Monday, May 11, 2020

Head Down, Stay Down

I love hockey. I love the speed, excitement, fun and brilliance of the game.

I love the Canadiens and all their storied history and hopeful future. But right now, I don't want hockey back.

I don't want a weird empty-seat arena with no involvement from fans, or a staged, odd Stanley Cup playoff featuring quarantined players cobbled together by league officials to keep the money coming in.

It's not worth it. South Korea, generally recognized as the best example of effectively suppressing COVID-19 in the world, decided to gently rescind some of its isolation restrictions, and yesterday reported 85 new cases in Seoul. In North America, where meat-packing plants and seniors' homes are incubators for the virus, there's no way to avoid an escalation of disease and death by returning to business as usual anytime soon.


I am not a good flyer, so several years ago, while watching "Sully," I was petrified by the flight attendants shouting for passengers to "Brace, brace, brace! Head down, stay down" as the plane plunged toward the Hudson River below.

That's kind of the way it feels about wishing pro sports back right now. We're not safe from this virus. We're not even aware of everything it can do to the human body. Right now, we've hit a flock of diseased geese and we're plunging toward the river as health officials warn us to brace for impact.

In that environment, players who have no alternative than to be within close proximity to each other while sneezing, spitting and otherwise sharing droplets, would be at serious risk of passing the virus around. Even if they stayed in hotels to avoid infecting their families, nobody really knows the long-term effects on high-level athletes. Early research says it can damage the circulatory system and narrow the arteries. And we know it can open the immune system to other infections. There's also early evidence of long-term loss of lung capacity that could take years to repair.

For young men whose livelihoods depend on good health and superior physical ability, returning to play now seems like a dangerous and unnecessary risk to take.


We know players want to play. Even the Canadiens, who had zero chance of making the playoffs this year, refused to lie down and give up. But you know what? Nobody's getting what they want as this pandemic continues.

Our kids don't get to graduate from high school or have a prom like everyone else had. Our mothers didn't get to see their grandchildren on Mother's Day. Those of us who are working from home feel isolated and disconnected from our co-workers and the energy we share when we work together. Birthday parties, funerals, weddings, holidays, anniversaries, church services...everything that we do to mark the passing of milestones and the ceremony we need to acknowledge our life-changing moments are not happening. And no, Zoom is not the same.

So, in light of the unknown and serious consequences of contracting this virus, in an environment when everything else in life has changed, upset over missing a few pro hockey games seems a bit frivolous.

I want to see Nick Suzuki develop into the dynamo he'll be in a year or so. I'd love to watch Brendan Gallagher drive the net with that big shit-eating grin. But I want them and their teammates and all the athletes for whom we love to cheer to stay alive. I want them to be healthy and not risk damaging their hearts and lungs because the NHL decided it's okay to finish the season this year.

It's not okay. It's scary and dangerous and although the league has in the past ignored evidence proving brain injury is a serious problem in the game, it has a chance now to protect the players it employs.

They have kids and parents and a life outside hockey, so for all their sakes, I hope they put their heads down and keep them down until this thing lands safely on the other side.

Anyway, it's much more fun watching the Habs win the Cup in re-runs than it is to watch them play a dozen meaningless games over the rest of this season while putting their very lives at risk. Sometimes it's better when you know the movie has a happy ending.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Deal or No Deal?

The Canadiens are going to make the playoffs.

I don't believe that, but the players think they have a chance if they play their hearts out and get a bit of luck along the way. The important thing is, the veterans are holding to that belief.

For a team that purports to be dedicated to developing a winner from within, that's a very important teaching tool. The core of young players like Jonathan Drouin, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki, Cale Fleury, Max Domi and Victor Mete and those who will be following them to the Show soon, need to know how to believe.

That's why it's important for Marc Bergevin to avoid moving players like Tomas Tatar at the trade deadline next month.

Unless he intends to do a proper, thorough rebuild and attempt to trade big-salaried veterans like Carey Price and Shea Weber, there's not really a point in trading for picks that may or may not pan out eventually and giving up players who are producing and helping the current youth group grow.

The Canadiens draft record isn't so stellar that they can count on converting second and third-round picks to lineup regulars in the next three years. So becoming caught up in a cycle of trading for picks, then trading those fledgling players for more picks in an eternal void of success doesn't make sense.

It's better for the youth to develop with leadership and hope for a year or two before dumping players for picks.

