Anatomy Of A Rivalry

Editor’s Note: This is an entry in our search for Fresh Blood at TLN. Every possible contributor will get three posts to strut their stuff and then we’ll ask you readers to help us choose who is going to join.  

By: John Lofranco @jtlinmtl

Like Valentine Michael Smith, the hero of Robert A. Heinlein’s "Stranger in a Strange Land," after spending my life in one part of the hockey universe (some would say a "central" part), nine years ago, I dropped down onto a more earthly plain. Ok, so that metaphor makes Toronto, Mars, and Montreal, Earth, but I think it might be fair to say that Montrealers have less control over their minds and bodies than Torontonians do. In my next post, I’ll tell you about my Nurse Boardman, but today I’m just going to talk about hockey.

I grew up a Leaf fan in the capital of Leaf Nation, Toronto. I started watching the Leafs in the 1980s, which may have turned off a more knowledgeable hockey fan from the team, but I was only 5 or 6 years old, the earliest I can remember, so I suppose I can’t be faulted for continuing to cheer for the team. My dad was a Leaf fan, having been a boy in the 60s, when they won a slew of Cups and were easy heroes for any kid. Saturday  nights I’d be allowed to watch the first period, and then listen to the rest of the game on the radio as I fell asleep. 

There wasn’t much to cheer for until the early 90s, but you know this story. Through high school and the first of many universities, I held fast to my fandom. Our rivals then were the old Norris division foes, the Red Wings and Blackhawks. I never really gave much thought to the Montreal Canadiens. I recognized the history, and since games against the Habs were so few and far between, I actually found myself cheering for the Blue, Blanc, Rouge (in games that did not feature the Leafs, obviously). I grew up in an anglophone home in Toronto, but I attended a francophone elementary school, and was exposed to Quebec culture, in the unlikely spot at Jarvis and Dundas, from a young age. The Habs were more of a sister team, than a rival.

Then, in 2003, I landed on Earth. After finishing a graduate degree, I managed to score a teaching position at Concordia University in Montreal. I was excited to move to the city. There was a lot of mystique about it, and I was still at an age where late bar closings were a plus, and though I was in a relationship, the prospect of living in a city with so many beautiful people was enticing. Before the move, back home in Toronto, my dad gave me a surprising birthday gift: a deep red, white and blue Montreal Canadiens jersey. "So you don’t get beat up on the streets," he said. At the time, I was still ok with the Habs being a team I didn’t hate; though the Leafs had been in a division with them for six years, Montreal had never finished ahead of Toronto in the standings during that time, so there was not much chirp coming from the French side. No threat.

Then came the lockout, and things changed. Montreal squeaked into the playoffs, and the Leafs were out. This is when I learned to start hating the Habs. I suppose you don’t really know about a fan base until they start winning. Vancouver has had a really good team for the last several years, but their fans never seem to stop whining about something. Boston fans, on the other hand, it seems to me, have savoured their winning with relative class. Maybe it’s the difference between having a winning season and winning the Cup, but there’s a clear division there. Of course, with all fan bases comes the caveat that while generalizations can be made, there are idiots on all sides, and there are knowledgeable hockey fans on both sides, too. The fun is in comparing the idiots. For example, as stupid as some Leaf fans can be (please stop pestering @LeafsBB20), no Leaf fan that I can remember has ever burned a cop car or worn black face.

So there it is. I was ready to embrace the hometown team, except of course in cases of games against Toronto, and games against teams Toronto needed to lose for strategic purposes. But man, the fans just wouldn’t let me do it. When I tried to engage Habs fans in a genuine discussion of hockey, all I got was a grammatically incorrect "Leaf Sucks!" Fair enough, you don’t like my team, but…do you like hockey, or just the Habs?

I am a little bit saddened by this turn, because there is a great rivalry there, and great rivalries are built on mutual respect. I’m not talking about "the battle of Ontario" which is more about Sens fans insecurities about their team in comparison to the big-town, provincial capital. I don’t mean the alleged rivalry Vancouver fans think they have with Toronto based on one playoff series that lead to, alas, another finals loss for the Canucks. Vancouver and Ottawa fans get mentionitis when it comes to the Leafs: everything is about Toronto. And it doesn’t matter that sometimes (ok, often, in recent years) the Sens and Canucks have had the upper hand. We just don’t really care that much. But about Montreal, we care.

The Montreal-Toronto rivalry is about mutual respect, about history, which leads to intensity that, no matter where the teams are in the standings, makes for a great hockey game. Interestingly, the rivalry is not about what it used to be about. It is about tradition itself, a meta-rivalry. The rivalry is no longer based on the Two Solitudes, because that is no longer who we are. It’s based on a memory, but the memory is strong enough to touch people.

So I still respect the Montreal Canadiens, but I don’t like them anymore. Now, I take pleasure in their pain, but it’s ok. It’s only as petty as the fans who won’t engage in a more refined back and forth, because I know, what goes around comes around. The give and take is part of the rivalry. It’s part of the fun. And I hope that they pull out of their funk so we can one day see a playoff series between these two storied franchises. That would be something.

  • I’m afraid you’ve been exposed to the wrong Habs fans. The majority of us are respectful and know our hockey enough to engage with any Leafs fan that wants to talk. I’m sorry the opposite has been your experience.

    As for Bruins fans, they have not handled their championship with relative class, unless chanting “Pacioretty you look better on a stretcher” at the Bell Centre (!!!) or calling PK Subban the word you don’t say all over the internet is considered classy. Not saying Canadiens or Canucks fans haven’t done some awful things but this idea that Bruins fans behave any better than the rest of the fanbases has got to go away. Everybody has good eggs and bad eggs. Including Bruins fans.

    Good article, but you should really meet some new Habs fans. I promise you we are better than that.