Tonight the Montreal Canadiens visit the Winnipeg Jets in NHL action. It wasn’t too long ago that it seemed we would never again see the Canadiens and Jets face off in an NHL regular season tilt. When the NHL returned to Winnipeg in 2011 after a 15-year absence (albeit as the reincarnated Atlanta Thrashers rather than the original franchise that relocated as the Phoenix Arizona Coyotes), fans were once again able to see the Habs play hockey in Winnipeg. This game holds a special place in my heart for a couple of reasons. The most obvious reason is that I’m a lifelong Habs fan despite growing up in enemy territory. While most of my friends naturally liked the Jets, I bled Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge.
You might wonder how I became a fan of the Canadiens in the first place. And I might explain by lifting a paragraph from my okay-selling memoir “The Smoked Meat Diaries” (now on sale). When I was 5 years old my parents asked me which hockey team I liked because they wanted to know which NHL jersey to get me for Christmas. I told them that I liked “The Horseshoe Team.” This response befuddled them because, as it turns out, there is no NHL team known as “The Horseshoes” nor has there ever been such a team. “Maybe it’s a ‘farm’ team” my dad probably punned. They later discovered that I was actually talking about the Montreal Canadiens and I had somehow confused the C-H on their jersey for a horseshoe. Whatever. It sort of looks like a horseshoe. I was always saying uber-cute things like that when I was a child. That’s where my nickname, “Cute Willy” comes from. Everyone is always calling me that. That and “Devastatingly Handsome Will.”
Truth is my love of the Canadiens was instilled in me by my godfather Wilf (whom I affectionately call Uncle Wilf). He’s a Canadiens superfan and I no doubt saw him wearing that “horseshoe” and I wanted to be just like my Uncle Wilf. He must have spawned my request for that Canadiens sweater and it’s been a match made in heaven ever since.
The “Canadiens @ Jets” matchup also has great significance for me because it’s my first memory of attending a National Hockey League game when I was 9. Technically, my first NHL game was a Jets vs. Islanders game the season prior, but I don’t remember much about that game. However, you can be damned sure I remember my first Montreal Canadiens game, when I saw them play the Jets on Friday, December 8, 1989.
Each year, when the Habs came to town it was always a hot ticket. No matter where you go in North America, you’re going find a ton of Montreal Canadiens fans. Take a gander at the stands during a Canadiens’ away game and you’ll see a disproportionate number of fans wearing the C-H proudly. Many Canadiens players have remarked that they always feel like they’re playing a home game no matter where they go. We’re a passionate bunch.
Of course, similar sentiments could be said of Jets fans. During my two-year tenure in Montreal I recall a beautiful moment while attending a Weakerthans concert at Le National. The show was largely attended by Winnipeg transplants who were eager to watch the band from their hometown. It warmed my cockles when, at the conclusion of the Winnipeg ode “One Great City,” the audience broke out into a spontaneous chant of “Go, Jets, go!” This was around 2009, a couple of years before the rebooted Winnipeg Jets were even a twinkle in Mark Chipman’s eye. And in spite of John K. Sampson’s lament, “The Jets were lousy anyway,” we chanted all the same.
Back to 1989 and my first Canadiens game. I remember being super psyched. I was on pins and needles all day knowing that I was going to see my heroes play live that night. Of course, I couldn’t experience this event without Uncle Wilf. We had been in the trenches of Habs fandom together that prior May when we lived and died with every play of the Canadiens vs. Flames Stanley Cup Final. Probably my favourite Canadiens memory is when my dad, sister Ruth, Uncle Wilf, and I watched Game 3 on a tiny black-and-white TV with crappy reception at Wilf’s cottage in Lester Beach. The Canadiens were down 3-2 with under a minute left. Patrick Roy was pulled for an extra attacker. Joe Mullen of the Flames had a clear shot at the empty net to seal it but missed by a mere foot. The Habs brought the puck into the offensive end and after a failed clearing attempt by the Flames, the puck squirted out into the high slot and my favourite player, Mats Naslund, blasted a one-timer top cheddar to tie the game with 41 seconds remaining. The fans at the Montreal Forum were going ballistic and the 4 fans in the kitchen of that Lester Beach cottage crowded around a fuzzy 12-inch screen were losing their minds. “Terry Crisp, is looking a little Crisp!” remarked Uncle Wilf which was just about the funniest thing I had ever heard. Ryan Walter would eventually score the winning goal in the second overtime and win the game for the Habs which sent us over the moon. It’s the most exciting hockey game I’ve ever watched. Unfortunately, that would be the last game that the Canadiens would win in the series as the Flames went on to win the Cup, but I’ll never forget that game.
