Thursday, February 27, 2014


The Canadiens are taking a lot of criticism this year for being a bad hockey team. Their defence is weak, the critics say. Their power play is impotent. Their front lines are too small and their coaching is unimaginative. While those things are true, they don't make the Canadiens much worse than a good half of the other teams in the NHL. Parity is the reality in the big league these days, and parity means too many teams, not enough talent and fourth lines filled with borderline hockey players. Therefore, the Canadiens aren't a bad hockey team, necessarily. They're just a parity team.Where the complaints really should apply is in the style the Habs play. They may not be a bad team in comparison to many others, but they are a boring team.

I love the Canadiens. I started watching NHL hockey when I was a kid in 1984, so I can say I've been a fan for thirty years. (Full disclosure: I first cheered for the Flyers because I liked Tim Kerr, but quickly got my head on straight.) I have RDS on my cable so I never miss a Canadiens game. In the last couple of decades, with the exception of west coast games when my work schedule wouldn't allow me to stay up until 2:00 in the morning, I have watched every single Habs game. There were times when I shut the TV off in anger because they were badly losing to a hated rival. There were Christmas parties when I had to ask the host to switch the background game to Montreal when Toronto fans gave me the evil eye. I still managed to take in the games. Even if I tried to go to bed early, I'd lie there wondering what was happening with my team.

This is the first year I've voluntarily shut off the games halfway through and never thought about them again until the scores came out the next morning. I feel a bit like I'm betraying a long-time love, but then again, a relationship can only work if both sides give something. The Habs aren't giving us anything.

They rarely score, they take dumb penalties, they dump and chase and never retrieve. They play entire periods with fewer than five shots on goal. One could admire their defensive prowess, if there was any. They scramble around their own zone, relying on their goaltenders to save them, and they expect those goalies to win with a one-goal cushion. You can tell five minutes into the first period what kind of game you're going to see. If the Habs come out sluggish, slow and scrambly, nine chances out of ten the rest of the game will follow the pattern.

This adds up to BORING hockey. I'm not losing interest in the games because the Habs are bad, it's because I don't care about the process leading up to whatever outcome happens. This isn't good news for a pro hockey team, whose reason for being isn't winning the Stanley Cup but, rather, entertaining the fans. Only one team can win the big prize every year and most of the teams in the Parity League aren't good enough to contend. They need to keep their coffers full by providing a fun show for the fans.

Some teams do that by hiring cheerleaders or offering cool intermission shows. Some have their players go out and deliver the season tickets, to create a connection between the fans and the team. The Canadiens think they're above all that. They're the storied franchise with the most recognizable logo in hockey. They have the most hall-of-famers, the most Cups, the most team records. They don't need to ask fans to come watch, they think. The fans should ask them for the privilege of attending games at the Bell Centre.

That will work for a while. They'll sell out the Bell and they'll promote their glorious history in pre-game ceremonies featuring the remaining heroes of the past. It won't work forever. In the end, people come to see a show. The pre-game stuff will entertain for a little while, but three periods of hockey can get pretty damn boring if there's no substance to sustain the fans' interest. The Habs have no substance. They're not a bad team, they're a boring team. And that's a hundred times worse.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Stand By Your Man

This year's edition of the Montreal Canadiens doesn't have a lot to brag about. The players are mostly soft, they play on the perimeter, their power play is out of juice, their coach seems confused most nights and they don't clear the puck out of their own end very well. They can't score for those reasons, and, largely, because nobody screens the opposing goalie. Nobody except Brendan Gallagher.

Gallagher's official NHL profile lists him at 5'9" and 180 pounds. As is usual with players of smaller stature, those numbers are probably generous, and they come with a built-in bias that affects how many guys of that size make the NHL. Most teams will tolerate one short guy in the lineup, maybe two, but there's usually no room for more than that, no matter how talented those players are. This year, there are 22 everyday players in the league at Gallagher's size or smaller. Consider that there are about 700 regular players altogether, and you realize only 3% of all NHLers are around that size. Guys like him just don't make the big time unless they've got something special. Martin St.Louis is a natural goal scorer. Brian Gionta first cracked a strong Devils lineup because he had blazing speed and a sniper's instincts. Brendan Gallagher is in the NHL because he's got guts.

Gallagher has had to prove himself at every level because he's small. He doesn't have the sleek skills of Alex Galchenyuk, or the hockey smarts of Tomas Plekanec, so he used what he did have: fearlessness and intensity. He has never quit on a play in his life. He will go into the corner with anybody, and often comes out with the puck against bigger players, simply because of a dogged determination to do so. When the Habs need a goal, it's Gallagher who's parked in the crease, looking for a tip or a rebound. He takes abuse and he gets in trouble for interference, but he does it anyway, because that's his game. He doesn't have heart. He is heart.

So, when Gallagher takes a shot behind the net, or gets ragdolled in the crease because he's stepping up for the team, someone needs to step up for him. Max Pacioretty has the size Gallagher would love to have. He's 6'2" and 217 pounds and he's on the ice with Gallagher every shift. Yet, when opponents shove the smaller guy around, Pacioretty stands and watches. Big Lars Eller and Rene Bourque do the same, when they happen to share a shift with Gallagher.

This is what's wrong with the Canadiens. Marc Bergevin signed Brandon Prust two years ago to make the Habs tougher. He went out and hired George Parros for the same reason last summer. He's missing the point. Prust is certainly a battler who'll stand up for a teammate, but he's not on the ice with Gallagher very often. Parros hardly plays, and when he does, he plays minimal fourth-line minutes. The Habs can't wait around for the guys whose job it is to defend their teammates to come out on the ice. They have to push back as a team when the guy who's the team's heart is getting abused. The fact that so few Habs have that instinct is why they're so easily controlled by any team willing to physically punish them. Gallagher stands alone on too many nights.

If the Canadiens are to get better, they have to show opponents they won't stand to see their best players abused. And they have to play more like Gallagher. They need to learn from his determination and imitate his willingness to take punishment for the sake of winning. If they don't, and they don't defend the guy who does, they will have even less to brag about in April.