Non - For the Love of Your Team - Part 1

On March 23, 2019, @kirsikka provided us with a wonderful examination of the “Psyche of an AFC Bournemouth Fan”. @AlGard encouraged us to provide similar reflections in the close season, and @andyred came up with the great thread of “First Game”.

With this in mind, I have been working on a fairly long story of my life-long fandom of the Montreal Canadiens. It is one part family history, one part cultural context of Quebec in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and one part the tale of how a boy developed his love for his hometown hockey team. This is how I remember it, or how it was told to me by family members who are long dead. I believe it to be true …. or close enough. I hope that you will enjoy it, and that you will recognize in it your own journey. Although the sport and country may be different, the similarities that tie the boys within us together are many. Questions/comments are most gratefully received. T.J.
One of my earliest boyhood recollections, probably around 5 or 6 years old, was a small chalk board that sat on the dresser at the end of my bed. In those days, the mid-1950’s, the Saturday night hockey game was joined in progress, around the end of the first period. Well before it came on, I would begin my very unsuccessful lobbying to get to stay up for the rest of the game, which would have gone to about 10:15, well past bedtime. I was allowed to watch the second period. I would sit at the foot of that grainy television, with its black and white picture, usually playing with some small hockey player figurines that came in boxes of cereal. My father and my uncles would watch and comment, using that peculiar “franglais” mix of languages that was typical in and around Montreal in those days. I listened, and hopefully learned a thing or two. I would be trundled off to bed after the second period, and would strain my ears to hear what followed, but sleep usually won the day. In the morning, the first thing I would see was that little chalkboard. On it would be last night’s result, in my father’s printing. MTL 3 NY 2. The verdict on that little chalkboard would define my mood and behaviour as we took the short walk down St. Charles Street to Sunday Mass.
Ray Lanari was a good looking guy, and always well dressed. And, he was very lucky. In 1945, he shipped out to British Columbia – next stop, the Pacific Theatre. However, before he was deployed, Japan surrendered. Ray came home – many boys who took that journey before him did not.

Upon his return, his appearance and bilingualism landed him a job in the Mens Wear department of one of Montreal’s major department stores, Henry Morgan & Company, commonly known as Morgan’s. However, for the next 40 years, until his retirement and even well after, it was simply known in our household as “The Store”. As in, “what time will dad be home from The Store”. He loved all sports, and would tell me stories of paying a quarter, or fifty cents, to get a standing room spot in the “rush end”, high up behind one of the goals. Over time, hockey players would come into The Store – Morgan’s was well known for its fashions, and in those days, players always wore suit and tie in public. Ray became a Manager in Mens Wear, and he was known as the guy to see to get just the right garment, and to find “deals” for the players. You must remember that most NHLers in those days did not make big money. In fact, many would take summer jobs to supplement their hockey salaries. These jobs were for the most part promotional in nature. The player would come into The Store and spend most of his time talking to fans and signing autographs (free, of course, back then). So, Ray became friends with a number of the Montreal Canadiens of the 1950’s. To this day, I have an autograph book with many of those players' signatures.

I grew up in the Ville de Longueuil, a small town on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. Across that river was Montreal. It was primarily a French-speaking town, which was no picnic for my mother, Catharine Agnes Pope whose family hailed from Dundee and Peterhead in Scotland. But she learned passable French and I was schooled in English and played in franglais. Down the earlier-mentioned St. Charles street was an auto dealership. Here, again, players were happy to find summer employ, selling cars but not really. It was there, as a boy of no more than 9, that I met my first Montreal Canadien. In fact, he was an ex-player, the recently retired Emile “Butch” Bouchard. Bouchard was a huge man in the day – he stood 6 ft. 2 in. when most players were about 5 ft. 9 in. Ray introduced me to “Mr. Bouchard”. I was speechless in front of this giant – not only his size but his reputation as the former captain of the team. Other local resident players also appeared at the dealership, and Ray was known to drop in for a coffee and a conversation.

The Montreal Canadiens are one of the most storied franchises in sports. Twenty-four Stanley Cups puts them up there with the New York Yankees and Manchester United. Sixteen of those titles were captured between 1952 and 1979, so right in my wheelhouse for following the team. For most Habs fans, the late 1950’s team which dominated the six-team NHL by winning 5 consecutive Stanley Cups was the best hockey team ever. That team produced 10 members of the Hockey Hall of Fame (I had to look that bit up) including coach Hector “Toe” Blake, who was himself a fine player in the 1940’s. I can still name the full team and their sweater numbers. It strikes me that the players who are on a team when you fall in love with it will always hold a special place. I see many of you recalling Cherries players from “way back then” and it seems to me that you feel the same. On that basis, the Cherries of 2015-16 are almost like boyhood idols to me, even though I was of pensionable age.

That 1950’s Montreal Canadiens team was led by so many stars, but a few should be mentioned.

Maurice “Rocket” Richard. Rocket was the beating heart of the team, a player that played with fiery passion. Just look into those eyes. Rocket was the first player to score 50 goals in an NHL season, and the first player to score 500 career goals. However, he was more than that …. he was a cultural icon for the French-Canadian who had felt oppressed by the “anglos” for decades. Richard’s contribution to the Quebec culture will be examined later.

Rocket’s younger brother, Henri, also starred for the team and eventually became team captain.

Jacques Plante. Plante was enigmatic and moody ….. aren’t all goalkeepers? He was acrobatic, intelligent and the first goaltender to wear a mask in a regular season game, after taking a puck to the face.

Doug Harvey. Doug Harvey played defense in an offensive style that was new to the game. The great Bobby Orr was said to have changed the game in the 1970’s, by actually winning a scoring championship as a defenseman. But Harvey paved that road for Orr.

Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion. Boom Boom was largely credited for being one of the first players to use the slapshot. His nickname came from the echo of his shot when it hit the boards.
Jean Beliveau. Le Gros Bill was elegant both on and off the ice. At 6 ft. 3 in., he was tall, handsome and graceful. He became the team captain after the Rocket. And he lived in Longueuil. Later in life, he became an ambassador for the Canadiens, representing the team at functions with style and dignity. In 1971, the company that I worked for had its 100th anniversary, and Jean Beliveau was a guest speaker at the celebrations. He was surrounded by crowds of fans – an icon of Beatles proportions – and shook everyone’s hand and had a word. Beliveau was magnificent …. and more about him to come.

This team of Flying Frenchmen was not limited to francophones, as other stars included Harvey, Tom Johnson, Dickie Moore and Bert Olmstead.

Ray had worked his way up to Buyer by the late 1950’s. In those “good old days”, nobody thought twice about a Buyer receiving “goodies” from salesmen hoping to get their products into The Store. Bottle of scotch here, crystal glassware there … and of course, hockey tickets! So, by the time I was 12, I had made my first pilgrimage to the Montreal Forum. And, prime seats. So much so, that between periods you could go down to the corridor where the players exited the dressing room to go to the ice. This I remember vividly. The players going by, enormous in their gear and tall on their skates. The colours of the red, white and blue uniforms – so rich and vibrant (keeping in mind that we only saw games in black and white until around 1965). The iconic crest – CHC – Club de Hockey Canadien. One or two of them saying “Hi Ray” as they went by. I however was once again completely without words. My fate as a fan was forever sealed.

(part 2 to follow)