COLUMN

Show us victory, or show us out

It's not a good idea for Montreal teams to lose a couple of games in a row

Trent Frayne December 22 1980
COLUMN

Show us victory, or show us out

It's not a good idea for Montreal teams to lose a couple of games in a row

Trent Frayne December 22 1980

Show us victory, or show us out

COLUMN

It's not a good idea for Montreal teams to lose a couple of games in a row

Trent Frayne

A person could fall right out of bed fretting over the plight of the sports fans of Montreal. If they aren’t suffering one indignity, they’re suffering another. Last week their insensitive heroes, Les Canadiens, lost for the second time in six nights to Pittsburgh. Yes, Pittsburgh. Not the Pittsburgh Steelers, not the Pittsburgh Pirates, but the Pittsburgh, ah, Penguins. The nerve of Les Canadiens.

It wasn’t as though the fans hadn’t made their position clear. In the first setback, in the Montreal Forum, the fans booed when Pittsburgh went ahead and stayed there, winning by one goal. In spite of that, six nights later the team went into Pittsburgh and lost anyway. A real lacing: 4-3. In the 14-year history of the Penguins franchise, these patsies had never beaten Les Habitants in successive games. It’s hard to imagine the Montreal ingrates doing this to their fans. After only 14 years, falling apart like that.

There is a persistent myth, widely spread, that Montreal is one of the great sports towns. Montreal isn’t, not if the yardstick is patience, perseverance and even a touch of gratitude for past favors. Anybody can flock to a winner’s parade. You judge a town by how it responds to another notch in the loss column. Montreal freaks out.

Early in November, only 17,420 persons were found-ins at the semifinal playoff of the Eastern Conference of the troubled Canadian Football League. The troubled CFL, that is. The principal reason it is troubled is not that people are staying away in Regina or Calgary or Winnipeg or most of the other CFL stops, but that they are staying away in Montreal—97,000 fewer this season than last. And the meagre turnout of 17,420 was the lowest for a playoff game since players stopped hanging up their moleskins.

At the time of that game between the Alouettes and Ottawa, their ancient rivals, the Alouettes hadn’t been in the Grey Cup final since away back the preceding November—damned nearly a year. In fact, since the 1974 Grey Cup game, which they won, the Alouettes had been in the big game only in 1975, 1977,1978 and 1979.

It was evident early in this past season that Montreal fans weren’t going to take defeat sitting down (not sitting

down in the Olympic Stadium, at any rate). Slow to start, the Alouettes attracted only 66,474 for their first two home games. Thirty-three thousand fans do not even half fill the ball park. By playoff time, with 17,000 there, you could see why the 60,000-seat stadium is called the Big Owe. Only three years earlier, when the Alouettes were winning, the all-time record crowd of 68,318 watched them win the cup.

It is not a good idea for the three teams in red, white and blue (or, as an Air Canada stewardess might phrase it, rouge, blanc et bleu) to lose a couple of games in a row in Montreal. Adoration has come only recently to the nowfawned-upon Expos. For the first few years, they were a novelty and they were unique, the one and only Canadian ball club in the major leagues (all the joys of Jarry Park, remember?), but familiarity with their act brought a certain disenchantment, apparently, for by 1976 attendance had dropped to 646,000 from a high of 1,424,000 in 1970. The sentimental Montreal Gazette ran a pic-

ture of the owner, Charles Bronfman, one time when the team was gasping. “There is no truth to the rumor,” the caption sniffed, “that he wants to buy a major-league ball club.”

Over at the Forum, this myth that Montreal fans are extra-special reaches right up to the 22 Stanley Cup pennants suspended from the rafters. American magazine writers make periodic pilgrimages there and applaud Forum fans as the most knowledgeable and generous anywhere. “Without fail they applaud clever plays by opposing players,” a man named Herbert Warren Wind has penned in a typical panegyric in The New Yorker. As I, myself, have responded to this baloney upon occasion, yes and no. When the Canadiens are leading somebody by 8-1 or 9-2, the fans in the Forum are generous to a fault. “C’est si bon!,” and “Oh, good for you!” are greetings festooned upon some sweaty oaf in a visiting uniform when he pulls his team to within nine goals of the gallant homesters. But when the score is 3-2 for the sons of bad women from out of town, they’re ready to pull down the iron girders in the roof and wrap them around the head of the dummy who is refereeing and the fat skulls of the anthropoids on the visiting bench. A fig for you, Herbert Warren Wind.

An exaggeration? Well, where else but at the Forum was hockey’s wildest riot when fans threw garbage and smoke bombs at league President Clarence Campbell? It was late spring 1955, and Campbell had suspended Rocket Richard, the people’s choice, for the final few games on the schedule and for the playoffs. His offence was some piddling misdemeanor like assaulting a rival player three different times with three different hockey sticks, breaking them over this poor wretch’s back and shoulders, and for punching a linesman trying to get him stopped.

So after the first period of a game between the Canadiens and Detroit subsequent to the suspension, a nut leaped at Campbell and punched him twice. The city fire director ordered the Forum evacuated. Whereupon the crazies milled into the streets, breaking storefront windows and looting, overturning cars and starting fires. Thirtyseven people were arrested.

And now to top it all, back-to-back losses to Pittsburgh. Does the sun still rise in the east?