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Brian Taylor

Passing the Torch

A Canadiens fan journeys north to visit his first (and only) hockey love

Memories swirled like the flurries around Victoria Square. The best nights were the ones when it was snowing all over New England. I would go to bed and tune in a transistor radio, hoping for the right atmospheric conditions for the skip, and for the voice of René Lecavalier, who, if I started listening after the game had begun at the Montreal Forum, might just be intoning the magic words …

“Le but du Canadiens …”

The goal might have come from Henri Richard, the Pocket Rocket, who carved out a brilliant NHL career despite playing in the deepest, longest shadow, or it might have come from Yvan Cournoyer, or — best of all — from the great Jean Beliveau, Le Gros Bill, on a tip in front, or on one of those great sweeping rushes in front of the net. All I knew was that all was right with the world because I was in bed, and it was snowing, and les Habitants had put one past Sawchuk or Giacomin, or even poor Jacques Plante, who had been dealt off to New York because Montreal coach Toe Blake had grown exasperated with him. (After the 1963 season, Blake had given management a him-or-me ultimatum.) I came to love winter, transformed as it was by incantations from the north, where also fell the snow that was dancing through the lights outside my window.

“Le but du Canadiens …”

I still live in New England, and have all my life, but the Montreal Canadiens remain one of the few durable allegiances I have. I was thinking about those childhood nights, and all the ones that followed, a few weeks ago, when I found myself climbing the stairs from the Metro at the Lucien-L’Allier station, past the guy playing jazz sax. There was a jump in the air around the Bell Centre. Fathers and sons huddled against a rising wind. There was red and blue everywhere. Les Canadiens are playing tonight, I thought, and winter is as it should be.

♦♦♦

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It is the disembodied heads that get to you. That’s what the players say. For years now, both in the old Forum and in the gleaming new Bell Centre, the Canadiens’ dressing room has been ringed with head shots of the team’s former stars, all the way back to Howie Morenz and the unfortunate Georges Vezina, and even further back than that, to the magnificently monickered Sprague Cleghorn, who should have been a Confederate congressman or something. Ever since 1952, the pictures have been accompanied by two lines from “In Flanders Fields,” written in May of 1915 by a Canadian lieutenant colonel named John McCrae:

“To you from failing hands we throw the torch,
be yours to hold it high.”

“I mean, look up there,” says Brian Gionta, the Montreal captain. “That’s what makes it different here. It’s an honor, for sure, with the history of the organization. Every day, you come in here, and you look at the people who have been involved before you, and you feel honored to be a part of it all.”

Gionta’s team had just won a taut, wonderful game, 2-0, over the Calgary Flames. The Canadiens, who on Wednesday returned to home ice to face the Detroit Red Wings, entered this month’s Olympic break tucked into third place in the Atlantic Division behind the Boston Bruins and the Tampa Bay Lightning. They are quick and hardworking, but relatively small; Gionta is 5-foot-7 and 176 pounds, and he is very emblematic of the team he leads. These are not the Flying Frenchmen — not even the Frenchmen. There is less flash and dash than there is workmanlike grinding and sheer opportunism. Their first goal that night had come off a half-rush down the right wing by Brandon Prust, who’d thrown the puck in front of the net, one-hopping it off the leg of Rene Bourque with 3:45 left in the second period. It was not Guy Lafleur, sailing in with his hair ablaze behind him, but it was all the Canadiens needed.

♦♦♦

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How I came to be this way is simple. My father was the assistant principal of a high school in Worcester, in central Massachusetts. He also was the school’s hockey coach. When I was about 6, we were watching the NHL game of the week. He was drinking the one beer — Miller High Life, always — he allowed himself on weekends, and the game was being played in some dark arena. I forget who else was playing. It might have been the Red Wings or — and this would have been the best — the Maple Leafs. I already had pledged my young self to the Red Sox and Celtics, as well as, oddly, to the Cleveland Browns, New England not yet having a football team. (I came to the Browns because my father had seen Jim Brown run amok on his alma mater, Holy Cross, when Brown was running amok on everyone while at Syracuse, and my father had shaken his hand afterward, and Brown had said, “Thank you, sir,” and that “sir” had counted for a lot.) I needed a hockey team to cheer for, and the sorry-ass Boston Bruins were not going to be it. I was 6, but I had my pride. So, I asked my father which team I should follow, and he pointed to the screen.

