Art Critique: The Magic of the Mythic Montreal Canadiens by Alex Hadley

Art Critique: The Magic of the Mythic Montreal Canadiens by Alex Hadley

One thing is for sure: if you die a Montrealer without ever having been to a Canadiens game, you will have missed out on the eighth wonder of the world. On a night where the men sporting the “Bleu blanc et rouge” looked faster, more prepared, and more poised than their opposition, they fell to a youthful and opportunistic Toronto Maple Leafs team by a score of 3 to 1 in their fourth game of the 2023-24 NHL preseason. Although the end result was deflating, this critique will examine how the atmosphere and on-ice product compare to a televised viewing of a Leafs game, and it will pinpoint what makes a Habs game anything but disappointing.

The atmosphere at sporting events is crucial; it can be the difference between a riveting once-in-a-lifetime experience and a snoozefest. At the Habs game I attended, fans were treated to video montages, a heartfelt rendition of Coldplay’s Fix You, and Diane Bibaud’s fabled organ playing during game stoppages; this constant flurry of action allowed ticket holders to feel engrossed for the entirety of the event. When fans watch games from home, they often miss out on these moments; the televised Leafs’ game was much less immersive and enjoyable, as the commentator drowned out the sound of the organ and the cheers of the fans. Rather than living a shared experience, fans at home feel isolated on their side of the TV screen. During intermissions at Habs games, the audience are treated to an in-house DJ, and they can stare in awe as the Zambonis work on fixing the ice. Additionally, during commercial breaks, the audience can share disappointment and elation with friends about the team’s performance thus far, or, better yet, taunt the opposing team’s fans. During the first intermission of the Habs game I attended, the intoxicated Leafs fan sitting in front of us was eager to convince us of Toronto rookie Matthew Knies’ promise, taking jabs at our beloved team in the process. I simply nodded and let him run his mouth; to debate with drunk men is like arguing with a dial tone. After he moved to an entirely different section because he was occupying someone else’s seat, security chased him from the building before the second period ended. That interaction made the night much more memorable and gave my friend and me a shared experience of connecting with our fellow Habs fans sitting next to us. It also reminded me of a strange phenom- enon that seems unique to Habs games; once you pass the threshold of the Bell Centre entrance, you shed all your intersecting identities in favour of a single “Habs fan” identity for the next three hours of your life. Taunting the Home Hardware representative on my TV during the Leafs game was much more dull.

Montreal’s preseason on-ice product leaves something to be desired, much like the grammatical correctness of Toronto’s team name (Baruchel 90). The Leafs and Canadiens share many similarities; both are high-pressure markets for players, have illustrious team histories, and have suffered periods of great success and failure. However, one notable difference is the fan engagement with the on-ice product. Despite being down 3-0 with less than half a period to go in the preseason game I attended, the fans at the Bell Centre surged to their feet and cheered when the Habs finally scored; all 21,273 (Magil Construction) seats emptied as if we had just won the Stanley Cup (Sportsnet, Sept. 30, 7:44-56). This reaction would likely perplex most, given that the game was both meaningless and a lost cause. Conversely, Leafs fans were treated to a dramatic comeback win, including a hat trick from their superstar on opening night. Despite the apparent cause for excitement, the cheers that I heard through the TV screen for Toronto’s goals were barely louder than those in response to Montreal’s goals; the next day, many headlines supported my observation of a “lifeless Toronto crowd” (Todd B5). Another notable difference is the fan satisfaction with their team’s on-ice product. Toronto’s potent offense has been on full display since opening night of the regular season; the precision and synchronicity with which the Blueshirts execute their passing plays (Sportsnet, Oct 14, 3:26-34) make the rest of the league’s fans, including me, hunger for the Leafs’ yearly collapse with impatience. Yet, Leafs fans are jaded and unfazed by it all. The Leafs have excelled so often in the regular season just to fail when it matters most in the playoffs. This had a noticeably negative impact on the crowd’s engagement and, by extension, how much I enjoyed watching a televised Leafs game. In comparison, despite missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, including a last-place finish in 2021-22 (NHL), the Habs boasted an average attendance of “21,078 (99.1 percent) [in 2022-23]” (Salvian). Regardless of performance, the unshakeable devotion and passion of the Habs faithful consistently make the Bell Centre one of the loudest arenas in the entire league. This is a testament to the “romance that cuts the cynicism, the loyalty that tempers the disappointment” (Baruchel 11) and the faith in the vision of Kent Hughes and Jeff Gorton that elevates the Habs experience.

