That said, there were three moments that stood out through the whole thing. First, when current captain Brian Gionta received the torch from Beliveau. He had a look of such pride and respect on his face as he took the flame from the greatest captain the team has ever had. Second was Alex Galchenyuk standing at centre ice listening with bemused awe to the thundering ovation of fans who want nothing more than to see him succeed for them. And third was when Carey Price came out last and didn't just hold the torch in the middle of the arena, but thrust it straight over his head with a kind of fierce defiance. These are the players who will move the team into the future, and really take the figurative torch from the failing hands who are getting too old to be the beating heart of the franchise much longer.

It's those players who should be the focus of the next ceremony. Instead of simply honouring the past, the Canadiens have made the mistake of wallowing in it. The team needs to look ahead and build something of which these young men can be proud. When new players come to Montreal, instead of saying they're glad to be playing for a team with such a great history, they should be saying they're thrilled to be signing with a winner. Otherwise there will be nobody left who remembers what it's like to be a champion in Montreal and the torch will flicker and go out.


moeman said...

Thanks again JT. Another great read. I can only imagine the reaction of a huge Habs fan like Subban carrying the torCH, not to mention the fans reaction to him being there.

Anvilcloud said...

Hear, hear. It falls flat when the team can't hold the torch after all.

Topham said...

I felt the same way. It was a round-about embarassment, especially in a game that was televised to a dominant Leafs audience. As time goes by the way back to 1993 doesn't look so different to 1967.

I don't mind a good ceremony, but maybe get it done before the cameras are turned on, then start the game when it's meant to start.

Brian said...

From a practical point of view, the length of the ceremony hurt the team. It was the hockey equivalent of "icing down" a field goal kicker or a foul shooter. And, when it was completed, the Habs came out predictably with no jam whatsoever.

Hadulf said...

I liked the ceremony. However, I'm with you on the PAST glory stuff. I really regret not having won a Stanley Cup with Koivu as our captain. Imagine that future ceremony...we'd (I'd) relate to it. Especially with Koivu.

I'm part of that crowd who didn't see these old captains play, except Damphousse. He's the only one I can relate to, so yes, you are right. These old men, to whom we owe much respect and all, do not ignite me.

That being said and as much as I want this team to win, I don't mind another tanker season! Getting 2 high draft picks (including Galchenyuk) is a pretty good consolation prize in my books.

Oh, and PFK can stay home as long as he wants, I'm ok with that too. I, for one, do not appreciate his me, myself and I attitude.

juce said...

I like Damphousse, watched him play back in the day and not to diss him, but I wonder how much Therrien may have had to do with that, as a former media colleague, as well as PFK`s lack of presence?

JF said...

I liked the ceremony, J.T I found it moving and uplifting. But you're right, the Habs do tend to wallow in the glories of the past because there are none in the present. This was at its worst during the centennial season, when the celebrations became a gigantic distraction, and the product on the ice went from being good at the start of the season to pure garbage halfway through.

The other problem with a ceremony like Saturday's is that it takes too long and gets the players too worked up. They came out with some jump but, instead of channeling their emotions, took a string of penalties that effectively put them out of the game. They were flat until the third period.

The result was predictable. The Habs almost never win a game following one of these nostalgic ceremonies. I hope for the rest of the season we can just play hockey and maybe see some modest improvement over last year.

Ralph said...

I was saying this very thing on Sunday. The Habs are the best at this sort of thing, but it's troubling when you have to have a pretty package to cover up the lack of quality in the contents. It's time to drop the past and help this team develop it's own legends and mystique. Yes it was a touching gesture and heavy on symbolism, but it also detracte the players from the game and puts unnecessary pressure on them. I suspect they would have played better had they just dropped the puck at 7 pm.

Woodvid said...

Yeah, I think I have to agree with you, JT. As soon as I saw the torch, I thought, "Oh no, not this again." It was still well done, but so is a burned pot roast.

Also, I agree with Hadulf. If the Habs are going to suck for another season, it might as well be a shortened one! Another high draft pick would be nice.

dwgs said...

I thought I was the only one who found the ceremony was flat, and slow, and kinda sad. Can we not just go out and play hockey? I don't consider the home opener after a crap season and a crappier lockout to be an especially auspicious event.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the torch ceremony wasn't appropriate considering the crapitude of the Habs for the past two decades.

Worst of all was seeing my all time favorite Hab, Henri Richard, struggling on the steep stairway trying not to fall and break his neck. Who was the moron who placed him in such a dangerous situation?
An eleven time Cup champion deserves more respect and consideration.

Excellent article, thank you.