“Those guys,” he said.

And that was it. I swear to god it was not front-running, not even a little. Well, maybe un petit peu.

There was something exotic about it, about listening to Lecavalier’s French play-by-play in the dead of night and the muffled roar of a crowd so far away, in my otherwise silent house. (Listening in English would have been to cheat the mystery out of it.) I kept up as best I could with the French I was learning in school, from the Sisters of St. Joseph and then from the Xaverian Brothers. But sports has a vocabulary of sounds as well as words, and the sounds are universal, and I could tell what happened in the Forum, even as the sound was pulled in through a cosmic accident, and filtered through a transistor radio under a pillow.

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Things rocketed along for me until the mid-1960s, when the unanticipated arrival of Bobby Orr with the Bruins caused great discomfort — not to mention the occasional severe financial reversal — every spring throughout high school. It was in 1971, in my senior year, however, when I was blessed with the playoff series that justified all those nights puzzling through the broadcasts en Quebecois. The ’71 Canadiens were led by the great Beliveau and a monstrous rookie goaltender named Ken Dryden, who stifled the Bruins, especially Phil Esposito. (At one point, after Dryden once again stole the low corner from him, Esposito nearly decapitated the goalie while slashing his stick off the crossbar.) Montreal upset the heavily favored Bruins in a seven-game quarterfinal round. They went on to beat the Chicago Blackhawks for their 17th Stanley Cup, but it’s that Bruins series I still remember. I was on a religious retreat the afternoon of the seventh game, and I had an aspiring cleric running me updates in chapel. Le bon Dieu was mon ami that day.

The only memory that comes close, this one purely secular, was the hilarious night eight years later when — at the biggest moment of his coaching career — Bruins coach Don Cherry found himself unable to count to six, and Boston was penalized for having too many men on the ice. The Canadiens tied it on the power play, and went on to beat the Bruins in that Game 7, too. The 1971 series was lordly and magnificent. The 1979 series was just a helluva lot of fun.

♦♦♦

The game was Dale Weise’s first with the Canadiens. He’d been traded a day earlier from Vancouver, and his father, a lifelong Montreal fan, had been texting him all afternoon, but, out of respect for tradition and for the disembodied heads, he declined to have his son text him a picture from inside the dressing room. “He hasn’t crossed that line yet,” Weise said. “I’m sure he’s trying to get the first flight down here.

“There’s a couple turns here [in the Bell Centre], I kind of got lost, but it was amazing,” Weise says. “This is just an incredible jersey, the logo, everything.” And the heads look down on him, mute history and living memory, for all of us in the room.

♦♦♦

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I got lost in the old Forum once. I was trying to find my seat. I got turned around somehow, and wound up in an aisle behind a tall, ludicrously handsome man with white hair and clear eyes, and a suit so sharp it could cut glass, and a regal air around him, calm as milk. I recognized him, froze for a long moment, and then I just followed him in. And that’s how I walked into the Forum, completely by accident, behind Jean Beliveau.

There was a hush I could feel in my bones, a palpable intake of breath around me before the cheers started, and then they came in great rolling waves. It is still like nothing I ever felt before. He has had many titles in his career. Captain of les Canadiens. Most Valuable Player. Hockey Hall of Famer. (Once, they even tried to make him governor general of Canada.) But, ultimately, wherever he went in the organization, there should have been only one thing written in gold script on the glass of his office door:

“Jean Beliveau — Living Embodiment”

I am not kidding. If ever I wrote a short story, say, about a fisherman who hooks a huge fish, and then reels it in and loses it, it would not be about an elderly Cuban man in the Caribbean. It would be about an old Quebecois gentleman, way out in the wild Gulf of Saint Lawrence, who fights his fish for hours, dreaming of the great Beliveau. Richard Ben Cramer demystified Joe DiMaggio for a country that didn’t want to listen to it, but this I tell you is true — in his life, and in how he played this game, Jean Beliveau actually is everything people in New York thought Joe DiMaggio was.

