In our house hockey is a religion and a point of contention. We live in a house divided. I bleed bleu, blanc et rouge courtesy of the Montreal Canadiens, while my boyfriend chooses to fly with the Detroit Red Wings. I’m just as baffled as you are about that choice.
I don’t generally have a hard time speaking highly of a team who has won 24 Stanley Cups in their time as a Franchise (*cough* Red Wings only have 11 *cough*) but this past season as a Habs fan, I struggled. Some of their moments on the ice were downright heartbreaking and that segued the Montreal Canadiens into a season worthy of folding up the old jersey early and packing it away until next year.
I crossed the border to Buffalo in February to see the Habs play live. In recent years, Buffalo hasn’t been that hard to beat so I was feeling pretty good about our chances, despite a rough season without our beloved Carey Price. The Buffalo fans in our section were fairly obnoxious, made worse by their nicknaming me “the ice queen” early in the game and chastising every Montreal fan within 10 rows of them. My boys HAD to win this.
For the next three hours, I rode the Montreal roller coaster. There were moments I wanted to stick my tongue out at those Buffalo fans and taunt obnoxiously back “Ha my team is better than yours!” but I kept quiet at the risk of jeopardizing my ice queen street cred. Then, I watched Buffalo score three goals early in the second period and I thought the end was near. Montreal answered back quickly bringing the score to 4-3. A real nail-biter.
From there though, things fell apart- a lot like Montreal’s season.
P.K. Subban- who I’ve felt has been unfairly scrutinized and demonized by the media- threw what I can only describe as a temper tantrum just left of center ice. He had possession of the puck and was skating confidently towards Buffalo’s end, when he stopped, slapped the ice a bunch of times and started screaming at the referees. The game was still live. A Buffalo player skated up while he continued to yell and throw a fit, grabbed the puck, took it to Montreal’s end and scored. Montreal lost momentum after that. As the red light was glowing and crowd was cheering, the team was deflating. Buffalo ended up winning 6-4.
I felt personally slighted. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. When you’re paid millions and millions of dollars (in PK’s case, 72 million to be exact) to know your sport and play it well, I expect to see that when I pay an unbelievable amount of money and travel through a snowstorm to watch. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not pegging the whole of Montreal’s poor performance last season on PK, but in that game it became abundantly clear that he and his giant ego were some large contributing factors. He brought attitude to the ice and as I watched him struggle with the frustration of loss, I think he brought a divide to the team as well.
I wanted to believe it was because he wanted to succeed so badly but after his emotionally charged fit, I started to come to terms with the cold hard truth that it might be time for Montreal to break up with PK Subban. Pure speculation of course, but whatever the reason, his display on the ice indicated there was a crack slicing through the cool composure of a team highly anticipated to blow away the competition with ease.
As rumours of trouble in the locker room followed Montreal from city to city, their fall from first became everyone’s favourite topic. Was it Carey Price’s absence? Michel Therrien’s coaching style? PK’s attitude? Pacioretty’s leadership? How did a team that started out the season with a nine game winning streak not make it to the playoffs?
By season’s end in 2016, there were no definitive answers.
Video footage surfaced of Carey Price skating around an arena, barely able to set down his foot for the pain after promising to return all season. Max Pacioretty continued to wear the captain title with no sign that any change would be made to the position. P.K. Subban continued his campaign with the hospital in Quebec, donating 10 million dollars over seven years to the cause and no plans in sight to go anywhere either. Michel Therrien continued his post as coach despite rumours that he would be fired and fans packed away their jerseys early, disappointed by the outcome of a promising season.
Then, when it appeared there would be no major moves, the P.K. Subban/ Shea Weber trade was announced. Canadiens fandom went wild. As it happens, I went wild too but not in the same way every other fan did. I was excited.
The Nashville Predators sent Shea Weber back to his native Canada, and would take on Subban in his place. Most Montreal fans felt pretty unfavourably about the whole thing because Weber is older than Subban and Montreal will be paying him out until he’s 40 (ancient in hockey years) while Subban’s payout would have ended when he was 33.
One article I read coined the trade “the worst trade in NHL history”. Seems harsh. Subban’s overall stats are stronger than Weber’s, true, but Weber is a stronger goal scorer and his shot is arguably the hardest in the league. Not only that, perhaps most importantly of all, Weber is the team player and leader I believe Montreal has been looking for. He has impressed with his gold medal Olympic performance with Team Canada (twice!) as well as his most recent appearance on the victorious Canadian World Cup team, next to Carey Price and a full roster of other impressive big names.
From my perspective, Montreal hardly got the raw end of the deal. I don’t want to jinx it by proclaiming just days before the season is set to begin that the Habs are in good position, but I think what’s most encouraging to me is that they’ve decided to put their money where their mouth is and look at building a more cohesive team by stacking it with more than just player stats. You can have a team of the most skilled players in the world and without that cohesion, leadership and collective team spirit, you’ve got nothing.
In Shea Weber we get a leader (he’s already been named alternate captain), a giant at 6 ft 3 inches tall or 191cm, a massively explosive slapshot, a hard hitter and a truly professional guy.
Mike Babcock recently coached the 2016 Canadian world cup team and he said of Weber “What I like about him best is when he walks in the dressing room you know its business. And so he’s a culture-type person. He makes your franchise better when he walks in the door. Bar none”.
So, as loyal as I am to the Habs and as much as I appreciate the effort and accountability of every member of the team, I can’t help but think something much bigger is happening here. This is a team maturing and evolving past the boundaries of large salaries and big egos and on to something that’s much more about the sport and well-being of the team and franchise. Sorry PK- best of luck with the Preds! Montreal is ready for the Weber effect.