After all, how many examples have we seen of young players arriving, filled with hope and expectation, only to be mishandled, underdeveloped or traded away? And all the other examples of trading for picks, only to trade those picks on for another player who'll, in turn, be traded away?

The Canadiens have to do something different if they hope to develop this group well enough to actually open a Cup window. Right now, if they learn to believe in themselves, that's enough.

So, no deal. The Canadiens are likely not going to make the playoffs, but if they get healthy and pull together, that belief could make all the difference.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

There's Life in the Old Team Yet


I have to admit, I dreaded last night's Habs 110th birthday celebrations at the Bell Centre. Injuries to key players, obvious holes in the lineup and an eight-game winless streak appeared to set the stage for one of those slightly cynical walks down memory lane the recent Canadiens have taken.

You know the ones: The Torch emerges, an emotional video montage stirs up the hearts of fans who remember the Stanley Cup in Montreal, leaving those who don't wondering what winning must have felt like. As the years have passed, more of the latter fill the seats and the ceremonies have begun to feel like an outdated organization throwing a new coat of paint over a broken infrastructure to hide the rusty spots.

Pleasantly, last night turned out to be a ceremony that was unexpectedly touching. Perhaps it's because all those people in the seats who've never seen the team win a Cup related to the players who didn't win one either. Although booed and criticized when they played, now that they've passed the torch, they...Pierre Turgeon, Brian Gionta, Saku Koivu...are part of the younger fans' understanding of the team and the nostalgia they feel for those players is no less valid than that of fans who watched Yvan Cournoyer hoist the trophy.

They're still Montreal Canadiens, and they did their best to uphold tradition, even when poor management, bad coaching, injuries, salaries and disadvantageous draft positions stripped away the winning culture their predecessors created. It was kind of refreshing to accept the legacy of players who tried and didn't quite reach their goals, instead of trying to wring every last drop of dusty romance out of the exploits of players long past.

So, on a night of brotherhood with an audience of new generation fans, it was right that Koivu got the loudest reception.

And it was right that Philip Danault scored with less than a second left in the first to give his team the lead in the same fashion in which they'd lost it so many times this year. It was right that the insurance goal was an end-to-end pinpoint shot from current captain, Shea Weber.

It's certain the win to break that losing streak gives a certain glow to the ceremony it might not otherwise have had. However, it also signalled a new kind of celebration of the team's history; one that includes the everyday players with whom most fans under forty identify. By including guys who will never be Hall-of-Famers, the team is no longer pretending the last 27 years haven't happened.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

In Memoriam

PLEKANEC, Tomas "Pleky" - Traded reluctantly away at the Bell Centre in Montreal, hardworking, reliable centreman, Tomas Plekanec, in his 35th year.

Born in Kladno, Czech Republic on Halloween night, 1982, Plekanec began playing hockey at an early age. At 18, he was selected in the third round of the NHL entry draft by the Montreal Canadiens, 71st overall.

While playing for the Hamilton Bulldogs as a young prospect, he narrowly escaped getting traded to the New York Rangers in exchange for Alex Kovalev. Rangers GM chose Josef Balej instead, which worked out well for the Canadiens. Plekanec would go on to centre Kovalev on the Habs most productive line in twenty years.

It was also in Hamilton that Plekanec discovered a fondness for his signature turtleneck. The two spent a very happy fifteen years together.

Known as an excellent two-way player, Plekanec was often given the difficult task of shutting down the opposition's top centres during the playoffs, which he did without complaint, even if it meant not scoring as much himself. He always put  his team first, including while discretely carving up opponents with his stick in the corners. It's to his credit that Brad Marchand and Sidney Crosby admitted hating his guts.

A man of few words, when Plekanec did speak, he told the unvarnished truth. This included describing his play as being that of "a little girl" on one memorable playoff occasion. It also got him into trouble with the Washington Capitals when he pointed out their team's goalies weren't as good as the Canadiens'. He saved himself by scoring a thrilling overtime winner in the first playoff game between the two teams in 2010, becoming known, briefly, as Tomas Jagr.

On February 25, 2018, Plekanec was indiscriminately dispatched to Toronto, ensuring he won't get to play his thousandth NHL game this year, and Habs fans can no longer cheer for him because it would mean a leaf Cup.

He leaves to mourn thousands of loyal supporters who felt his pain at the dozens of stone-handed linemates he got stuck with over the years.

