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Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images Milan Lucic #17 of the Boston Bruins shoots the puck against Peter Budaj #30 of the Montreal Canadiens

Hold It High

The tradition of Habs hockey, and the storied Montreal-Boston rivalry

The Montreal Canadiens were trying to keep a slender 4-3 lead from slipping out of their grasp. There was one minute left in Sunday night’s game, and the Boston Bruins had brought goalie Tuukka Rask to the bench, and I was doing that hockey thing where you watch the action and, tremulously, sneak a peek up at the scoreboard clock, which seems to be operating at base-100 and moving very slowly, and then look back down to the ice, because, along with boxing, hockey is the only sport where you can look away for a second and miss how everything is won or lost. The Bruins were swarming the Montreal end of the rink, forcing a faceoff with 20 seconds left, and I was doing that hockey thing so quickly that I looked like one of those little German shepherd bobbleheads with the glowing red eyes that you used to see in the back windows of sedans. Three seconds. Two. There was a huge jam at the left post of the Montreal goal, and the final siren sounded, and nobody seemed entirely clear that the game was over, and I sat there, exhausted, betraying my profession in my heart.

It was a signifying win for the Canadiens, now the surprise first-place team in the Northeast Division of the NHL’s Eastern Conference, and a lovely evening of old-school, Original Six unpleasantness between two of the league’s most virulent rivals. There were a couple of adorable punch-ups, a lot of Sweeney Todd action with the sticks in the corner — Montreal center Lars Eller appeared on several occasions to be practicing plastic surgery without a license — and some general bustling and woofing throughout. After the game, Boston coach Claude Julien complained that the Canadiens were “embellishing” the contact for the purpose of pulling an okeydoke on the referees, which has been a regular complaint from Bruin coaches about Montreal players since shortly before the Harding administration.

Major style points went to Boston captain Zdeno Chara for pausing during a brawl with Alexei Emelin for the purposes of taking off his own helmet as if to say, “Now, you know who you’re fighting, Tsarevich.” Unfortunately for the Bruins, this proved to be a somewhat pivotal moment, as Chara was hit with the hat trick of penalties — a two-minute minor for instigating, a five-minute major for fighting, and a 10-minute misconduct. It was while the huge Boston defenseman was off the ice that Montreal center David Desharnais found the puck in the Boston crease while everyone else, including Rask, was falling down backward in front of him. He lifted it into the top corner for the game-winner.

“It just bounced on my stick there,” Desharnais said. “A lucky one.”

It has been a lost decade or two for the Canadiens. The last of their 24 Stanley Cups was in 1993, which is also the last time they played for one. There has been only one first-place finish in the division since. This is not what you get paid for when you walk into that dressing room with the head shots on the wall and the quote from John McCrae about the torch and all. This does not make all the ghosts happy. Desharnais, a native of Laurier-Station, Quebec, who came to the team as an undrafted free agent in 2008, and who scored twice Sunday night, comes out of the tradition from which the tradition was born.

“Sometimes, you forget about that, that it’s a big thing, and I always try to remember myself that I am lucky to put the sweater on every night,” he said. “Of course, you see that history in that dressing room. I was a Montreal fan growing up, so I know what it is all about. I’m sure I don’t even realize it now. When my career will be done, I will realize it even more.”

And, as he spoke, I betrayed my profession in my heart again.

Milan Lucic #17 of the Boston Bruins shoots the puck against Peter Budaj #30 of the Montreal Canadiens

This is how I learned to speak French: I learned to speak French in two ways, and through two distinct media. The first was at school, from the nuns and then in my high school’s language lab. Language lab was the only place in my high school where you were allowed to wear headphones. You’d go in there, slap on a set of cans, and then somebody would start speaking to you in French, and you would repeat what they said. This is all that I remember from what I learned:

Bonjour, Jeanne, où est la bibliothèque?

In my life, during which I have been to several places where French is spoken, this has not been very helpful. First of all, not all Francophone people are named “Jeanne,” and many of them object to being called that if it doesn’t happen to be their name, especially the men. On the upside, I can find my way to the library in every town in France and the Canadian province of Quebec. Which can make for a very abstemious, if boring, vacation.

(Once, I was at a game in Fenway Park with my best friend, who happens to be of stout French Canadian stock and, as luck would have it, two very attractive Québécoises sat in the row in front of us. I suggested that he do some of that ici on parle hoodoo and see where it got us. He leaned over and said, “Bonjour, Jeanne, où est la bibliothèque?” Somewhere in Repentigny to this day, one of those women is telling that story to her grandchildren and laughing at the Americans who thought they were going to the library and ended up in a baseball game.)

The second place I learned to speak French was through a transistor radio, slipped under my pillow, from which I would listen to the broadcast of Montreal Canadiens games on the French-language station that bounced down through the atmosphere and into Massachusetts at night. Here, I learned “le but du Canadien” and a number of other phrases, but mostly, it was the names — that long litany of rolled R’s and mellifluous L’s. Lemaire. Laperrière. Richard. The gloriously diphthonged Yvan Cournoyer. And Béliveau. Toujours Béliveau, like the last syllable of a romantic poem.

