One look at the press seating chart at a Montreal Canadiens game, and numbers can be overwhelming. Not only are there a plethora of print, web and electronic personnel covering the team, but this is done in two languages.
The sheer numbers here point to a rather extraordinary set of circumstances. First, the issue of interest is astonishing, and then there’s the passion and reverence.
When it comes to the Montreal Canadiens, no team in sports, any sport and anywhere, has so defined an aura surrounding the franchise. Pundits like to make the analogy to the New York Yankees in reference to success, notable players, and the ability to transcend sport into culture.
Canadiens’ captain Max Pacioretty may be the first to plead guilty here. Growing up in New Canaan, Conn., just 50 miles north of New York City, hockey was clearly on the back burner. Not the Yankees.
“There’s always that comparison to the Yankees,” Pacioretty said Monday after the Canadiens’ morning skate in the Gila River Arena. “Here in Montreal, the fans are so passionate, and everything seems to stop when we play. People come out bars and based on the expression on their faces, you know if we won or lost.”
Despite not winning the Stanley Cup in over 20 years, the passion and zeal for this team continues to peak. The fervor reaches so high and the intensity so all-embracing that the people’s passion for the Canadiens prompted deeper thought.
In 2008, Oliver Bauer, a professor of theology at the University of Montreal, observed the passion of fans was equal to religious commitment. Writing in The National Post, reporter Graeme Hamilton described Professor Bauer as asking the larger question, whether the Montreal Canadiens are a religion?
To find the answer, the university allotted Professor Bauer a $7,000 grant to examine the question. He found various analogies to religious commitment, and an equal commitment people had for the Canadiens. In one instance, he discovered a young woman, writing on Le Devoir’s web site, who confessed that to miss a Canadiens game was to commit a sin. When the team faced elimination in the Stanley Cup playoffs one year, she climbed the 283 steps in the St. Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal, and fell to her knees in prayer
Glance at the Canadiens media guide and the pages read like a history of the NHL. Populated by great players with astonishing achievements, the sense of obligation and loyalty to the team remains zealous.
“It’s all about the history,” said Canadiens’ coach Michel Therrien. “We all understand where we came from, and it’s about the players who came before us.”
Though the Canadiens last won the Stanley Cup in 1993, that’s now a footnote in history. What remains remarkable is the veneration which continues to envelop this franchise. If Therrien referenced the past as a gateway to the future, his observations resonate.
“The standards here are set very high,” Pacioretty said. “We are reminded all the time of the success of former players.”
Because the Canadiens have drawn a remarkable pool of talent from the home province of Quebec, it’s no wonder that several pantheons of history come from the region.
Beginning with Georges Vezina and through Jacques Plante, Jean Beliveau, Bernie Geoffrion, Maurice Richard, Henri Richard, Guy Lafleur, Yvan Cournoyer and a plethora of other personifications of the franchise, the images and success remains indelible marks to those who witnessed their feats, and to those who carry the torch.
Mark Brown is a former sports editor for daily newspapers in the Philadelphia and Cincinnati markets. He was named Best Sports Columnist, honorable mention 2004 by the Associated Press Society of Ohio. He is a contributor to major daily newspapers, including the Chicago Sun Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Milwaukee Journal, Arizona Republic, Nashville Tennessean and the Associated Press. He was a Featured Columnist for bleacherreport.com and covered the Arizona Coyotes.