A Steadfast Hab-it

You may not bow down and be a true believer, but I am. At the altar of the Montreal Canadiens, I mean. The spirit descended on me in 1962 and I have not felt a moment of doubt ever since.
Oh sure, scoff all you want. Judaism, Christianity and Islam may share Abraham, Isaac and David, but have they contributed more to my life than Jean Beliveau, Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson ? And that’s not even bringing up Rocket Richard who I never saw play in the flesh, just on those grainy old film replays from the 1950s, sort of like watching a video of Jesus giving the Sermon on the Mount.
I tell my kids that when I was growing up in Montreal hockey was like a religion. They look at me blankly, nod their heads if they’re feeling polite and go back to Instagram, Facebook and on-line poker. I sigh, pity them for the heathens they are and just hope that hellfire is not really the destination for non-believers.
But even today seeing the Habs eliminated annually from the playoffs brings on the same feeling as a punch to the solar plexus or a death in the family. Maybe I no longer stumble into the bathroom and cry bitter, disbelieving tears as I did in 1967 when the Leafs beat the bleu, blanc, rouge to win the Stanley Cup in Canada’s Centennial year. But I can honestly say that I cursed that blue-clad clan of Protestant Orangemen, hexing them with the curse that they wouldn’t win another Stanley Cup for fifty years. I sealed the deal by spitting in the toilet. If I had spit on the bathroom floor my mother would have made me clean it up by myself. It’s been going on forty seven years and my curse, to quote Hemingway, she still runs good. I swear that the statue of Maurice Richard winks at me every time I drove over the bridge into Gatineau. For me it’s like seeing the face of a crying Virgin Mary in my plate of lasagna.
Like most religious fanatics I came to my faith early on. It’s not even as if I was brainwashed. My father was a fan, but he was just like one of those weekly church-goers that don’t let any exhortations from the pulpit affect their lives too seriously. My mother, and I pray daily for her soul because of this, was a Leafs’ fan. My older brother was completely indifferent to anything he referred to as a jock-like activity. My younger brother, who was under my good influence at first, soon sold out when he received a team picture of the then-Minnesota North Stars in the mail. I still compare it to the Bible story where Esau gave away his birthright for a mess of pottage.
Jean Beliveau is my patron saint and he never once let me down, never let my faith waiver. The greatest gift I ever received was a Canadiens’ sweater when I was ten years old, with Big Jean’s Number 4 on the back. Every day after school in our road hockey games I would announce that I was Jean Beliveau and the other kids would just smile indulgently, like you might do when your friend announces that he is the reincarnation of some great historical figure.
Those CBC commentators on Hockey Night in Canada enrage me weekly, especially at playoff time. Habs-haters all of them, from Don Cherry to P.K. Stock and Glen Healy, all who go back in time to when the Canadiens used to yearly knock them out of the playoffs. By cheating, of course, they imply. By having the refs afraid to call a penalty against them in the Montreal Forum. By always being favoured in the NHL’s head office. They belittle the miracle of the Canadiens’ twenty seven Stanley Cups, more than twice as many as any other team in the league. To me it is no different than denying Jesus’s miracles, like saying some cantine truck drove up just in time to supplement the five loaves and two fishes that Jesus was dividing up to feed the multitudes.
I have only found one other fanatical true believer to rival me in my devotion. His name was Paddy Dussault and he was a hockey-playing buddy of mine at Bishop’s University in the 1970s. He used to carry around in his wallet an autographed photo of Guy Lafleur and it came in particularly handy one Saturday night in April when we crossed the border into Newport, Vermont to revel in one of those cheaper American bars after yet another Canadiens’ victory. Stopped at Customs as we were about to cross back into Canada we were asked to produce some identification. Paddy, who was not at the wheel, pulled out his Lafleur -autographed photo and stuck it in the officer’s face. Then my other friend gunned the gas and we tore out of there. There was no siren, no alarm, no chase. Maybe the customs officer was another true believer.
Maybe he assumed to track us down and fine us would be like giving a traffic ticket to the Popemobile.

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