Finally, it is time to explore what underlying cultural intangibles explain the disparity from the past two paragraphs and determine what sets the Canadiens apart. I have good news for those who tend to steer clear of sports: the Toronto Maples Leafs are a sports team, whereas the Canadiens are much closer to a religion (Baruchel 15). I analyzed observable phenomena; now, we will focus on how team history and the reciprocity, or lack thereof, of team and fan identity, affect one’s enjoy- ment of a Montreal Canadiens game. The Leafs’ history is admirable but feels as impersonal as a tax receipt. With every goal the Leafs scored and each incredible feat they accomplished in their home opening game, players did not seem relieved or proud; that is because the pursuit of victory and their repeated failure to do so has become the Toronto Maple Leafs’ identity. On the contrary, the mecca of hockey has a history that is characterized not only by wins and losses but by players, such as Maurice Richard, who gave a voice to the people and empowered them, unlike any other team. Each goal, victory, and feat is personal for the Habs players and fanbase. Another important distinction between these two franchises is how their histories influence their fans’ ability to identify with the team. Cheering on the Leafs is a history-rich tradition and leisure activity for their fans, whereas the Habs are not quite so simple. Notably, the interconnectedness of this team to the province’s culture stands out. Some teams can influence their city, but no city can influence their franchise like Montreal. As the Quebecois people go, so do the Canadiens. Director, actor, and devout Habs fan Jay Baruchel made the observation that the decade of the Quiet Revolution belonged to the Canadiens (115); when the Quiet Revolution caused pride to surge throughout the province, the Canadiens echoed this by winning four Stanley Cups in 10 years and being a victor for all to see. But after the referendum results broke the hearts of separatists, the Quebecois’ sense of otherness and contempt for Canada was galvanized; the need for a champion was replaced with a need for an underdog, and that has been at the core of the team’s identity since. The Canadiens started as a team “of and for the Quebecois” (Baruchel 111). Still, now they celebrate and unite all the diversity of Montreal under one emblem: the CH. During the second intermission of the preseason game versus Montreal and Toronto, the jumbotron lit up in orange, and the message “Chaque Enfant Compte” flashed on the screen. In unison, the crowd rose to their feet and clapped for two minutes straight; it was an astounding display of unity that captured the magic that separates the Habs experience from all others. Moments like that are unique when witnessed on TV, but in no way do they compare to standing shoulder to shoulder with people from all walks of life and coming together to show solidarity on such a mass scale. No matter how influential the Leafs have been for their city, they do not embody the values of their fans, nor do they reflect alterations in their city’s history. Going to a Habs game gives ticket holders a current and historical sense of belonging and identity to their fans.

The love and passion this city feels for this team is far beyond one fueled by a wish to hold bragging rights over our Ontarian neighbours or a Neanderthalian urge to watch players on opposing teams cave in each other’s skulls. Going to see a hockey game in Montreal offers viewers a bar-none atmosphere, an on-ice product composed of a unique blend of finesse and grit, and a sense of community and identity.


Works Cited

Baruchel, Jay. Born Into It: A Fan’s Life. Toronto, Harper Avenue, 2018.

Magil Construction. “Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec.” Magil Construction, 2023, Accessed 18 Oct. 2023.

Salvian,Hailey. “NHL Attendance 2022-23: A Team-By-Team Breakdown.” The Athletic, 2023, 4625953/2023/06/21/nhl-team-attendance-results-2023/. Accessed 18 Oct. 2023.

NHL. “NHL Hockey Standings |”, 2023, https:// Accessed 23 Oct. 2023.

Sportsnet. “NHL Preseason Highlights | Maple Leafs vs. Canadiens
– September 30, 2023.” YouTube, YouTube Video, 1 Oct. 2023, Accessed 18 Oct. 2023.

Sportsnet. “NHL Highlights | Canadiens vs. Maple Leafs – October 11, 2023.” YouTube, YouTube Video, 12 Oct. 2023, http://www. Accessed 18 Oct. 2023.

Todd, Jack. “A Lifeless Toronto Crowd Threatens Leafs’ Cup Dreams.” Montreal Gazette, 14 October, 2023, p. B5

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