Habs the team of destiny Throw your support behind Canadiens in run for Lord Stanley's mug
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/06/2021 (706 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Oui, the North!
Of all the unexpected twists and turns life has thrown our way lately, the Montreal Canadiens making it to the Stanley Cup Final has to be near the top of the lengthy list. Who, other than perhaps the most diehard and, arguably, delusional fans could have seen this coming?
This is a club that fired its coach midway through the season, seemed poised to show their general manager the door as well, experienced a COVID-19 outbreak which led to the league’s most condensed schedule and limped to the finish line, winning just seven of their last 21 games (and one of their last seven) and barely holding off the likes of Calgary, Vancouver and Ottawa for the final playoff spot. Not exactly a dynasty in the making.
But look at them now. They upset a star-studded Toronto Maple Leafs club by rallying from a 3-1 series deficit, including two straight overtime wins, swept their way through the favoured Winnipeg Jets and then knocked off best team money could supposedly buy in the form of the loaded Vegas Golden Knights.
They are the first Canadian team to even make the dance in a decade, and just four wins away from bringing the cherished silver chalice to the Great White North for the first time in 28 years. Which is why I’m here to tell you today — as much as I suspect this is going to pain some of you — that it’s time to put aside any preconceived biases you might have, swallow your pride and throw your full support behind the bleu-blanc-rouge, at least for the next couple weeks.
We’re going to treat this as the big deal that it is at the Free Press, as I head to Montreal early next week to cover the Cup Final. I’ll be in Bell Centre for Games 3 and 4, then follow the series back-and-forth across the border for as long as it lasts. As someone who is fully vaccinated, I’ll be able to do so without the need for quarantine once federal changes commence July 5.
What’s not to love about what the Habs have done? OK, so Corey Perry is still a rat, but admit it: You’d LOVE to have him on your favourite team. My colleague, Jason Bell, was adamant last off-season Perry was exactly the type of free agent the Jets needed. Let’s just say Jay is pretty smug these days as Perry makes his second-straight Cup Final appearance, having fallen just short with Dallas last summer in the Edmonton bubble.
But I digress. Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? As sports editor Steve Lyons recently opined, cheering for a team like Vegas is like rooting for the house to win. What fun is that? If nothing else, Montreal has silenced all those know-it-alls who claimed the hockey being played in the all-Canadian division was somewhere between Timbits and Friday night beer league in terms of overall quality, and that whoever emerged from the division was going to be the proverbial bug on a windshield.
If you want local connections, there are plenty of those. Joel Edmundson, a big, strong defender who is a key part of Montreal’s stifling success in their own end, hails from Brandon. He’s chasing his second Cup victory in three years, having won it with St. Louis in 2019. The Canadiens have a trio of former Jets on their roster in Ben Chiarot, Joel Armia and Michael Frolik. Assistant coach Alex Burrows was a beloved member of the Manitoba Moose. Eric Staal is from nearby Thunder Bay.
They have some of the most exciting young players in the game, including rookie sensation Cole Caufield, sophomore Nick Suzuki (selected with the 13th overall pick in the 2017 draft which the Jets owned, then traded to Vegas as part of the expansion draft roster juggling) and third-year pro Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
They also have a pair of future Hall-of-Famers in goalie Carey Price and blue-liner Shea Weber finally reaching hockey’s biggest stage in the twilight of their careers. Price, by all accounts, is one of the true good guys in the game. The member of Ulkatcho First Nation in B.C has been vocal lately about the residential school horrors in Canada, even stopping to meet with survivor Gerry Shingoose as he walked to Bell MTS Place prior to a playoff game against the Jets earlier this month.
And they’ve accomplished their latest feat while their interim head coach, Dominique Ducharme, is in quarantine after a positive test, and ex-player Luke Richardson was forced to take the reigns. He wears a pin on his lapel, honouring his late daughter, Daron, who died by suicide in 2010. She was only 14.
Try this on for size: Montreal was awarded its first Clarence Campbell Bowl on Thursday night, which is traditionally given to the Western Conference champion in a season with normal divisional alignment. It’s named after the former NHL president who became public enemy No. 1 when he suspended Maurice “Rocket” Richard during the 1955 playoffs, a move which sparked riots. And get this: Campbell died on June 24, 1984 — 37 years to the day, which also happens to be Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day.
Forget about the hockey aspect for a second. This feels a lot bigger than that, like something really special is unfolding before our eyes that we’re going to all be talking about for a long time.
After 15 long months, there is finally some light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Vaccinations are working, case numbers are falling quickly and communities and cities are opening back up. We finally have something to rally around and cheer for in society. And the Canadiens are front and centre in that right now.
Just look at the joyful scene Thursday night, as Artturi Lehkonen sealed the deal with his overtime winner in front of 3,500 fans inside Bell Centre, and thousands more on the streets outside the downtown rink. Contrast that with the empty buildings and empty streets we’ve grown so accustomed to seeing, and you can’t help but feel a bit of hope for the future.
And if you aren’t yet buying the whole “team of destiny” storyline, consider this: Lehkonen was a healthy scratch for the Canadiens in Game 1 of the North Division final against the Jets. He only got into the lineup because Mark Scheifele blew up Jake Evans with a violent charge in the final minute of the game, sending the Montreal forward off the ice on a stretcher with a concussion.
Scheifele was banished for the rest of the series. Evans remains sidelined with injury. And Lehkonen set up the winning goal in Game 2, scored the winning goal in Game 3 and added another for good measure in Game 4. I hate to re-open a still-fresh wound, but it really makes you wonder how different things might have looked if not for that ill-fated decision by Winnipeg’s No. 1 centre.
As the saying goes, if “ifs” and “buts” were candy and nuts, wouldn’t it be a Merry Christmas?
You can’t change history, but the future is being written as we speak. And Montreal is penning a hell of a tale these days. Don’t fight it folks. It’s time to get on board. Start working on that “Olé, Olé, Olé” chant.
Woah, Canada. As hard as it might be to believe, the Habs are now “our” team.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.