It all started with my father, who coached high school hockey in Massachusetts. I wanted to follow an NHL team, and I didn’t want it to be the Bruins because, frankly, at the beginning of the 1960s, the Bruins blew goats. They weren’t just bad. They were hilariously bad. Over the first six years of the decade, they won an average of 17 games a year, and they were not as good as their record indicated. As your basic front-running little suburban weasel, I didn’t want any part of that, not with the Celtics winning every year. So, one Saturday afternoon, while we were watching a hockey game from some darkened Gardens or another — in those days, the NBA played in Memorial Coliseums and the NHL played in Gardens; go figure — I asked him what team I should follow. The Canadiens were beating the hell out of someone. “Those guys,” my father said, pointing to the guys in the dark jerseys on the black-and-white TV. “Watch them. They play the game right.”

So I adopted the Canadiens, gobbling what news I could out of the Sporting News and listening to the games when the atmospheric conditions were proper. And I was grooving right along. Montreal won the Cup in 1965, and again in 1966, lost in 1967, but won the next two in a row.

And then transcendence fell right on my head.

In my defense, transcendence isn’t exactly as predictable as the spring rain. It just happens one day and leaves you blinking from its impact. You’re Jim Krebs, say, or Clyde Lovellette, or some other member of the Great White Fleet that sailed through the pivot in the NBA in the 1950s. You’re doing OK, and life is fine, and then, all of a sudden, one day, Bill Russell shows up and you might as well have been traded to the La Brea Tar Pits. So there I was, the only Canadiens fan in my high school and, all of a sudden, Bobby Orr happens to me. It wasn’t that Orr was a great player. It was that he was the great player, transformative as well as immensely talented.

(To this day, no athlete in my lifetime has changed the inherent structure of the game he played as thoroughly as Orr did. You can draw a straight line from, say, Connie Hawkins to Michael Jordan to LeBron James. You can trace Ali back to Sugar Ray Robinson and, allowing for the fact that Ali was a heavyweight, there was an evolution of the form that you could follow. There simply was nobody like Bobby Orr before there was Bobby Orr. You can’t find an antecedent who doesn’t look silly by comparison.)

All of a sudden, the Bruins were good, and one of the Bruins was unlike anyone I’d ever seen play hockey, and things got very ugly very quickly. Almost three decades of accumulated Bruins futility got swept away with a vengeance. They were good, and they were charismatic — Derek Sanderson! Eek! — and one of them was turning hockey into a video game right before our eyes. And there I was, very much out on an island. The Canadiens were getting old. They were slipping behind the Chicago Black Hawks, let alone the Bruins. Boston won the 1970 Stanley Cup, and I hunkered down for a long siege. In 1971, though, the universe clicked back into alignment. The Canadiens won the Cup again, but it was the way they got there that’s more important.

The Bruins had put up 121 points that season, almost 30 more than the Canadiens had amassed. Orr had 102 assists as a defenseman. Phil Esposito scored 76 goals. They were crazy good offensively. At the end of the season, however, Montreal called up rookie Ken Dryden, a huge goaltender out of Cornell. And, in the Eastern Conference finals, Dryden drove the Bruins up the wall. He took away the low corners from Esposito, frustrating the Boston center to the point where, after getting stuffed from the crease one more time, Esposito simply Pete Townshended his stick across the crossbar. The great Béliveau made Sanderson look silly.

The Bruins won the first playoff game, 3-1, and then Boston coach Tom Johnson unaccountably switched goalies for the second game, bringing out Eddie Johnston instead of Gerry Cheevers, and the Canadiens came back from 5-1 down to win, 7-5. (Red Fisher, the longtime Montreal hockey writer, called that game the greatest comeback in the history of the franchise.) The odds on my having been insufferable the next day are not long.

The series rocked along to a seventh game, which was played on a Sunday on which I happened to be on a religious retreat. I seriously pondered going over the damn wall. I sat in a chapel, my soul being saved, and leaned my head conspicuously on my right hand, the cord to the earphone going down my sleeve and into the radio in my pocket. Boston scored first but, with Dryden sending Esposito around the bend, Montreal rallied and won 4-2. My obvious enthusiasm may have been attributed to the sudden intervention of the Holy Spirit, but, if it was, that bad boy was wearing bleu, blanc, et rouge.

Across the Montreal dressing room from where Desharnais was chatting in French to a broadcast crew, Brendan Gallagher was practically giggling with every word, and I am not kidding about this. You will not see an athlete happier with his place in the world than the little rookie winger from Edmonton. He had a very good night, rolling around the ice like a bowling ball and racking up assists on both the game-tying and game-winning goals. He was only about two weeks removed from a concussion he sustained against Philadelphia but, on this night, with the game put away, he smiled and he laughed and he bounced there as though he were waiting in line for the greatest thing in the world, just around the corner.

“It’s very cool. Just the way the organization treats us, it’s incredible to be a part of,” Gallagher said. “And the pressure that comes with it is something I enjoy. We see the old guys around. They hang around our rink and come and crack jokes with us. Those guys paved the way for us and it’s good to pay respect because most of ’em have about eight or nine Stanley Cups. That’s something that wouldn’t be too bad.”

I don’t think we can do much with his name, unless we determine to pronounce it Galla-ghey, and I am not prepared to do that because, while I have betrayed my profession in my heart, monkeying around with a fine gunman’s name like “Brendan Gallagher” is enough to make eight generations of my family rise from beneath the sod. What the hell — at least if he needs help, I can show him where the library is.

Filed Under: Hockey

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.