By: Emma Attwell
Image via: An illustration by Sheldon Cohen, from Roch Carrier's The Hockey Sweater. (Roch Carrier and Sheldon Cohen) As the Montreal Canadiens and the Tampa Bay Lightning enter the final week of play-offs, millions of hockey fans around the world sit glued to their screens in anticipation of who will claim victory of the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Stanley Cup this season. This year of hockey certainly has been anything but ordinary with teams under strict COVID-19 restrictions and limited spectator capacity. However, these limitations have not stopped fans from pulling out all the stops for the biggest hockey event of the year: The Stanley Cup finals. With Tampa Bay winning 3-0 in the seven game series with the Canadiens, Game 4 will determine whether Tampa Bay will take this season’s victory or if the Canadiens can hold their own, leaving the teams to battle it out at another game on Wednesday night. Despite the Montreal Canadiens being the underdog this year as they go up against the defending champions of the last season, their presence in this year’s finals is still significant. The Canadiens have not appeared in a Stanley Cup final since 1993; this drought was the third longest in NHL franchise history with 27 seasons, after the Toronto Maple Leafs (53 seasons) and New York Islanders (36 seasons). Although the Canadiens have not always performed well during the recent season, that should not take away from the team's long and successful past as well as its notable cultural significance over the past 100 years.
The Montreal Canadiens, affectionately known as the “Habs” derived from “Les Habitants” or Habitants, the early farmers of Quebec, were one of the “Original Six” National Hockey League teams. They are the oldest team in the League, founded on December 4th, 1909. The Canadiens are considered the most successful team in NHL history with 24 Stanley Cup wins under their belts, winning their first in 1916 against the Portland Rosebuds. They went on to win 23 more times between 1924 and 1993. There is the possibility that the Canadiens could have claimed another victory, but during the 1918-1919 season, when Montreal faced the Seattle Metropolitans in the finals, the outbreak of the Spanish Flu and the tragic death of Canadiens star Joe Hall resulted in the remaining final games being cancelled. No winner was declared that year.
Not only are the Montreal Canadiens a historically successful team, but their cultural influence is deeply rooted in Quebec, and throughout Canada. Tension was high between francophone and anglophone Canadians during the 1950s following World War One as the country was harshly divided by language. Anglophone Canadiens were more well-off economically than Francophone citizens who were often treated as “second-class citizens”. As the Montreal Canadiens rose to dominance, Quebecois citizens took great pride in their home team's success and became loyal supporters of the franchise. Many fans felt that the Canadiens’ victories were a constant that French Canada could hold over the country’s Anglophone majority. It was these views that sparked the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens rivalry, the two teams torn apart by Canada’s polarized cultures. Young French Canadians grew up idolizing the home-grown hockey heroes of the Montreal Canadiens who showed their love for Quebec through sport. One of these heroes was Maurice Richard.
Maurice “Rocket” Richard was a Francophone hockey icon that led the Montreal Canadiens to 8 Stanley Cup victories, five of which were between 1955 and 1960 during the longest Stanley Cup winning streak in NHL history. Not only did Richard break countless records such as becoming the first player in the NHL to score 50 goals in one season, but he also was considered “a manifestation of modern Quebec's ambition to be master of its own destiny” [Source 1]. He was loved and adored by fans so much so that following Richard’s suspension from the NHL for the rest of the season after he hit an official during a game against the Detroit Red Wings in 1955, fans and supporters took to the streets of Montreal to protest inciting chaos and destruction. Now known as the “Richard Riot” this protest resulted in one of the worst sports riots in history and was a significant turning point in the awakening nationalistic conciousness in Quebec.
After Richard’s retirement in 1960 the Canadiens faced a number of setbacks. Montreal lost to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 1967 Stanley Cup Final, the last time the two bitter rival teams faced off in the Finals and the last time that time Toronto won the Cup. The Canadiens faced another disappointment in 1970 when they missed a place in the playoffs due to a tiebreaker with Toronto on the last day of the regular season. However, the team was able to recover from these losses and during the 1976-1977 season set a new NHL record, losing only 8 games of an 80 game schedule. Despite their many successes, the Canadiens won their last Stanley Cup in 1993 against the Los Angeles Kings, missing their first play-offs in 24 seasons. Since then the Canadiens have made the postseason play-offs 16 of 24 seasons.
Although the Montreal Canadiens may face defeat in this year’s Stanley Cup Final, their impact on the NHL and Canadian hockey culture will continue to live on in the hearts of the thousands young hockey players who dream of one day taking the place of the players who don the red CH jerseys, and the millions avid fans who would do anything for their hometown town team, the “Habs”.
Written by writer Emma Attwell