If watching the Canadiens on TV was that much fun, imagine how much fun it would be in person? By some miracle, my dad managed to get 4 tickets for the game and they came at a pretty penny, let me tell you! $17 a pop? Are you kidding me? Perimeter Highway robbery, I tells ya! That’s a heck of a lot more than the $10.75 we had paid for our Islanders tickets the year before. But I suppose this was the Montreal Canadiens!
I attended the game with my dad, Uncle Wilf, and Wilf’s uncle Elmer. Elmer was a kind soul with special needs who lived in a care home in Selkirk. Elmer’s physical and mental difficulties certainly didn’t dampen his enthusiasm for hockey. He was over-the-moon excited about seeing that game. Uncle Wilf noted that Elmer had phoned him several times throughout the day to confirm that we were still going and to make sure that we wouldn’t forget him! Truthfully, I’m not sure whether Elmer or I was more excited about the game.
I’ll always remember three things about that game. First, it ended in a 6-6 tie. 80s hockey, baby! Goals galore! Both goalies, including Hall of Famer Patrick Roy, put up a six-spot and didn’t get pulled. I mean, in the 90s onward you’d most certainly pull a guy like Roy after 5 at most, lest you risk embarrassing him. Right?
But this was the 80s, when guys like Hakan Loob (Gesundheit!) could score 50 goals in a season. And a tie?! What’s that?! I almost forgot about those things.
The second thing I’ll remember, is that my hero, Mats Naslund, a notoriously gentlemanly player (he won the Lady Byng trophy for sportsmanship two years earlier) took a high sticking major early in the game and was ejected. It’s probably the first and last major penalty he ever took. It was also the first and last time I got to see him play in a real NHL game. I did get to see him play in the Alumni Game at the 2016 Winter Classic in Boston, but it wasn’t the same.
The last thing I’ll remember is an incident between periods involving Elmer. The old Winnipeg Arena was quite the dump and the main concourse was a bleak circular hallway of cement and generic concessions. You could still smoke inside at the time (imagine!) but there was a designated section which didn’t really do much to prevent a nasty plume from enveloping the entire concourse between periods. Go figure. I remember Elmer finding a seat that was outside the designated smoking section and lighting up a cigarette to get his fix shortly before the next period was to begin. An arena security guard immediately came by and demanded that he put it out. He was really rude and aggressive about it. Uncle Wilf calmly explained that Elmer was a man with disabilities just taking a couple of quick puffs while taking a load off. Besides, we were only a few yards outside the smoking area. The security guard did not waiver and rudely restated his command that Elmer put out the cigarette. And that’s when Uncle Wilf got mad. I had never seen Wilf get angry and haven’t since. He’s a sweet person. But he took great exception to this bully abusing his authority to boss around a helpless man. I can’t remember the exact words (many of which were 4-letters and unfamiliar to my virgin ears) but Wilf tore a strip off that security guard for being cruel, unreasonable, and disrespectful. That stuck with me. Maybe I didn’t totally understand the circumstances at the time but I wouldn’t forget, in that moment, the hockey game took a back seat. To Wilf, the abuse of a vulnerable person and a family member was not to be tolerated. And he risked getting tossed from the Winnipeg Arena and not being able to watch the Canadiens to make that point clear. Soon after, we were back in our seats watching the game so nothing major came of it. But that moment when Uncle Wilf stood up for Elmer is etched in my memory. In this post I’ve used terms like “bleeding red, white, and blue” and “my heroes” and “being in the trenches of Habs fandom.” Those war metaphors are silly hockey hyperbole. Sometimes we need to step back, take some perspective, and prioritize what truly matters in our lives. I’ve been very fortunate to have people who have instilled in me these important lessons. Thank you to my Uncle Wilf, for being one of those people.
And tonight, although I’ll be catching the action on TV, I’m thankful that I can watch the Montreal Canadiens play the Winnipeg Jets. I hope it ends in a 6-6 tie.