Will this season be one where Le Tricolore find themselves in post-season play, or will the pessimism of some Habs fans manifest itself in the realization of their worst fears?
Montreal is a city where hockey is a religion, and anyone who has lived there knows how the reality and the legend permeate every aspect of life. Every media outlet shines its harshest light on the triumphs and tribulations of the team, and the intensity that accompanies the donning of the jersey called “La Sainte Flanelle” ("the Holy Cloth") is unmatched in professional sport.
For the Habs faithful who grow up weaned on the tales of the heroes and their accomplishments, the names of Vezina, Morenz, Richard, Beliveau, Plante, Harvey, Geoffrion, Cournoyer, Savard, Dryden, Lafleur, and Roy, are just a few on a list that is unparalleled.
When one has seen a hockey game in the fabled, and now departed, Montreal Forum, one can say they have seen what a hockey game is all about.
Even in the modern architecture of Le Centre Bell, the ambiance of a franchise that encompasses such a scope penetrates even the most jaded aficionado.
While no other professional team has won as many championships as the Montreal Canadiens, the absence of the club from contention since 1993—the year of their last Stanley Cup—creates a profound malaise among their partisans, particularly during the team’s highly publicized 100th anniversary.
The torrent of venom recently unleashed upon Bob Gainey, once called "the best hockey player in the world" by no less than the great Soviet hockey coach Anatoly Tarasov, may be attributed to the frustration of the faithful.
But where are the Canadiens at this point? What can their fans realistically expect in the near future?
Taking an objective view of Bob Gainey’s tenure as General Manager since his accession to the post in May 2003 indicates the pessimists may be misguided.
Whereas the team he inherited missed the playoffs four out of the five previous seasons, Gainey’s Canadiens have gone to the dance four of five times, winning the Eastern Conference Championship in 2008, their first regular season title since 1992.
Managing the club through a tenuous ownership phase under the financially dubious George Gillett, Gainey has stood firm.
When the intransigent Guy Carbonneau "lost the room" last season, Gainey made the painful decision to fire his long time friend, a man he had groomed for the post of head coach.
He cleaned house after the Canadiens were shellacked in the first round by the hated Boston Bruins, sending familiar faces like Kovalev, Koivu, and Komisarek packing.
Gainey gambled on the signings of three players: Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, and Michael Cammalleri, to re-launch the Canadiens.
While the media vultures and the fan base lambasted them as "The Smurfs", Bob Gainey saw something in these men that made them worthy of wearing the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge. And that is, that physical stature has nothing to do with the heart that makes a champion.
Both Gomez and Gionta are Stanley Cup Champions, and they have brought with them to Montreal an enthusiasm and work ethic that was missing from the previous group.
Cammalleri, whose nose for the net and swiftness make him one of the most dangerous scorers in the game, has become the new hero in Montreal. He evokes the spirit of Yvan Cournoyer, "The Roadrunner". He currently leads the team not only on the scoresheet, but every night on the ice.
Much is made of the supposed preoccupation of the fan base with francophone players. But new arrivals like Gomez, Gionta, Cammalleri, former Penguin and Cup winner Hal Gill and former Sabre Jaroslav Spacek, make no secret of their pleasure to be living and playing in the sophisticated surroundings of Montreal, and their pride at being clad in Canadiens colors.
Going into the 2009-10 season, the questions about the Habs from the hockey media were unrelenting. Could this team make the playoffs? “Who knows?” said Gainey, with a stoicism that only stoked the sceptics’ ire.
With the sale of the team back to the Molson family imminent, Gainey turned to veteran bench boss Jacques Martin, winner of the Jack Adams trophy, whose stalwart countenance encompasses a dedication to responsible, two-way play.
Convergent with that philosophy, Travis Moen and Glen Metropolit, two "lunchpail" types, were added to the line-up. When local pin-up boy Guillaume Latendresse failed to satisfy after years of promise, sentiment was put aside and he was dispatched to the Minnesota Wild.
A freak injury to defensive leader Andrei Markov—the Habs’ best player—could have scuppered the Canadiens’ season; but Martin and Gainey have rallied their troops. They win games by the proverbial skin of their teeth: half of their wins have come in overtime or shootouts.
Their record, one third of the way into the current campaign, is a decidedly unimpressive 14-14-2.
As the dark days of December unfold, and the Canadiens teeter on the bubble of playoff pretensions, their partisans are holding their breath.
But there are glimmers of hope for them. Carey Price, raked over the coals for his inconsistency, has appeared to return to the form that tantalized the crowd. Successive wins over Boston and Philadelphia suggested that the strategy preached by Jacques Martin could pay off.
To be a loyalist of Le Club de Hockey Canadien is no longer an exercise in assured glory. But there is something about finding humility in a newfound adversity, that can make each victory somewhat sweeter.