Les Canadiens a phenomenon
Habs beloved from coast to coast
By SCOTT FISHER, CALGARY SUN
A nation's fans be-Leaf in club
Toronto may have borrowed Canada's Maple Leaf for its logo. But the Leafs are not Canada's Team.
That prestigious title belongs to the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge.
The mighty Montreal Canadiens have been Canada's team for the better part of a century.
And the dilapidated Maple Laughs have looked up at the sport's greatest franchise with nothing but jealousy and envy from Day 1.
Just look at Roch Carrier's famous autobiographical short story, The Sweater.
As a youngster, Carrier grew out of his beloved Montreal Canadiens jersey and pleaded with his mother for a new one. Due to a shipping error, he received a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater instead and was forced to don the offensive blue garment.
He was ridiculed and sent off the ice, causing a stick-breaking temper tantrum. A priest sends him to the church to repent where he prays for "one hundred million moths to eat up my Toronto Maple Leafs sweater."
The Leafs can lay claim to one tag -- the most-despised team in Canada. With the Leafs dominating the Hockey Night in Canada airwaves and Toronto's arrogant centre-of-the-universe attitude, no team is cheered against with such ferocity.
Walk into a pub when the Leafs are playing (on TV again!) some no-name squad like Columbus and you'll hear Blue Jackets goals greeted with jubilation.
Yet the Buds are Canada's Team? Hardly.
The Canadiens were born in 1909-10 -- nearly a decade before the National Hockey League was formed -- when there were dozens of professional Canadian teams.
But once the Original Six took hold, there were two choices: Montreal or Toronto.
Not much of a decision there.
One was a flashy new sports car. The other, a boring station wagon.
The Flying Frenchmen, inventors of firewagon hockey, played an exciting style that hooked fans of the sport from coast-to-coast. And they were successful, which, of course, is the greatest marketing tool a pro sports franchise can have.
Fans like a winner. And the Habs have delivered more championships -- 24 in all -- than any team in the league. Only baseball's New York Yankees (26) have more titles.
While the Leafs have craved success, the Canadiens have demanded it. Even in recent, leaner times, failure has been deemed unacceptable. Just ask former coach Claude Julien, who was canned on the weekend despite a better-than-.500 record. Montreal's success doesn't fully account for its overwhelming popularity, of course.
The Canadiens are the first franchise to realize the importance of a strong farm system. Under the guidance of GM Frank Selke, the Habs bought junior franchises -- which were always the class of their leagues -- across the country to replenish their stock of talent.
Canadiens' fans have been rewarded for their allegiance with a steady stream of silverware. While long-suffering Leafs supporters have been waiting 38 years for an opportunity to pop the bubbly, the Habs have hoisted another 10 Cups during that span.
The silver mine hasn't been as prosperous as of late. Montreal, the last Canadian club to claim Lord Stanley's trophy in 1993, hasn't enjoyed the success its accustomed to since moving to the new Bell Centre in '96.
The 13th year of the current dry spell arrives this spring. And the mediocre Habs need their benevolent spirits more than ever.
The fans are getting restless. But their faith never wavers.