Legendary franchises in sports history are often defined as much by the character of their teams as they are by their accomplishments. To the passionate fan, the monikers "Showtime," "Steel Curtain," "Broad Street Bullies" and "the Big Red Machine" do not simply conjure images of gleaming trophy cases or championship banners.
These are the teams whose legacy goes well beyond wins and losses. The character of the teams that garnered these iconic nicknames was generational. Grainy stock footage of their players continues to dominate the consciousness of sports fans, even if they never saw these teams play. "Magic" leading the fast break, the toothless grin of Bobby Clarke or the toothless snarl of Jack Lambert are transcendent in that they personify the character of their teams as much as they speak to the passion, skill and determination of the men in the footage.
We often hear coaches, GMs and players talk about creating an "identity" for their team. This, of course, is easier said than done, and the alchemists who manage to unlock this elusive formula are often Hall of Fame coaches and execs heralded as geniuses, master tacticians and true luminaries among their peers.
When you think "identity" in a team sense, the Ravens, Spurs, Red Wings or San Francisco Giants might come to mind. Those teams identified as having a defined personality are often those that have a core of competitors who have come together under a coach who has infused his philosophy about how the game is meant to be played, and his players are a reflection of those ideals. They have bought in, and often play their entire careers with these teams, working to perpetuate their identities.
Once the foundation for an "identity" has been laid by the coach, the longer the players play and excel in that system, the more they come to personify it. When terms like "team toughness," "smash-mouth," "gritty" and "high-flying" are used to describe one team or another, there is usually a player or two on those rosters that immediately come to mind. They usually also alternatively personify characterisations like "leader," "heart and soul," "competitor" and "team first."
However, in an era marked by the dwindling concept of "team loyalty," increased player movement and shorter coaching tenures, it is easier to find teams whose identity is closer to a punch-line than it is to inspiring fear, awe or respect.
Those franchises who fail to ever create that elusive sense of self are often unexceptional, faceless also-rans who are little more than historical footnotes. However, it is perhaps more sad when a team with a legendary past loses its identity.
Year after year of gradual decline reduces the team to perennially second-rate, leaving its fans to hearken back to the glory days, or pine for the next saviour to arrive and deliver them from the bondage of mediocrity. Such is the lot for fans of Les Glorieux.
After yet another shutout loss, I am obliged to take a hard look at my team. When I do, I am forced to conclude that the Canadiens are a listless team, in need of some soul searching—in need of an identity.
The Habs have always—with very few exceptions—been competitive. In recent years, they have crafted an opportunistic squad that plays a patient, if boring game that is adept at exploiting opponents' mistakes. This formula relies heavily on exceptional goaltending and special teams, and has met with some measure of success.
As recently as last year, riding a hot goaltender, they pulled off an unthinkable run in the playoffs before being unceremoniously dumped by the Flyers. But it has been a long time since fans of Le Bleu-Blanc-et-Rouge have iced a team deemed a contender. Consistently coming up short year in, year out, the Habs have had just enough success to avoid embarrassing comparisons to the poster-child for lost glory, the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It is time for a philosophical change in Canadiens hockey. So desperate are Habs fans to see a return to the style of play made famous by the "Flying Frenchmen" that they bemoan the loss of a player like Alexei Kovalev. It has been since fans' love-hate relationship with Stephane Richer more than 20 years ago that they have iced a legitimate sniper.
Certainly, there have been decent contributors in Vincent Damphousse, Mark Recchi and the beloved Saku Koivu, but none could be considered a top-tier scoring threat. Such has been the extent of the Habs' systemic goal-scoring ineptitude that in '98-'99 they did not ice a single 20-goal scorer.
Certainly, the game has changed since the high-flying 80s, but among NHL franchises, the Habs seem more than any other team to have abandoned goal scoring as a means to win hockey games.
Since Richer's 51 in '89-'90, only two players have managed to reach the 40-goal plateau—and it has been a while—Brian Bellows (40) in '92-'93, and Vinny Damphousse (40) in '93-'94 . Since then, a carousel of players the likes of Oleg Petrov, Brian Savage and Sergei Zholtok have been relied upon to fill the net.
And this is not even to mention the single 100-point campaign by a Hab since Flower's 125-point effort in '79-'80. And while a point-a-game guy for eight seasons with the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge, I would venture there are not too many diehard Habs fans who would count Mats Naslund (110 points in '85-'86) among the team's greats.
Because the Canadiens are always just good enough, they rarely find themselves in a position to draft a top-shelf prospect. Even when they do find themselves drafting in the top 20, players like Terry Ryan, Matt Higgins and Jason Ward were soon relegated to the scrap heap. Since 1988, the Habs have only drafted four players in the top 100 that have gone on to score more than 200 NHL points (only one of whom—Tomas Plekanec—now plays on the team).
There have, of course, been attempts outside the draft to land impact players over the years, but little has come of these efforts.
The acquisitions of players like Donald Audette, Mariusz Czerkawski, Alex Tanguay and Scott Gomez typify these failed experiments. Over the last decade, the Habs roster has been a who's who of one-dimensional defensemen, undersized forwards and third-line grinders. Habs fans have, as a result, become accustomed to mediocrity, speaking of Hal Gill's shutdown ability as if he were Rod Langway, and keeping their fingers firmly crossed for the potential of a 24-year-old, 5'7" rookie.
The greatest value of identity is that it comes with purpose. It is purpose that defines the character of a team. It is the rallying call between periods. It is the calming influence on the bench. It is the fire in the belly. It is habit. It is belief. It is what creates a winner.
What is the present day "identity" of this once dominant franchise? A scrappy squad that finds ways to get wins, or a soft, undersized overachiever?
Whether through passion, imagination or establishing new strategic priorities (personnel or coaching), the Habs need to forge a meaningful identity if ever they hope to once again find themselves mentioned in the same breath as their hallowed forerunners.
It has been too easy for too long for Habs fans to settle for mediocrity, hoping for a miracle. Greatness will not come without a fundamental change in the current culture, both on the ice and in the head office.
In time, with courage, determination, and vision, perhaps fans of the Canadiens may once again be able to cheer for a team with a winning identity, one that is truly worthy of the name Les Glorieux.