He will be sadly missed.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Why We Still Should Love Pleky

If you've read my blog in the past, you'll know I have only had two Habs players I considered my "favourites" in a particular era. In my early years as a fan, I adored the young Patrick Roy. I loved his skills, his attitude (the Wink!) and his willingness to drop 'em in a goalie fight whenever the spirit moved him. His trade put my relationship with the Canadiens on hold for nearly five years.

For the last decade-plus, my favourite has been Tomas Plekanec. I love his two-way game, and his brutal honesty. And, most of all, I respect the way he always did whatever the coaches asked of him without complaint, even if it meant his own stats suffered in the process.

Now, however, my boy is old. Last season he was on the road to being a hockey senior citizen, but now he's there. With the encroachment of age, his offensive-zone play has dropped off and the vultures are circling. Angry, disillusioned fans are looking for someone to blame for the disaster this season has been, and they want Pleky dumped for a pick at the deadline. While it's within the realm of common sense to trade a player in his declining years if the return is decent, it doesn't make sense to dump a guy who's given everything to the franchise for peanuts over nearly a thousand NHL games just...because.

With that in mind, and remembering what an unexpectedly solid career this third-rounder has had in Montreal, there are still reasons why we should love Pleky.

1.  The time he scored a 5-on-3 shorty against the leafs. I had actually never witnessed a shorty with two men down before, so this was extra cool. It was also an added bonus that Phaneuf was on the ice when he got the breakaway. How can you not love the guy?!

2. One of the all-time greatest Pleky moments was in the 2010 playoffs, when he scored the OT winner in Game One against the Caps. After honestly saying the Washington goalie tandem wasn't the best in the league, Jose Theodore mocked him, pretending he'd never heard of him and then calling him "Jagr." It was SO sweet to watch him own Theodore on the winning goal, it's become a classic Plekanec moment.

3. One of Plekanec's trademarks is his unselfish play. If a teammate has two goals, he'll always look for that guy for the hat trick. If another player has the better look, Pleky will give up his own chance to score and give it to his teammate. He's team-first and always has been..

4. Pleky actually has an underrated shot. He's scored some important, unexpected goals over the years because of his sneakily-quick shot.

5. While his shot is good, his passing is Plekanec's real offensive weapon. In his prime, he could thread a needle with black thread in the dark at midnight.

6. Over the years, Plekanec has spent about two-and-a-half minutes penalty killing per game. This often meant his offensive production slowed down as the wear-and-tear of the heavy workload wore on him later in the season. The problem has always been, the Habs have had nobody who's better at it, so Pleky gave away some of his scoring in order to be a more well-rounded player, for the good of the team.

7. He's probably the only guy in the world, other than the Dos Equis dude who can rock the turtleneck

8. Over the years, my favourite moments of any game have been Tomas Plekanec breakaways. The anticipation that allowed him to intercept an opponent's pass or receive one in the clear, then the head-down, all-out turbo speed up ice was always so exciting.

9. I believe you have to love Plekanec just because Brad Marchand hates him. Any player that little meathead despises is good enough for me.

10. It's very special that, after a dozen years in the NHL, Plekanec has always been a Hab. It's extremely rare in these days of early free agency and deadline trade deals that a player stays with a single team for a career, so it's a little bit remarkable when it happens. Pleky is less than forty games away from achieving that landmark as a Canadien, and it's reflective of the value he's had to this team for such a long time.

So, there you go. Even though he's old and doesn't score much anymore, Tomas Plekanec has earned our respect and praise. If he's traded next month, let it be for a real return. Otherwise, let him retire as a Canadien as a sign of the honour he's earned as an excellent Hab. We shouldn't forget all he's done just because his boss didn't build a better team.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Taking the Pulse

On September 4, 1943, Wing Commander J.F.Young at the RCAF base in Gander, Newfoundland, took a B-24 Liberator bomber up as part of an experiment in airplane noise levels. It was meant to be a routine flight, but local people, to their horror, watched the big bomber make a slow turn, then plummet directly down into Gander Lake. Divers attempted to salvage the wreck, but found the plane resting on a ledge balanced between shallow and deeper water. During the course of the operation, the plane slipped off the ledge and sank to the bottom of the lake where it lay out of range of recovery. It's been sitting there for almost 75 years.

Well, Habs fans, your team is on the ledge.

