REFERENDUM FILE

KEEPERS OF THE FLAME

Sports in Quebec is an affair of the heart that borders on the spiritual

MICHAEL FARBER October 20 1992
REFERENDUM FILE

KEEPERS OF THE FLAME

Sports in Quebec is an affair of the heart that borders on the spiritual

MICHAEL FARBER October 20 1992

KEEPERS OF THE FLAME

REFERENDUM FILE

Sports in Quebec is an affair of the heart that borders on the spiritual

MICHAEL FARBER

Pat Burns, the new coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, says Carlton Street seems like Easy Street right now. He wanders around Maple Leaf Gardens, is asked the occasional question in one language, and tries to steer his team towards a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs—which is hard to miss, but the Leafs usually do anyway. “I see where Jacques [Demers, the new Montreal Canadiens coach] said he’d like to be there 10 years,” said Bums, who just finished four years coaching in the Forum. “I wish him luck. Jacques might make it if he wins the Stanley Cup every year. But even if he does, they’ll find something wrong. ‘Sure, he’s winning Cups, but it’s not fun.’ There’ll be something.” There always is. Demers probably has the toughest job a Canadian could have that does not involve mine shafts or keeping the peace in Sarajevo. He is not only the Canadiens coach in a province with six million coaches-withoutportfolio. But he is, cliché alert!, the keeper of the flame.

For any Canadiens coach, it always is hit or myth.

You have heard it before—in Montreal, the Forum is a temple, and in Quebec City, the Nordiques are a religion. Unfortunately, the phrases are so pat, so knowingly repeated, that they tend to obscure rather than illuminate their significance. Hockey is not holy. No Canadiens centreman ever has scored on a genuflection. But the Canadiens have made a personal connection with their followers, the same kind of warm, intense feeling that religion establishes with believers.

The bond smacks of the spiritual, not 60 minutes of dump-and-chase hockey. If man truly made God in his own image, then the Canadiens have been a mirror of the society they represent. “If you grew up in the province, you took pride in The Rocket, Beliveau, Plante, Geoffrion,” said Ken Dryden, the former Canadiens star goaltender. “The fans saw themselves in those players. That reflection was actually something better than people saw in themselves.”

That personal connection makes sport in

Quebec—there is that word again—distinct. Not that the province has cornered the market on passions. The Toronto Blue Jays attracted eight million fans over the past two seasons, and not just the spritzer set but also an emerging generation of genuine Blue Jays freaks. There is Rider pride in Saskatchewan, and Edmonton embraces its Eskimos for their relative sense of continuity in a kaleidoscopic Canadian Football League. But what sets Quebec apart is that the feeling for a team goes beyond the seasonal how-they-doing? There is an intensity in the relationship between the team and its environs.

Take the Montreal Machine of the World League of American Football. The Machine were truly execrable. If they played a touch football game in your backyard, you probably would draw the drapes. But it made sense that the Machine would be more appealing to Montrealers than the Alouettes, who died virtually unmoumed before the 1987 CFL season, a team that had lost touch even more than it lost games. The NFL long had been popular in a province more comfortable taking its cues

from New York City than Toronto. And the popular conceit that holds that Montreal is a world city made it fitting that the Machine should be gridiron-locked with Barcelona and Frankfurt instead of Hamilton and Regina. The Machine reached primarily a blue-collar francophone crowd, one that arrived with no football tradition but with a riotous enthusiasm.

Roger Doré, the Machine president, knew which buttons to push. He hired Jacques Dussault as head coach, a former Alouettes assistant with scant credentials to nm a professional team. When a crowd in excess of 50,000 booed 0 Canada at the home opener, Doré decided to drop the anthem—a move with a message.

“You must give customers what they need,” Doré said. “What we gave them was the possibility to be represented at the highest levels, if not with players, then with (the president and coach). In the past, few French-Canadians reached the top levels in their own fields. Many still believe they don’t have that chance, whether it’s true or not. They saw in us a chance, and they supported us. That’s why hockey is so popular: French-Canadians have made it to the top.”

The matrix of language and culture are superimposed over every aspect of Quebec life, coloring judgments and opinions. But nowhere is it as evident as with hockey. Sometimes it is meanspirited, like the relationship between a haunted Bums and the French media. Bums, a Montrealer whose mother is a francophone, was pushed almost to paranoia by the occasional attacks over how he used some of the Canadiens’s French-speaking players, criticism with its simmering subtext of implied racism.

