Montreal’s French Canadian Nightmare

It’s no secret that the Montreal Canadiens have struggled to sign big name free agents because of the pressure that comes with wearing the CH. For Quebec born players especially, the pressure is almost unbearable and Habs fans have watched talented players like Simon Gagné or Vincent Lecavalier slip through their fingers and sign with the competition rather than play out the prime of their careers in a fishbowl. Daniel Brière was one of those players, until he wasn’t.

Brière broke the hearts of Canadiens fans and Montrealers when he became a free agent in 2007 and unexpectedly signed an 8 year, $52 million dollar contract with the Philadelphia Flyers after media reports implied that he was ready to come home. From that point on he was booed by the home crowd whenever he played at the Bell Centre as fans expressed their disappointment with his choice.

Brière Comes Home

Six years later, after a disappointing season, the Flyers exercised one of their compliance buyouts and Brière went back into the free agent pool. On July 4th, 2013, to everyone’s surprise, Canadiens management announced that they had come to a 2 year, $8 million dollar agreement with the former All-Star. The Canadiens had finally landed a free agent prize. The French media expressed their relief and their excitement with headlines like “6 ans après, Brière enfin avec le CH” (After 6 Years, Brière is finally with the CH) and “Cette fois, Daniel Brière choisit le Canadien” (This time, Daniel Brière chooses the Canadiens).

Yet, the news was received with mixed reviews by Habs fans who were excited to see a talented French born player finally sign with Montreal but recognized that they were not getting the same player at age 35 as the once 30 goal scorer.

The Montreal Canadiens organization, however, beamed with pride over the signing: “Daniel Brière brings a great deal of skills, experience and leadership to our team and he is a significant addition to our group of forwards,” said Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin. “Daniel showed a great desire to pursue his career in Montreal and we are very happy that he committed to playing in Montreal for the next two seasons.”

A media frenzy greeted Brière when he arrived at the team’s annual golf tournament to kick-off the season.

He was also swarmed by cameras and microphones when he first appeared in the Canadiens’ dressing room.

For his part, Daniel Brière was understandably cautious when he spoke of his decision to play in his home province: “For me, the Montreal Canadiens fans are probably the most passionate fans in the NHL. It’s an honour to be playing for them, in front of them, and all I’m hoping is that we will all be cheering in the same direction when the seasons starts.”

The Canadiens did everything they could to make their coveted free agent feel welcome. He is the first Canadiens player in history to have an accent on his jersey. Brière, himself, admitted to “feeling like a little kid” before the Habs’ home opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs in October.

Welcome to the Fishbowl

Unfortunately, it hasn’t exactly been a homecoming. Brière has struggled to find chemistry with a revolving door of linemates. He has been bumped and dropped between the third and fourth lines through much of the season while playing away from his natural position at center on the wing.

When the team found early success and began climbing the Eastern Conference ladder there were grumbles about Brière’s lack of production but he wasn’t a target, likely because he missed ten games due to a concussion and there was fellow French Canadian David Desharnais to complain about. When the media did notice
Brière made no excuses and acknowledged that it was up to him to earn more ice time.

In December, when the Habs really started to struggle fans took to social media to express every fault or failed play; every negative statistic or dollar wasted on the Canadiens’ coveted free agent. The media followed and Brière began to make headlines.

First came the unfounded rumours that Brière was unhappy in Montreal and had requested a trade. It’s not the first nor likely the last rumour of its kind this season, but an unwelcome distraction as the offensive-minded forward continued to see limited ice time. Then came the Canadiens’ 3-1 victory over the Pheonix Coyotes where Brière saw less than 5 minutes of ice time. And finally, he was a healthy scratch for the Habs’ 5-1 drubbing at the hands of the St. Louis Blues on December 19th.

It was the first time in Brière’s illustrious career that the former Buffalo Sabres captain was a healthy scratch. The news made headlines across the NHL it was hard not to notice that although he continued to answer the tough media questions with humility and class, his eyes told the story of his exhaustion.

Brière Deserves Better

It’s true, his point production is a disappointment. In 27 games so far, Brière has 5 goals, 10 points and is a -2, well below the standard he set for himself when he decided to start fresh in Montreal. He struggled last season as well with just 16 points in 34 games, his worst point tally in over a decade, but when Brière faced his former team for the first time on December 12th, fans greeted him with a standing ovation.

It’s been argued that the decision to sign Brière was mainly a political move to encourage French Canadiens to sign with the only NHL club left in the province of Quebec. That might be true, and the effort should not go unnoticed but nor should it detract from Brière’s reputation as a leader, a consummate professional, and one of the greatest playoff performers still in the game.

What the Canadiens hoped to accomplish was to bring in a talented Quebec born player and show them that it is a privilege to play for Montreal not a threat. The Canadiens organization has done their job. The media has done theirs by maintaining a level of respect when addressing Brière despite a disappointing season thus far. Habs fans have not done theirs.

Criticizing and deriding Briere’s play doesn’t save the Canadiens money nor will it help the team or Brière find its game. It is every fan’s right to express discontent when their team is losing and to expect management to bring in the best talent available, regardless of their name or birthplace, to help that team win. What they should also remember is that the more they load their criticism on one player, any player, be it a star or a fading star, the less likely it will be that any player will sign with Montreal in the future. Players want to win, yes, but they also want to be respected.

Daniel Brière is a professional who can take the pressure and the scrutiny. But to see the warm welcome he received from his former fans in Philadelphia, fans who wanted to say thank you for his contribution, makes one wonder if Brière is thinking back to what made him decide to come to Montreal in the first place – a place that probably no longer feels like home.

He was right to hope that we would all be cheering in the same direction. I’m just sorry that Habs fans couldn’t give him even half a season before they blamed him for trying to come home; for politely asking for a little respect. It should have been an honour to play for his hometown team not a nightmare.