They can't score goals, aren't great at preventing them and are likely going to finish in the draft lottery. From there, they will probably pick a player with talent whom they'll either rush to the NHL before he's ready or bequeath to the Sylvain Lefebvre development program, which has produced one playoff round at the AHL level in five years (they were swept) and looks unlikely to make the post season this year. On the current NHL roster, the only Canadiens draft picks who spent time under Lefebvre are Charles Hudon, Jacob de la Rose and Brendan Gallagher. They have 40 points between them this year...the majority of those from Gallagher who only played 36 games in the "development" league back in 2012.

This is a bad hockey team with very little hope for a quick turnaround in the future. It's not the worst group the Habs have iced since their last Cup in 1993, but it may be the most demoralising. Once upon a time, fans remembered what it felt like to win, and so did the players. Even if they lost, they still tried hard. Now they look lost, disorganized and completely hopeless. A large number of fans who buy jerseys and tickets have never seen a championship team in Montreal. Even the formerly die-hard, willing-to-live-in-the-past fans have had enough and are sending their chilly message of unacceptability at the Bell Centre. It won't be long before the silence comes not from disapproving fans, but from empty seats.

With the current state of affairs being what it is, I thought it would be interesting to gauge the mood of long-time fans. To that end, here's a little quiz:

1. You think Carey Price's contract is:
a) Appropriate. He's the only one on the team who's earning his money.
b) Too much for too long. His deal is as bad as Luongo's in Vancouver.
c) Ridiculous. He should have been traded for assets before he signed the extension.
d) Brilliant. It's all part of Marc Bergevin's plan to burn the Habs to ashes, only to have them rise, phoenix-like from the ashes to glory.

2. The current defence-corps is:
a) Decent. They've had some injuries, but the regular top six are competent and not to blame for the current mess.
b) Better than last year. Bergevin said so.
c) Hopeless. They're more likely to lead a conga line at Mardi Gras than impede an oncoming forward.
d) Missing the General. We hope you're enjoying your millions of available cap space, Bergevin.

3. The captain should be:
a) Traded. He's one of the few movable assets with a decent contract for another year and a chance to bring a useful return.
b) Given another chance. He's one of the best goal scorers in the league since the lockout, and the Canadiens can't afford to give up offence.
c) Demoted from the captaincy. He's not temperamentally suited to the position because he's too hard on himself when he struggles.
d) Made to be the marshal of Montreal's "We Used to Have Pride" parade. Follows the old Stanley Cup route, but in January. At night.

4. The Drouin-for-Sergachev trade was:
a) Great. The team had to give to get, and badly needed offence.
b) Good for cultural appeal. The Canadiens must have a French-Canadian star, even if he's not yet living up to expectations.
c) Dreadful. Sergachev, an 19-year-old D is putting up more points and playing a much better all-around game than the Great Hope and will continue to be the better player for many years.
d) Just another brick in the wall. More evidence of Bergevin blinded to all else by the sheer number of colours in his suit closet.

5. Should the Habs end up with a lottery pick, they should:
a) Take the best possible player, regardless of position. There are so many holes on the team, everything is needed.
b) Deliberately choose the best centre available. The position has been an Achilles heel for so many years, it's got to be a priority in a rebuild.
c) Pick Minnesota's Mr. Hockey. Just because it's been a while.
d) Give it back. This team no longer deserves to spoil good young players.

6. The team is having such trouble scoring because of:
a) The system. Claude Julien's defence-first system is too similar to his predecessor's, and built for a stronger, more mobile group.
b) The lack of talent. Nobody in the forward positions is capable of hitting the water from a boat in a good year. Don't even ask about the D.
c) NHL regulations. Carey Price is not allowed to skate past the red line.
d) Fidelity. Scoring outside the home would make them unfaithful.

7. The song that most makes you think of the Habs this year is:
a) Kelly Clarkson's "Beautiful Disaster."
b) Def Leppard's "Armageddon It."
c) The Who's "So Sad About Us."
d) Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It."

8. If Geoff Molson decides to part ways with Marc Bergevin, the Habs should:
a) Hire Patrick Roy. At least the press conferences would be interesting.
b) Hire the fans. A reality show-like contest to choose a management committee could be a source of untapped revenue.
c) Bring back Serge Savard. Maybe there's a little savvy left in the last GM to bring a Cup to Montreal. Plus, he'd be available for ceremonies dwelling on the team's past.
d) Hire the best possible candidate. The team can't afford the niceties of choosing a language preference for this position.