But in the larger picture, the heightened awareness of language and culture made the Canadiens truly what they are: the city’s team. They not only reflected their surroundings, they sprung from them, becoming, in Mordecai Richler’s delicious phrase, “a spiritual necessity.” Many players were from around the corner, or three towns away. You knew their cousins, or shared the same newspaper delivery boy, or competed against them yourself growing up. Hardly anyone was more than one person removed from knowing somebody who was with the Canadiens, whether it was the Richard brothers or Doug Harvey and Dickie Moore.

But the Canadiens’s link to the city and province has been forged especially through an almost unbroken lineage of francophone stars, an extraordinary heritage that connects Maurice Richard to Jean Beliveau to Guy Lafleur to Stéphane Richer, and now Patrick Roy and Denis Savard. “The essence of the appeal of sport is the oneness you feel with a team,” Dryden said. “What makes it feel like my team?

It’s in my city and carried my name and is playing in my stadium and represents my language. The more my’s you can throw in, the better. I’m a plaque reader and when I sat in the dressing room, I’d study all the teams on the wall. One of the least successful times was the late 1940s when the Canadiens went in the direction of English players. Having FrenchCanadians as the biggest stars gave the team its flavor.”

The Nordiques, says Dryden, still miss that central, francophone superstar. “If the Nor-

diques won the Stanley Cup, the star would be Joe Sakic or Valeri Kamensky,” he said. “Something misses slightly.” The Nordiques have been missing the playoffs, too, but by more than slightly. They finished last in the NHL in three of past five years. Still, they have sold 92.6 per cent of the seats at the Colisée, about five percentage points above the league average during those seasons of futility. And when they signed Lafleur and rehired Quebec icon Michel Bergeron as coach for 1989-1990, the Nordiques reached 98 per cent of capacity with a team that managed a pathetic 31 points.

“This is our family affair,” said Marcel Aubut, the Nordiques dynamic president. “This is a small town, and people take it so personally. The day after a playoff defeat or anytime there’s a loss to Montreal, it’s raining even if it’s sunny, you know? Every day we get seven, eight pages in the newspapers. But you must perform, and sometimes it is so draining. You must give everything in life to this business. You have to justify every step. There’s no

privacy. This is the price of success.”

The Montreal Expos rediscovered the formula for success, which in the early 1980s made them the hottest ticket in town. Back then, they offered the equivalent of fire wagon baseball with the “track team” of Tim Raines, Ron LeFlore, Rodney Scott and Andre Dawson, and the charms of Gary Carter, who insinuated himself into a community with his hustle, his smile, and enough smarts and respect to learn how to say “Bonjouf’ and “Mes amis”

This season, after years of fan ennui, the Expos reforged the bonds that had lain dormant. Claude Brochu, who headed a consortium that bought the team from Charles Bronfman and his partners in 1991, brought the Expos closer to their fans. The Expos repatriated an aging Carter as a reminder of the good times, toured the province with a renewed vigor, and introduced new uniforms. The road uniforms included the word: Montreal, with a fleur-de-lys serving as an accent aigu over the “e.” For American consumption, an Expos official explained that the fleur-de-lys was a place-neutral symbol, like the California golden bear. But its message was not lost back home. This was not just a geographical marker, but Quebec’s symbol, with all the psychological baggage that carries.

But the team did not truly turn around until hiring Felipe Alou as manager on May 22. He struck a chord in a city where Latin players like Pascual Perez, Dennis Martinez and Ivan Calderon all have been exceedingly popular. (Unlike some American players, the Latins never looked on Montreal as being the Beirut of the big leagues.) The next day, the front-page headline in the Montreal French-language daily La Presse said that the Expos had hired a manager from Laval. Alou, who is from the Dominican Republic, is married to a woman from the Montreal suburb.

“Montreal is a unique market, more emotional and passionate than anywhere else I've seen,” said David Dombrowski, the former Expos general manager, now with the expansion Florida Marlins. “People took things to heart, took it personally more. I remember in ’89 coming back from the airport after we’d won eight of 10 on a road trip. The cab driver said, ‘How are you, Mr. Dombrowski?’ I said, ‘Great.’ He said, ‘But you lost that game a couple of days ago.’ Hey, even the best teams will lose 60 a year, but there never seemed to be an acceptance of that. It was a hockey mentality.”

That mentality says the Canadiens have to win the Stanley Cup, even though Montreal has won just one since 1979. Lord Stanley’s mug has become a birthright, not a privilege, even if history suggests the expectations are ludicrous. “That’s our way of life,” new coach Demers, a Montreal native, said. “Our team. Not Molson’s. Ours. It’s our lines, our defence, our power play, our trades.”

Our town.

Michael Färber is sports columnist for Montreal’s The Gazette.