Thursday, April 10, 2008

The fever is back in Quebec

It's been a dormant strain the last few years, but with the surprising (maybe not so for Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau) rise of the Montreal Canadiens this season, playoff fever is back in Quebec and the outbreak appears to be widespread.

Long accustomed to reigning over the NHL playoffs like ancient knights, the Habs fell upon troubled times over the last few years, regularly fishing at the bottom of the playoff pool, more likely to miss out than to move up. Quinze saisons have passed by since the last Canadien lifted up Lord Stanley's Cup and started the parade down Rue Ste. Catherine, an ice age of almost biblical proportions for Quebec.

It was a situation that has made many a Montreal sportswriter profligate in copy, but never really had much of an effect on the attendance at the Bell Centre, Montreal being one of the rocks of the NHL foundation, but when the NHL playoffs came around Quebeckers had to seek out other teams to follow, maybe Jacques Lemaire's Wild (though in previous years hardly playing the kind of hockey that made Montreal famous), others longing for a Vinny Lecavalier perhaps became charter members of the Lightning bandwagon (and well a trip to Florida is always nice non?) some moved over to the Buffalo camp, few however we suspect joined up in the successive Senator bandwagons, and none had to ever give much thought about chanting Go Leafs Go, unless they were at a pro am golf tournament.

But this season has been different, the home side made their push up the standings about the same time as the folks at the other end of 417 were sliding down. Montreal was sparked this year by some exotic names like Koivu, Kovalev, Grabovski, Kostitsyn, Plekanec, Markov, Halak, Streit and Hamrlik a virtual United Nations of a roster.

Even the North American players come from diverse backgrounds, from Newfoundland to BC with stops in Ontario and the Ulkatcho First Nation, New York State provides three to the roster, Ohio one.

Quebec born players which once made up over half of a Montreal line up now number but five on the current Montreal line up of 26 and if the critics would have had their way Patrice Brisebois would have been banished last year.

The make up of the fabled franchise has certainly made some global changes over the last fifteen years. In a province which debates issues of language and politics with little in the way of a nudge, this must have been a most remarkable metamorphosis.

There still have been occasional blips along the way to the global village, a brief controversy broke out over Captain Koivu's English only comments at the start of the season, a tempest which provided the always savvy to make a point politicians and the usual media suspects with another bit of time in the spotlight, but a controversy that seemed to die off as fast as it started.

When the popular Chrisotbal Huet, a crowd favourite in Montreal was traded away at the deadline, replaced by British Columbia's Carey Price, a few eyebrows were raised, but Price's remarkable play down the stretch nipped any thought of insurrection in the bud. By the time the regular season had come to an end, the fabled names of Dryden and Roy were being bounced around when talk came of Price.

Winning it seems quiets the stirring beast, when the Canadiens were regularly trolling the bottom of the playoff bound standings the commentators and columnists, bartenders and patrons alike all were vocal and anxious for a return to the winning ways and flashy style of the old days.

The style and flash is back, only the names have changed and the accents it would seem.

Graeme Hamilton of the National Post, put together a fascinating look at the culture shock that Habs fans have suddenly had to face, judging by the enthusiasm for the team and the optimism of the pending second season, the global vision has trumped the ancient days of provincialism, the moment.

This season, the further these Internationalist Canadiens go in the playoffs, the further to the back of the shelves those history books will be placed.

They celebrate the centennial of the franchise in 2009, the ghosts of the Forum mixing with the youth on the ice today at the Bell Centre, should Montreal capture the Cup in this amazing season, the tradition of passing the torch will certainly be one with a very different image than the days of the past.

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