9. If you were offered seats in the red for fifty bucks, you would:
a) Go. What the hell; you've followed the team for this long.
b) Go and boo. Fifty bucks is cheap for a chance to let this team know how it's made you feel.
c) Pass. You'd rather use the money for underpants and deodorant.
d) Laugh uproariously. For $22, you can see the Lightning play real hockey. In Florida.

10. At this point, your feelings about being a Habs fan are best described as:
a) Defiant. No matter how bad they are, you will watch because they're your team.
b) Bitter. They had good players over the years, but management has failed them.
c) Sad. You're glad Jean Beliveau can't see this.
d) Indifferent. This team has been useless for so long now, you realize you haven't seen a game in a month because you've been busy playing classic Nintendo.

I'm interested to see how you're feeling, fans. Especially because right now, the Canadiens are balancing on a ledge between shallow water and seventy-five years in the unreachable depths.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Eating Their Young

There's something seriously wrong in Montreal when it comes to nurturing the next generation.

Take a look at the last ten years of drafting. In 2007, the Canadiens picked four future NHL players. Only Max Pacioretty remains with the team, where he still regularly faces public criticism about his fitness to be captain, his on-ice production and his crises of confidence. Somehow, he claims to love playing in Montreal.

P.K.Subban was traded for Shea Weber after several years of veiled implications that he was a me-first player and amid outright finger pointing from his coach. Ryan McDonagh didn't even get the chance to prove himself in the NHL before getting traded for Scott Gomez, in part because management didn't like his performance at the world juniors the previous winter. He's now a star in New York. Yannick Weber had an up-and-down career in Montreal, but remains in the NHL with the Predators. That was the best draft class the Canadiens have had in the last decade.

The next two drafts, in 2008 and 2009, saw 112 NHL games played among the twelve players chosen. Notable among them was first-rounder Louis Leblanc, who suffered the dreaded high-ankle sprain in 2012. He came back in the AHL to minimal ice-time with scrub linemates and little PP time. Worse were reports that coach Sylvain Lefebvre systematically destroyed his confidence, even that he tied elastic bands to the player's skates to improve his stride. Leblanc eventually was traded for a fifth-round pick.

In 2010, the draft yielded NHLer Brendan Gallagher in the fifth round. The year's first-rounder was Jarred Tinordi who never earned the trust of his coaches and was traded for a couple of scrubs shortly before receiving a 20-game suspension for drug violations. The following year, the Habs picked one NHLer in first-rounder Nathan Beaulieu. He's now a member of the Buffalo Sabres; traded for a third-round pick after failing to live up to his potential in Montreal, and following newspaper reports about his penchant for partying and his lack of respect for fans.

That brings us to 2012. For the first time since Carey Price was drafted fifth overall in 2005, the Canadiens had a lottery pick and a chance to add some serious talent to a struggling lineup. Some might argue (with hindsight) that Filip Forsberg would have been the more productive pick, but Galchenyuk was a solid choice with tons of potential.

As it's turned out, though, his developmental learning curve has been just as steep and rocky as some of his predecessors'. Thrust into the NHL spotlight at 18, Galchenyuk has been the subject of debate about whether he's qualified to play centre every season since. He's been publicly mocked for being involved in a domestic altercation with a girlfriend and criticized for being Beaulieu's party pal. This season he's been regularly demoted to fourth-line wing duty in punishment for a lack of production.

Now this young player is dealing with the malicious revelation that he may have voluntarily entered the NHL's substance abuse treatment program. The person who decided to publicly announce this was none other than ex-player and ex-coach Mario Tremblay who was convicted last year for refusing to give a give a breath sample in a suspected drunk driving incident.

A player who voluntarily looks for help in the alcoholic culture of the NHL is to be applauded. We don't need to know their names or why they look for help. It's enough that they're self-aware enough to seek counselling in the first place.

For an alleged hockey professional to break the sacred confidence of rehab and betray a young player is unforgivable. Tremblay should be ashamed.

In the meantime, the Galchenyuk case is just the latest public embarrassment of a young player in Montreal. The party culture, the adulation of young women and the open-door policy of the local bar owners gives young men a degree of licence they don't get anywhere else. Unsurprisingly, they fall under the thrall of such privilege. The fact the team does little to help youngsters deal with the wealth of temptation in their city is shameful.

Management studiously ignores the problems off ice and focus on criticism on the ice. That does nothing but destroy confidence and leave young players adrift.

Just look at the last ten years and decide if the Canadiens' strategy of developing youngsters is working.