Seriously, hockey is a life or death proposition
“Hockey is not a matter of life-and-death. It is far more serious than that!”
Kevin Constantine was right. The San Jose Sharks leader of the early ’90s hit the nail on the head. He zeroed in on the target and made a direct hit.
He may have said it tongue-in-cheek, but there was a certain flair of validity that could not be minimized. For most Canadians, the sun rises and sets on hockey fortunes. Wins are met with exhilaration. Losses are met with great despair.
As strange as it may sound, it is a way of life.
Quebec is a hotbed of hockey. Many will insist that it is the hotbed of hockey. Some will plead their case in English. The majority will do so in French. At an early age, youth are immersed in hockey. It becomes the essence of existence. They are consumed by the speed, excitement, and physicality the sport offers.
This obsession extends itself to the Montreal Canadiens, the only NHL team left in Canada’s most outspoken province.
This is the same province that proposed succession from Canada in the ’90s. It is the same one that has French as its official language. This is the same region that treats hockey as a God to be worshipped and blessed. It defines this region to its very core.
Indeed, it is more serious than a matter of life-and-death.
For those of you who may believe that this column has spun into the bizarre, you only need witness Monday night’s visit to San Jose by the Montreal Canadiens. Known throughout North America as Les Habitants, they draw a devoted following that accompanies their appearances at North American arenas. Their fans are rabid. There is nothing to quell their enthusiasm. They arrive in mass and cheer as though they were right back in Montreal at Bell Center.
Meet Martin and Norman Lacroix. Martin is deep into his thirties. Norman is a father who grew up in the suburbs of Montreal.
Martin is known to his friends as “Wally.” He is unique in every sense of the word. He was shipped off to Las Vegas at 19 to play hockey. He excelled at the sport. Known as a fiery competitor, he lit up leagues throughout the west.
As the years went by, he got into officiating. He is known as one of the more respected officials of the ECHL. He spends much time on the road but he is never without his Canadiens. His passion for his team follows him everywhere. He delights in discussing their successes. He laments their transgressions. They are always on his mind.
He speaks with a slight accent, but his passion for his team has never subsided. It was bred into him. There was no way he could escape it. Les Habs enveloped him at an early age.
Thus, a visit to HP Pavilion to witness his Canadiens, albeit a long journey from Las Vegas, was not subject to debate. It was, in simple terms, a must.
Norman’s story is even richer. His pilgrimage began in Montreal. Although his flight to Vegas was to officially watch son Wally officiate ECHL games in Las Vegas and Stockton, many would contend that the real reason was to maneuver his way to San Jose for a date to watch his team on the road.
He speaks with a heavy French accent, but his enthusiasm and love for his team simply cannot be discounted. Hockey is such a way of life that the trip to San Jose was more of a prerequisite than luxury. They plan their visits around hockey. It remains number one in their lives.
On this night, Wally must don a suit. He represents the ECHL. If he encounters other officials, he must have the correct decorum. Not only must he dress right, he must also be impartial. He cannot root for his Canadiens. It is part of a referees’ code of conduct. Some contended it must have torn him apart.
Norman, on the other hand, is text-messaging relatives in Montreal. He is proclaiming a 5-0 Canadiens victory before the game begins. His laugh is deep as he explains how his team will prevail. There is no discussion. He knows the outcome will be favorable. His faith is unwavering.
Monday night’s game proves to be a classic. Two upper division teams battling for leads in their divisions go toe-to-toe for 60 minutes. A San Jose goal is countered by a Montreal tally. While San Jose’s Joe Thornton racks up two goals and two assists, Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec is notching a pair.
Through two periods, it is San Jose with the narrow one-goal lead. In the end, newcomer Brian Campbell will score a highlight reel goal to ice it away late. It is the Sharks who prevail on this night 6-4.
For the Canadien fans in attendance, it is a truly bitter pill. They are quiet as they file out. There are a few murmurs of poor goaltending on the night and a tired appearance after a long trip to their first stop on the West Coast. They complain that the team spent its energy in a highly-emotional victory on Saturday night against the rival New Jersey Devils. Not only does the loss hurt, the day is fairly ruined. For Wally and Norman, a Sharks win is unacceptable … nearly unbelievable. Yet, the harsh reality of an untimely road loss hurts to the core this night.
You see, hockey is sometimes viewed as more important than life and death in Quebec. It is an undeniable way of life, a passion that supercedes most else.
Victory guides one through the evening and following day. Defeat leaves one empty until the next chance for redemption, the next game of the road trip.
And although the rouge, blanc et bleu of the Canadiens may be a bit more pale on this evening, it will never extinguish the passion known as Canadiens hockey.
Jim Adams, lives in Nevada City, is a regular contributor to The Union and a broadcaster for TouchDown Productions. He may be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
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Grass Valley native Brad Sweet drove past the competition and into victory lane last week, snapping his longest winless streak of the season.