Sunday, August 3, 2008

Whip that boy!

As I watch Michael Ryder prepare to don the black and gold of the Bruins and Sergei Samsonov pull the Hurricane's swirl on over his gear for the coming season, I can't help wondering why Habs fans always seem to need a whipping boy to bear all the abuse that rightly belongs to an entire group in what's supposed to be a team game.

I'm not saying I don't see where those players went wrong, or even that I don't get frustrated with underperformance or lack of team play myself. But the vitriol those players draw is a bit over the top sometimes. I mean, I agree Ryder didn't achieve the numbers we'd come to expect of him, but did he deserve to have fans blame him every time the team lost more than one in a row? Or to be called stupid and lazy because he didn't score much? And I'm the first to admit I didn't like David Aebischer as a Hab, but I wonder how much of the downward spiral he experienced had to do with the tidal wave of hate so many people directed at him. I wonder if he'd been shown more patience whether he'd have been so very awful late in the year two seasons ago.

It's not just idle talk on the part of fans either. Not in Montreal. It starts with a few bad games, or a slow start to the season. Then the fans, on their call-in shows and in blogs and letters to the editor, begin to turn on the player. It grows from there so that in daily sports columns, the player's name is preceded by phrases like "much-maligned" and "embattled." Then the player has to start answering questions about how he's handling the scrutiny and constant criticism. Then, before long, the kiss of death...the booing...begins. As a fan, I think there's nothing lower than booing your own player in his own rink. That's demoralizing to the player in question, but also his teammates, at least some of whom probably like the guy. It's also giving a boost to the opposition, a cardinal sin of fandom in my book. Before long, the player is considered a distraction and he finds himself wearing another team's colours...just ask Patrice Brisebois how that works. Some will say every team's fans have a player they love to berate. But in Montreal it's different. In Montreal the fans have power, if only derived from their relentnessness, to affect that player's very livelihood and place of employment.

It kind of reminds me of primitive societies that sacrificed a tribe member to the gods so they could guarantee a good harvest. I wonder if Habs' fans think sacrificing the player-non-grata of the season buys them favour with the hockey gods? Of course, the bile is a little less poisonous when the team's winning. Ryder got it last year because he wasn't performing, but everyone else (mostly) escaped. Regardless, he paid the price and now he's gone. It makes me wonder who'll be the whipping boy this year. Early indications are that it will be Mathieu Dandenault, if he's still around when training camp opens. Not that Dandenault's ever really done anything wrong, but his abilities have been outstripped by the talent on the team and he won't really contribute much since he's been bypassed on defence and there's a backlog of fourth liners...most of whom are better than him. His fault doesn't matter in any case...the fans just need someone to blame.

If Dandenault's gone, though, the other candidates include Francis Bouillon, who's already trade bait on many fan sites, and whose main fault seems to be the fact that he's not Andrei Markov or Mike Komisarek. Then there's Guillaume Latendresse, who, at 21 years of age is apparently on his "last chance" season among many Canadiens' supporters. If there's one way to guarantee that an underdeveloped talent ends up reaching his potential elsewhere, burning the Habs in the process, it's to make him the whipping boy and drive him out of town.

I hope the team is so good this year and all the players contribute so well that there's no way anyone can be singled out. But I, know...that's an unrealistic hope. Someone who's home training his butt off for the coming season right now, thinking of nothing but the potential of a fresh new season, will end the year in the doghouse or even on another team. I understand players come and go. Some fit with the team and some don't. I just wish they didn't have to go the way they do sometimes...with the boos ringing in their ears and the feeling that leaving Montreal was an escape rather than an opportunity.


pierre said...

My take on the fans attitude at the Bell is rather more positive than yours.... chronic booing from fans ended in 2003 at Gainey's request and the Bell has been a rather fine and reasonable place for the team to performed in since that moment in time.

The crowd has showned composure and restrain under a variety of disapointing circumstances during the last 3 years ( Bonk, Samsonov, Smolinski, Ryder, Kovalev ), the crowd never once ganged up to booed those underperforming players out of town..... it really paid off in the case of Kovalev as we all know.

