Long ago, in the age of Back to the Future and The Goonies, when Ronald Reagan was president and the world's population was only 4.8 billion, a skinny, twitchy goaltender made his NHL debut with the Montreal Canadiens. Patrick Roy was unorthodox, brash and a little bit nuts, but he became the touchstone for a generation of fans who were just a little too young to appreciate the '70s dynasty that preceded him.
That impressionable generation watched a team of kids play their hearts out in the spring of '86, led by otherworldly play from Roy, in what would become the last great victory by the Hall-of-Fame veterans. The excitement of that run and the emotion of that victory left an indelible imprint on the hearts of fans who, from that year on, would truly believe if you make the playoffs anything can happen. They believed in the ghosts of the Forum and the magic of the Montreal Canadiens and nothing would ever, ever change that.
Now, here we are 30 years after that thrilling ride to the Cup. That young, idealistic group of Habs fans has seen a lot in the last three decades. One last Cup in '93 kept the home fires burning, but heroes have also been traded or retired since then. Bad trades, bad drafts, bad coaches, missed chances, missed playoffs and broken hearts have followed, but still the eternal flame of Habs fandom burned within the hearts of the loyal.
So, it is with grief and confusion that even the most devoted are now torn between the desire to cheer for the team to win, even though the odds of making the playoffs are dropping faster than the price of a barrel of crude, or embracing futility in the hope of getting a top draft pick.
The latter doesn't sit well with true blue fans. Years of rooting for a team against all odds becomes an ingrained habit and the idea of willingly accepting failure hurts. Yet, in these days of league parity and inexperienced, stubborn team management, what's a fan to do?
Nobody knows if Marc Bergevin actually guessed the team he built was paper-thin without Carey Price propping it up. We only know the numbers last year suggested the team would likely be on the playoff bubble without him, yet Bergevin failed to acquire a reasonable support system for the goalie should he have remained healthy, or to carry the team in his absence. "Trades are tough to make," he says, while other teams seem to make them all the time.
We don't know whether Bergevin truly believes Michel Therrien is the right coach for this team. We see only puzzling decisions about player deployment coming from behind the bench, and a power play that's been three years on life support. Yet, Bergevin says he's sticking with his bench crew and goes to visit the players in the dressing room instead.
Unfortunately for heart-and-soul Habs fans, finishing high in the draft lottery may be the only way to save the Canadiens from their own management. (Then again, the use of the last lottery pick, Alex Galchenyuk, would indicate this team can screw up even a no-brainer.) One thing is certain: if the Canadiens make the playoffs and draft in the middle of the pack, they're probably not going to find a player who'll be an immediate difference-maker. The Jarred Tinordis and Louis Leblancs of the world are proof of that.
The teams at the top now are those who drafted, repeatedly, in the top three. That's how the Captials got Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. It's how the Penguins got Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and how the Panthers got Aleksander Barkov, Erik Gudbranson, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad. Sure, some teams, like Dallas (Seguin, Sharp and Spezza) are doing well because their management teams have been astute traders. That option appears to be unavailable to the Habs GM, who has a penchant of handing out large, long-term contracts to middle-of-the-road players, capping himself out of trade contention.
In some ways it's a mercy the Habs have taken this dilemma out of the hands of fans. It doesn't matter if we root for a win or a loss. We just have to wait out the inevitability of it all. The guilt we feel comes in being glad about it, even though we know the worse the team loses, the better the chance it'll acquire a player who can help it win when the perpetrators of the current fiasco are long gone.
There isn't a Habs fan who's ever witnessed his or her team with the Cup who wants to see the disaster this season has become. It stinks. At some level, however, one can't help feeling the team is a hostage right now and the only way out is to draft its way out. It's not much of a silver lining, but it's the only way real fans can hope their way through this. Some will say that's being a bad fan, but really, it just come from being there for the long haul. Those who came on board in those long ago winning seasons know what it's really all about, and if it takes being stoic, or even glad, about an unsalvageable free fall, well, we just have to believe drafting good players will prevail over bad management. Someday.