Thursday, April 17, 2008

Building a mystery

I was wondering today how a franchise can have such a pervasive identity that it trickles down and continues through generation after generation of players, coaches, owners, wins and losses. Mention the Montreal Canadiens, and what's the image that comes to mind? Despite years of futility and decades mired in a mucking, defensive style, the picture the name evokes is speed. Slick skating, smooth passing, offence...all accomplished at top speed. Flash and dash. Now think of the Bruins. What image do they bring to mind? Despite the brilliance of Bourque and Orr, it's that of a blue-collar team...a tough one that puts hard work and solid defence first.

Maybe it's because both franchises like to keep their heroes around to help build the next generation, and they naturally tend to recreate the kind of teams they knew as players. Bob Gainey is going to believe the team on which he played in the glory days of the 1970s is the prototype for success. Cam Neeley, Bruins vice president, will naturally push for the contruction of a tough, hardworking team like the ones he knew back in the day.

It's funny that those fundamental identities don't shift, even as the actual makeups of the teams do. And I think those identities are so deeply ingrained in the fans and players on those teams, they inevitably limit the possibilities in which the players believe. Boston's record when they're down 3-1 in a series...0-21. They've never even forced a seventh game. Montreal has made the 3-1 series deficit comeback once, but they've pushed a series to seven games on four other occasions. I've concluded it's because of the history of those teams and what the players believe they're capable of doing.

The Canadiens are a team of legend, mystery and success. Any non-Habs fan will tell you they get nervous when the playoffs come and the Habs start rolling. They'll say there's something magical about that team, and sometimes even when all the odds are against their success, it seems as though everything suddenly lines up just right to allow it to win. It's happened so often, the players believe it too. It's part of their red, white and blue identity. I think that's why the Bruins have never really surprised anyone. Their workaday image is one that relies on hard work, and by extension, pragmatism. They know the odds of coming back from a 3-1 series deficit, and with their honest assessment of the situation and innate practicality, they conclude they won't be able to do it. They say they will fight for every game and that they still have a chance in the series. But the words ring hollow and the sense of conviction they need to accomplish such a feat doesn't resonate from their assurances. Theirs is a grim passion...a nose-to-the-grindstone, go-down-like-men kind of dedication.

I think the Bruins will come out tonight and give the Canadiens everything they can handle. It's not in their franchise nature to mail it in, even when the odds are as long as they look to be right now. They might even pull off a win. But when it comes right down to it, history and the identity of their franchise has taught them they will ultimately lose the series and they don't believe there's anything they can do about it.

Jean Beliveau and other great Habs have called the phenomenon a "culture of winning." They believe young players, brought into a winning team will learn how to win and accept nothing else. They'll then pass it on to the next generation. With the lean years both the Canadiens and Bruins have weathered since Le Gros Bill last laced then up, you'd think the gap in time between then and now might be unbreachable, and that both teams might have gone on to forge new identities. But it seems some things transcend time.

Maybe this year the Bruins will prove this theory wrong. Maybe for once, their personal Lucy won't pull the football away just as they try to kick it through the uprights. But if they do pull off a miracle, they'll have to overcome generations of being the Boston Bruins first.


Silver in 16 said...

Salut J.T.,

I like the way you cruise up to the 10,000-foot level and put things into perspective. I’ll offer up a couple of observations, as well.

Starting with last night. My girlfriend and I watched part of the Ottawa game as we had a thin-crust New York-style pizza from Tony’s (Sal's Deluxe – prosciutto, capicollo, marinated tomatoes and disks of bocconcini cheese that look like little white hockey pucks) with this incredible pinot noir (Testarossa Palazzio 2002) – quel decadent. Anyway, as you may have gathered, that was the highlight of the game. Ottawa mailed in their loss and folded. boston ain’t going to be so accommodating.

BUT, as we were watching the lacklustre, non-hitting debacle (those Ottawa players weren’t thinking of the golf course, they were thinking of other cities…), I realized that boston has been an excellent first-round opponent for us.

Consider: they’re physical, and, for some strange reason, we came out hitting, rather than finessing. And guess what? We discovered/proved that we can hit with them. And what’s more, playing the dastardly b’s is a great character builder. I was given the reins of a weekly newspaper years ago and took a management course that was a good move. One of the things I recall is “Performance = Effort x Ability” – what we’re developing is a chemistry that taps deep into that ‘Ability’ component.

And when you consider how the first round is where most of the upsets occur – I believe because it's before teams get into their playoff skins and coalesce into a unit. So, as much as we might have liked the easy road that Pittsburgh took, I think we’ll be better for facing boston (assuming we win…don’t want to offend the hockey gods by assuming). boston’s our crucible and a worthy one.

And, one final thing – a lot has been made about boston and their injuries to Kobasew and Bergeron. But, no one’s made much of a deal about us missing our captain and Cube. Methinks our power play has life in it, it just hasn’t come around, yet.

Oh, and one MORE final thing. A request. Please, please let’s not talk about what Don Cherry says. I don’t think you would, but I was chagrined to see Mr. Boone headlining a piece just because DC says nice things about CP. I just can’t abide a buffoon who cuts up curtains and gets them made into jackets and then WEARS them! On TV! Ahem, sorry, got a little emotional there...just a modest request…ahem.

J.T. said...


The aforementioned buffoon is persona non grata on my blog. I decline to offer it any more publicity than it already creates for itself.

Pizza sounds, pinot, hockey...mmmmmm.

Anonymous said...

This was your best post this week.

I am writing this minutes after the final buzzer of Montreal's loss. Your prediction of Boston coming out and giving Montreal everything they could handle was an understatement, but we don't expect you to be psychic. Was your prediction written to be safe, or did you genuinely think that Boston was going to prevent their exit from happening in front of the Montreal fans?

It was chilling to see Price literally hand the victory to Boston. The young Canadiens players are getting very painful but valuable lessons tonight, I hope. As a fan, I don't get any lessons, just the pain.