The Montréal Canadiens occupy a position no other franchise in the National Hockey League occupies, and one only shared with a select few franchises across major sports. Alongside great teams like baseball’s New York Yankees, football’s Green Bay Packers, and the great soccer teams of Europe, the Canadiens form the pantheon of legendary franchises. This culture comes from a combination of the atmosphere of the Centre Bell, the reverence with which the franchise and the fans look upon the team’s legends, and the role of the Canadiens in bonding together generations of supporters.
The Ambiance of the Centre Bell
Since it opened in 1999, the Bell Centre has acquired the reputation as the most intimidating home-ice advantage in the NHL. When entering the ice surface and looking to the rafters (as players do as the national anthems blare) you’re greeted with the seemingly endless swathe of banners glorifying the Habs’ greats and the 24 Stanley Cup banners, reminders of a glorious past and the responsibility that comes with wearing the bleu-blanc-rouge.
In more practical terms, the Bell Centre consistently appears at the top of the list when it comes to atmosphere; the NHLPA’s various player polls consistently rank the Canadiens domicile as the best ice in the league, and the fans are always rabid and intimidating, creating playoff-esque climates on a nightly basis. Jared Book of SBNation’s Habs Eyes on the Prize simply describes a “buzz”, almost as if other descriptors aren’t detailed enough to convey what goes on.
The Famous Forum
The atmosphere of the Bell Centre carries over from its predecessor, a building among the temples of major sports, the world-famous Montréal Forum. Home to the Canadiens from 1908 to 1996, the Forum presented a unique combination of intimacy and mysticism, formality and simplicity. Attending a game at this most exalted of arenas was an event, with fans regularly dressing to the nines to cheer on the Tricolore.
Seemingly the only acceptable attire to travel to a place where the most storied franchise in hockey history won 22 of its 24 Stanley Cup Championships.
What sets the culture of the Canadiens apart from all the rest, though, is how much they love and revere the team’s legendary players. After all, this is the same team of Guy Lafleur, Jacques Plante, Jean Béliveau, and Maurice Richard (among countless others). Legendary players enjoy a cult status essentially unrivalled in all pro sports, as they are welcomed back with open arms and provided with reserved places in the team’s legend’s box. Former team captain and Stanley Cup winner of record Jean Béliveau even attended every home game with his wife until his death in 2014.
Modern moments of reverence have been common, from the Jean Béliveau memorial to the team’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2008-09. American broadcaster Keith Olbermann has repeatedly emphasized the pageantry and respect of being honoured in Montréal, a distinction he believes has no equal in American sport.
The French Connection
The Canadiens are deeply connected to the fabric of hockey, the city of Montréal, and the province of Québec. Perhaps in a manner unlike any other in sport, the Canadiens have a place in the socio-cultural history of the city, the province, and the country in which they play. The reach of the team was and is so great that many outside Québec have become loyal fans, including Alan Doyle of the band Great Big Sea.
Actor and Montréal native Jay Baruchel has said that the culture that surrounds being a Habs fan “hits something really deep and tribal” within a person and the commonality of the Canadiens unites people who may not have anything else in common. The Canadiens are passed down from generation to generation, from grandparents to parents to children. They have a place in Canadian culture, and they express some of what we’re all about as a sporting nation.
With a culture and history unrivalled in hockey and in most major sports, the Canadiens are the perfect franchise to embody the famous epithet from John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields:
“Nos bras meurtris vous tendent le flambeau; à vous toujours de le porter bien haut.”
“To you from falling hands we throw the torch; be it yours to hold high.”
And hold it high they have.