Home Away From Home

For some teams, it’s hard to draw fans to the rink on a regular basis. For many of them, the visitors are important financially when they come to their building. Keeping a balance to make it look like it’s a home game is sometimes… challenging at best. It’s the case when the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens are visitors and it is particularly obvious when those teams visit Western Canada for their annual trip. For one, Jesperi Kotkaniemi is experiencing the power of the Habs’ fan base outside of Montreal for the very first time and judging from his permanent smile, he doesn’t seem to mind at all.

And it is not only in Western Canada. Ottawa and Toronto fans don’t like when their home rinks feel like Habsland. It even spreads to the States where you don’t need to look very far back to notice this amazing phenomenon. It’s not too long ago that in Tampa Bay, the Lightning were restricting the purchase of tickets to the Tampa area via postal codes (or zip codes in the US) to avoid Habs’ fans buying tickets to games between the two teams.

Or do you remember this campaign from the New York Islanders posted on their official website, fed up with the fact that Habs’ fans would louder than their own?

Yes, sometimes teams have to decide between making fists-full of money and the experience for their own fans, for their own players to feel… at home when the Canadiens are visitors. Really, think about it. Is there something more annoying, when you pay big bucks to go to a game, than visitors’ fans cheering their team on right beside you? Well imagine when you have thousands of them in your own rink!

For the very first time, I will get to experience this when I take on the game between the Canadiens and the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena today. I am told that 60-70% of the crowd is wearing red. With BC Boys Carey Price, Shea Weber, Karl Alzner, Jordie Benn, Noah Juulsen, and with players with BC ties like Brendan Gallagher and Mike Reilly having tickets for friends and family, that alone will be red. I know that I will, with my Canadiens vintage red jersey… and I also know that given the chance, I will be chanting the Olé, Olé-Olé-Olé and the Go Habs Go! And guess what? I will make no apology about it. 

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A Matter of Attitude

Attitude

“If you have a positive attitude and constantly strive to give your best effort, eventually you will overcome your immediate problems and find you are ready for greater challenges.” Who said this nonsense, you ask?  He was three times NBA Coach of the year. Head coach of an NBA All-Star Game team nine times. He is the first North American sports figure to win a championship as a player, assistant coach, head coach, and as an executive. In 1996, he was named one of the 10 Greatest Coaches in NBA history… Do you give up yet? It was none other than Pat Riley

Why the quote? Because too many made fun of General Manager Marc Bergevin after he commented on the need for a change in attitude on the Canadiens, when he spoke at his year end press conference after a pretty miserable season. But what was wrong with the attitude on the team? What did he mean by “attitude change”? We got a pretty good hint when he traded two of the team’s top goals scorers in Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty. But were they really the problem?

Based on the start of the season, particularly with the way the team is performing, with a fast pace game and a relentless effort, with the way everyone seems to be pulling in the same direction… then maybe. It’s early. Too early to come to any conclusions. Fans however, seem to enjoy a new found love for the team they were so disappointed in just a few months ago. There’s a new vide and everyone is feeling it. Even Bergevin’s biggest critics are starting to fall asleep in the weeds waiting for the occasion to pounce again. Heck, even Brendan Kelly has to start writing about what he knows about… showbiz.

A Summer Of Change

A post-mortem is one thing, putting words to action is another. The first mea-culpa from Bergevin was to recognize the need for better scouting and player development. First, he fired some scouts to start his summer. Then, he put the axe to the coaching and development staff. Out went the farm team’s head coach Sylvain Lefebvre, as well as assistant-coaches Jean-Jacques Daigneault and Dan Lacroix. In came Joël BouchardDominique Ducharme and Luke Richardson.

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It will be up to Joël Bouchard to develop the Canadiens’ top prospects.

After a few meetings with Claude Julien, they decided on what style of play the coach wanted instate to the team. The GM then umbilical cord to the Galchenyuk feet-dragging project while bringing back a character player in Max Domi, and succumbed to his captain’s trade demands by shipping him to Sin City for what seems like a Golden return, ending his pouting at the same time.

And that’s when the real work started. It was up to Julien and his coaching staff to decide on who would stay and who would go. While it is still my opinion that he should go back to Finland, Jesperi Kotkaniemi came out of nowhere to force the Canadiens to keep him, at least for the time being. It was a very competitive training camp and though decisions were made as the Canadiens lost Jacob De la Rose, picked off waivers by the Detroit Red Wings.

While it’s true that teams don’t win the Stanley Cup in the first couple of weeks of the season, it is also true that it is almost impossible to make the playoffs when trailing by five points or more comes American Thanksgiving. At the very least, the Canadiens are keeping hopes of making the playoffs, especially that they are doing this without their best defenseman and newly appointed captain Shea Weber.

The Attitude Change

As Serge Savard mentioned and Bergevin admitted himself, attitude starts from the top down. Geoff Molson promised a better experience at the Bell Centre. The Canadiens’ GM promised more transparency and we’ve seen plenty of examples of that. New also from this year has been the team coming out publically to confirm or deny rumours, and setting the records straight, making “rumouroids” look like fools at times. All in all, it seems like everyone, from top to bottom, is pulling in the same direction… finally. Not bad for a couple of weeks into the new season!

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Relentless workers Paul Byron and Brendan Gallagher were named alternate-captain to Shea Weber.

“It wouldn’t be fair to judge Reilly’s play or talent based on what we saw last year. When he got here, the team wasn’t playing well. The attitude wasn’t good in the dressing room. This year, the atmosphere is polar opposite to what we saw last year. Since day one, we play with confidence. We play collectively.” ~ Brendan Gallagher

More than the surprising wins so far this season, it’s the way the team works and plays that impresses the masses and brings hope to fans. It seems like the players in uniform are taking pride once again at wearing the Sainte-Flanelle and fans can feel it. Claude Julien implemented his new system and style of play, one that the players seem to all be buying into.

“You’re probably tired of hearing about it, but the attitude is really good and we’re serious when we say it. We love coming to the rink and everyone is having fun while working hard. When you show up to work and you feel good, the positive effects can lead a long way.” ~ Brendan Gallagher

The true test is still to come. How will the team reaction when – not if – they go through rough stretches in the schedule? How will they react when they go through personal slumps or team losing streaks? We know it’s coming as every team goes through it in a long season. That’s when the character will dictate if there will be a change in attitude or not. But one thing is for sure, this team is developing its own personality, both on and off the ice and it makes for a much more enjoyable environment for everyone. Go Habs Go!