WHY MONTREAL WILL NEVER AGAIN REIGN SUPREME
Imagine two teams, if you will. One team is made up of mostly Canadian talent and led by French Canadian superstars. In the past decade they have won a Stanley Cup, won their division twice and had a league MVP in their midst as well as the winners of the Ross, Byng, Pearson and Richard (twice) trophies. The other team is made up of mostly Canadian and European talent and is led by notable American players. In the same time period they have won no Stanley Cups, they have won their division once and they had a goaltender that experienced a career year in which he earned the MVP and Vezina trophy. He was then traded after three sub-par seasons, not the first goalie to crumble under this cities scrutiny. Despite their differences, both teams seem to continually make the playoffs, but considering half the league makes the postseason, that really isn’t saying much. One of these teams plays a systematic game, says all the right things and presses deep based on solid team play. The other has had wildly random results based on how hot their goalie du jour is playing.
By the title of this article you have already surmised that the Goofus of this parable is Montreal, but have you identified the Gallant? If you guessed Tampa Bay you get a shiny gold star sticker. Though general managers and coaches have changed, the Lightning have been able to stay relevant and exciting. They have drafted and traded very efficiently, piling on offensive talent. And who wouldn’t want to play in the Tampa/St. Petersburg Area? The water is warm, the women are beautiful and it’s still 75 degrees in the middle of January. Put yourself in a young athlete’s shoes: young, wealthy and maybe a little cocky. Would you rather drive home from practice in your sports car with the top down, eyeing the local talent, the sun warming your face? Or would you rather layer on thermal gear, rush to your car, slip and slide on the roads in the dark and pray that the ice storms don’t down power lines so you can at least watch TV before bed? That’s because at the same time of year in Montreal it doesn’t get above 25 degrees. That’s Fahrenheit folks.
Choice is a fairly recent development for French Canadian players. During the years of the Original Six it was easy to keep the best in Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge. Hockey was a religion in Quebec and the Montreal Forum was her cathedral. Through the 1970s the Habs had won 22 Stanley Cups, garnering comparisons to the New York Yankees. As the league expanded players were less confined and in many ways less obliged to remain in Montreal. Even Canadiens legend Guy Lafleur skated stints for the Rangers and Nordiques after retiring from the team and being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
The doors were open. The Habs went on to win two more Cups ('85-'86 & '92-'93) on the back of another star, Patrick Roy. The eccentric goalie would have played his entire career in Montreal had it not been for a much-publicized falling out. He went on to win another two Stanley Cups with the Colorado Avalanche, along with myriad personal awards. Not only were their best players leaving, they seemed to be pushed away. But the worst was to come.
Vincent Lecavalier was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lighting first overall in the 1998 entry draft. The Quebec native has played for Tampa his entire career, has been named an All-Star four times, led the league in goals scored in 2007 and has been the team captain since 2008. He is the franchise all-time scoring leader with 793 points.
In at a close second is Martin St. Louis with 758 points scored, which he did in 149 fewer games. The diminutive winger went undrafted and struggled with injuries and concerns over his size in the minor leagues. The Lightning gave him a shot at the big time in 2001 and he has never looked back. Like Lecavalier, he hails from Quebec and is immensely talented. He earned the league MVP award, the Art Ross trophy and the Lester B. Pearson award in the same year the team won the Stanley Cup (2004).
Now they have another Canadian wunderkind, Steven Stamkos, bolstering their offense. From Ontario, Stamkos scored 51 goals in the '09-'10 season to tie for the league lead. He too was a number one overall draft pick, showing the strength of the organization. Even after seasons in which they finish so poorly they earn a first pick they use it well, finding the best available talent, then securing and developing it for the NHL level.
Now that the league is so immense, Montreal has no pull on their homegrown players. Tradition is not enough to woo them. A generation has grown up in Quebec without witnessing old fashioned Canadien dominance. There is a salary cap in the NHL, so no Yankees/Red Sox style team building is possible. And even if there was no cap, Montreal wouldn’t have the money to do so. There is better weather elsewhere, more to do and far less pressure. Where else do the stoic and austere board of directors sit behind the player’s bench in black suits, mirthless faces passing judgment after every shift?
This is written on the wall of the dressing room, in French: “To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high.” It’s from “In Flanders Field,” a poem about the First World War. That’s right, if you play for the Habs it is a lot like the anxiety one might feel while fighting trench warfare.
No thanks. I’ll take Tampa over that any day.