In my 51 trips around the sun, I’ve probably never watched more hockey. (And I’ve watched a ton of hockey.)
When the NHL came back with a compressed schedule in January due to COVID-19, it wasn’t that Montrealers welcomed the distraction. We needed it.
Quebec had some of the tightest restrictions in North America. In fact, we were the only province, territory or state with a curfew. For months, we literally weren’t allowed out after 8 p.m. Not that there was much to do anyway — everything was closed.
The Montreal Canadiens started out white-hot, then the bottom fell out. All-World goalie Carey Price was concussed. Coach Claude Julien was fired and replaced. And then COVID-19 hit the team.
Suddenly, not only was everything closed, and not only was there a curfew — there wasn’t even hockey.
When the team came back, the already-compressed schedule was tightened even more. It was 25 games in 43 nights — arguably the most gruelling schedule for any team in the 104-year history of the league.
I don’t think I missed a game. There was no reason to miss a game. What else was there to do?
“Why are you going downstairs?” my wife would ask.
“The Habs are playing,” I’d answer.
“AGAIN?!” she’d say.
This happened over and over. It got embarrassing.
And then each morning, I’d share my frustrations with the security guard in the lobby at work. Through our masks, we’d shake our heads or roll our eyes. Down the stretch, there was more than a little frustration.
Now, I’m hesitant to describe what came next with the word “magical,” but I think it applies. Montrealers, admittedly, are prone to dramatics bordering on hyperbole when it comes to our beloved Canadiens.
But over the years, I’ve found a coping mechanism for dealing the Habs’ lack of success. It’s a mantra I repeat over and over in an attempt to convince myself.
“It doesn’t make a difference to my life if the Canadiens lose; it doesn’t make a difference to my life if the Canadiens lose; it doesn’t make a difference to my life if the Canadiens lose.”
Of course, it’s logical and rational, but it’s not true. It hurts when the Habs lose.
Which is something I’ve thought about a lot during the last few weeks of this improbable (impossible?) playoff run. Why does it matter so much? Heck, why does it matter at all?
Here’s the strange conclusion I’ve found … it’s not about hockey.
There are some goals that stick out over the years. Skrudland 8 seconds in. Desjardins’ hat trick. PK coming out of the box.
And there’s a save I remember — Jose Theodore’s spin to stop Bill Guerin and eliminate the Bruins in 2002.
I was covering that game and asked Guerin in the Boston locker room how Theodore stopped it.
“I don’t know,” he said, looking at the ground. Then he turned, looked me in the eyes, shook his head and said it again.
“I don’t know.”
That’s why I love the Canadiens. It’s not goals or saves. It’s moments.
They’re little snapshots in time that don’t necessarily have anything to do with ice. But they’re what has tied me to the Bleu, Blanc, Rouge seemingly for life.
The Montreal Canadiens practised at the local arena three blocks from my house in 1981. The Forum was being used for the Canada Cup, so they moved to … wait for it … our Beaconsfield Rec Centre. Our lunch ran from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m., and for a few glorious days, we ran from school to the Rec Centre and back again — in disbelief.
When I was about 12 years old, Guy Lafleur lived in the next town over. Every time we were anywhere near his neighbourhood, I would beg my parents to turn up his street, just in case he was outside. If I close my eyes, I can still see Flower moving his grass on the day we caught him. It’s like a photograph burned in my memory.
When the Habs won the cup in 1986, my best friend Mike and I skipped school for the parade. That was a moment. I remember standing at the corner of Mansfield and Ste-Catherine streets watching some players wade through the crowd drinking beers from strangers who were pulling at their shirts. And then there was the float at the end with the Cup, and the team’s leaders, floating above it all — Gainey, Naslund and Robinson.
When Eric Desjardins scored his second goal of Game 2 in the 1993 finals, I was watching from my job at a video store. Before overtime, I drove (possibly too fast) to a restaurant and met up with friends. That’s where I watched Desjardin complete the hat trick. I don’t remember the moment of cheering when the goal was scored. The moment I remember is the drive to the restaurant, desperate not to be late.
In 1999, I got to sit down with Jean Beliveau. My memory of that moment isn’t a photograph, it’s the words.
“It’s an honour to interview you,” I told the legend sitting in front of me.
His answer was, in a word, perfect. It was the epitome of who he was, and the respectful way he treated people.
“It’s an honour to be interviewed by you, Mr. Armstrong,” he said. (I just wiped my eyes as I typed that.)
We lost Maurice Richard in 2000 and he laid in state at the Bell Centre. Fans cued up to pay their respects. Journalists were given a spot in the stands to watch. I remember walking past the closed concession stands, pulling open a thick black curtain, and then another and entering the dark arena. It couldn’t have felt more like a place of worship. You didn’t talk. If you had to say something, you whispered. I sat and observed — and absorbed.
Covering the war in Afghanistan, I would get up to watch Habs games at 4 a.m. There was usually the same group of soldiers. One of them was a member of the Royal 22nd Regiment named Ken. It happens to be my dad’s name, but it’s not a common name among francophones. We had some great conversations and one day I asked how it was he’d been named Ken.
“My mom was a big Ken Dryden fan,” he said.
It still makes me laugh.
I covered the Tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, and returned for the 10th anniversary in 2014. It happened to be the same week Jean Beliveau passed away.
In the hotel restaurant, on the other side of the planet, I watched the ceremony online with tears streaming down my eyes.
My favourite movie isn’t about hockey, but baseball. There’s a scene in Field of Dreams where Terrance Mann tells Ray Kinsella that fans will visit the field and “the memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces.”
Over the last several weeks, that’s how it’s felt to be a Canadiens fan.
There are too many memories and moments to list them all here, but there is one that sums up much of how I feel.
The Canadiens retired Ken Dryden’s number 29 in 2007. It wasn’t something I wanted to miss, and I made sure I got to cover it.
Between the first and second period, Dryden scrummed with journalists, but it was what happened afterwards that has stuck with me.
I walked beside him and stretched out my hand.
“Mr. Dryden, I want to be able to shake your hand on this night,” I said.
“Thank you very much,” he said.
I hadn’t planned what to say next, and it was a little awkward.
“It’s the kind of night that makes me want to thank my dad for making me a hockey fan,” I said.
Dryden stopped walking and turned to me and said:
“Thank him for me too.”
Dryden walked away, leaving me almost shaken. But I pulled out my phone within about three seconds. I called Ken Armstrong.
“Hi Dad. Ken Dryden just told me to call you.”
I’ve loved this team for a long time, but this year’s roster and playoff run is adding new memories … new moments with my sons.
… I guess what I’ve written here is a thank you.
Mike Armstrong has been Global National’s Quebec correspondent since September 2001. He’s reported from every corner of Quebec, from every province in Canada and has covered some of the biggest stories around the globe.
As a life-long fan of the Montreal Canadiens, he insists one of his career highlights was reporting on when the Habs eliminated the Boston Bruins in the 2014 NHL playoffs.