He was big and powerful, and he skated with an elegant, swooping grace that was his own alone. His presence by itself was worth a couple of goals; Derek Sanderson, who would have fed God a butt end in his playing days, talks about Beliveau with a reverential awe that seems to have organ chords hanging off every syllable. There was nothing like that moment, after hearing, “Le but de Canadiens,” then the phrase, “Numéro quatre … Jean Beliveau …” I idolize nobody, but I come closer with him than I do with any other athlete.

He is everywhere in the Bell Centre, in so many of the huge pictures that hang all over the walls. He is young in some of them, sitting with the Rocket and with Boom Boom Geoffrion, his generation so popular in juniors that Quebec City built Le Colisée just to accommodate the crowds that wanted to see young Jean play. There is one in which, silver-haired and smiling, he is literally handing a torch — be yours to hold it high! — to Brian Gionta. There is dignity in all of them, and there is grace, too.

He is old now, and his health is not good. There was a cancer scare, and then a stroke. He doesn’t do many interviews anymore, and he doesn’t come to as many games. But his phone number is still there in the book. I do not call it because I do not want to disturb him. After all, it isn’t as though he isn’t still there. It isn’t as though his presence doesn’t sing from the walls of the place.

♦♦♦

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Two nights after beating Calgary, the Canadiens won their second in a row, 5-2, over the Vancouver Canucks, in a game in which Carey Price — the talented Montreal goalie who would go on to become a national hero, giving up only three goals in five games to help Canada win a gold medal — was tending the net at the other end of the Bell Centre rink. It was a bizarre contest; Max Pacioretty got a hat trick for Montreal, but the fact is he could have had five. He was awarded two penalty shots in the same period, something nobody in the place ever had seen, and he’d missed them both badly. But it was Price who’d been the game’s real star, stopping 42 of 44 Vancouver shots.

He has long lived with this history, having come up through the Montreal organization since he was their first-round pick in the 2005 draft. At 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds, he is big for a goalie — not Dryden big, but Dryden was special — and his glove is extraordinarily quick. For several seasons now, Price has been the one to carry the most expectations of any player on the roster. He has been criticized for being lackadaisical in practice, and for being too intense in games. And he has stretches where he is almost comically bad; at one point in January, he gave up four goals or more in five straight games, and he got pulled twice. Then he shut out the Carolina Hurricanes and stopped 167 of the next 174 shots he faced. Every inch of this up-and-down stretch was studied with a jeweler’s eye by millions of fans, just as every move he has made in the crease has been studied, in one way or another, not merely in the spotlit present, but in the long beams of history as well. The team will go only as far as he takes it. He has long lived with this history and, if the disembodied heads stare down at anyone in particular, they stare down at Carey Price. He sometimes seems like a very old 26.

“I feel like I’ve been here forever,” said Price, who aggravated a lower-body injury in Sochi and didn’t play Wednesday. “I think this is my seventh year. It’s a classy organization. You look around this locker room and you got all the faces staring at you, it’s a proud tradition. We’re all honored to be a part of it.”

The guy is still playing the sax as I walk back toward the Metro. Exhausted children hang on to their fathers’ hands, faces buried deep in scarves of bleu-blanc-et-rouge. In the back of my mind, I hear a voice, skipping across the atmosphere, in flawless French, and a roar from a crowd in a place I had never seen, but where I went in my mind so many nights so long ago. I stop for a moment and look back at the Bell Centre and, as though on cue from something in my past, snow begins to fall on the Avenue des Canadiens-de-Montréal.

Illustration by Brian Taylor.

Filed Under: NHL, Montreal Canadiens, Carey Price, Hockey, Boston Bruins

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Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.

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