I believe the Bell's crowd's survival instinc is sane ... they know that they have to do their parts if they want Montreal to be an attractive destination for the UFAs in the futur and they also know that being supportive of their team when under difficult situations is the better way to go.... the crowd showned amazing composure last season while the CH were being humiliated by the Rangers who had just scored a fifth unanwsered goals against the CH.... the fans were stunted and depressed but remained silent,.. no sarcasism were heard,.. no hostility were expressed.... the play by play persons for the Rangers were surprised by the gracefull reaction of the CH's fans under such hellish situation.... according to them it had a stupendous effect on the CH players..... and the rest as we all know now is history.... and even has a name of its own which I believe it to be.. '' the Comeback ''.

The call-in, the blogs, all of that might often be simplistic and negative while lacking class all at the same time but as long as the media doesn't use it as a reference to influence their work as they interact with the players all will be fine.

The problem therefore is the media, if they are criticised by the public they will raise their standard and will stop providing trash work.... RDS not renewing Pedneault's contract is a good start.... replacing him with Dany Dube instead of Brunet might have brought further positive effects to the hockey environment and climate in Quebec.... but anyway being Pedneaultless is a good step in his tendency to have favorites and denigrate others like the worst bloggers out there will not be missed by me.

Some fans will relax and enjoy hockey to its fullest only the day that our organization will have proved us without a doubt that our team destiny is in the best possible hands.... the reaching of the top and the ability to remain there year after year was the criterias we used in the seventys to know that our organization was the best..... when you see players moving in and out of the roster without ever trowing off the competiveness value of your team from one season to the next, then you know that your team is in very good hands and you stop being critical about the pieces of the puzzle and just enjoy the players while they are in your team..... thats how it was for Montreal at different time in their history and thats how it is today in Detroit.

J.T. said...

Nice comment, Pierre. However, not everyone is as restrained and gracious as you portray them to be. Ryder was definitely given the "boo-whenever-he-touches-the-puck" treatment last season. There's always someone to take the blame, even if it's a little more muted than in past years. And I agree with you in giving credit to Gainey for the relative mutedness these days.

Ian Cobb said...

Never left a comment here before JT. Hope it works.!

Just wanted to say, nice piece on Ryder. Thanks for putting the link on your post. Ian

Topham said...

Ithink you answered your own opening question when you said:

"In Montreal the fans have power, if only derived from their relentnessness, to affect that player's very livelihood and place of employment."

Many fans in Montreal dream to have some part in the team's success, many would be GM if asked to take up the role. Everyone, bar none has an opinion on how the team could be made up differently.

The Patrice Brisebois exit, and Thibault's which preceded it, were prime examples of this phenomenon. Boo enough and the player will be gone. in other words, the crowd knows what it is doing.

I think it would be hard to argue that the play of Brisebois pre-lockout or Samsonov last season was unfairly assessed. Both were playing poorly. And, though I think the booing may be harsh, i do see how it is the only real voice a fan has so as to move the agenda of the team.

Personally, I don't feel the exit of Michael Ryder was affected one way or the other by the fans response this season. Consider first that Ryder had twice reached free agency, twice gone to arbitration and twice been given modest one year contracts after 2 30-goal campaigns. Bob Gainey showed his cards in those moves – Ryder was not in the plans, he didn't believe he would become more, he probably thought he was overachieving.

Gainey's viewpoint was understandable in the context of the other prospects coming through. After all, Ryder didn't do anything particulaarly well except score, so once the rest of the players decided to score more (see this past seaosn), Ryder becomes expendable. The fact he wasn't scoring himself only reinforced that decision.

Unknown said...

Boy, I must really be getting old and afraid that my Alzheimer is worst than I care to admit because I don't remember Ryder being "booed whenever he touches the puck".

At least none I could really hear from my living-room. There might have been some murmurs at time but nothing to write home about.

On the other hand, this morning my right knee is telling me how old it feels...