(originally posted Feb 2nd 2004)
There seems to be a schism developing in Montreal regarding the Canadiens, despite the fact the team is playing well above early projections. That there is such a division is testament to the talent on the team and the optimism surrounding the club. Unfortunately, it’s come to a point where fans have stopped seeing the game as a whole and are instead concentrating on how the two individuals, around which the dispute is centred, fare on the ice.
Saku Koivu has been the centrepiece in the Montreal offence for many years now. Despite injuries and his battle with cancer, he’s led the club on and off the ice for much of the time since Rejean Houle dismantled a once strong team. He’s a superior talent, an inspirational leader, and the Canadiens captain and, as such, garners a lot of respect from many fans.
Mike Ribeiro, in his first full season with the Habs, is leading the Canadiens in scoring, and is incredibly popular with the younger fans. He’s got an impressive array of skills and his potential seems very high, leading many to believe he’s a potential superstar.
The talent debate between the two players is only the beginning of the divide amongst the fans. In fact, it goes much deeper than that. There are so many issues surrounding these two that for many, the exploits of Jose Theodore and Sheldon Souray have taken a back seat, despite both having wonderful seasons.
Probably the basis and origin of the conflict lies with the continual language issues surrounding the club. Koivu doesn’t know French and was a controversial pick as captain for this very reason. Many of the Montreal media complained vehemently that the Quebec club was not going to be represented properly to the French fans. That he’s a competent captain and strong leader meant nothing to them – nor did the fact that it was a vote amongst players who chose him.
Ribeiro, on the other hand, is a well-spoken young man who is fluent in both languages, and therefore gets plenty of coverage amongst the French media. In fact, he’s become a media darling amongst those covering the Canadiens in Quebec Not since Guy Lafleur has there been a French kid with so much talent playing for the home side, and, understandably, the media have taken hold with both hands with the effort to promote him.
Most frustrating for those fans not in Quebec who have to watch the games on RDS, the station that has the rights to broadcast every Canadiens game, is that, while Koivu seems to struggle for respect despite carrying the team for many years and still being an extremely talented player and leader, suddenly Ribeiro is everywhere in the French media and many have placed him ahead of Koivu as best, and most important, on the team. Rightly or wrongly, it’s a frustrating slight to the team leader who still produces at the equivalent pace of the younger Ribeiro and is used in many more situations.
If it ended there, most would probably disregard the situation, but from many insider reports, it runs much deeper within the Montreal organization itself. There are reports of cliques within the team, and in fact it was said those cliques were a major reason for the downfall of the Habs last year. Craig Rivet, best friend of Koivu and many of the elder statesmen on the team form one side and Ribeiro and his best buddy Jose Theodore constitute the centre of the other, with many of the younger members ostensibly joining with this side.
While Claude Julien has done an admirable job in minimizing the impact of these supposed cliques, you can quite clearly see elements of them during a hockey game. When the Koivu and Ribeiro are on the ice together and one scores a goal, both barely acknowledge the other when the team gathers to offer congratulations. If one is on the bench and the other scores, while there is a touch of gloves, most often the faces are stoic and the looks anywhere but at each other.
One could call this a jealousy issue. Koivu is feeling his control of the team usurped by the younger and more flamboyant Ribeiro who panders to the media and is much loved in the home province where the team resides. Ribeiro is out there to prove himself; that he is good enough to play the game and deserves the accolades that Koivu has received for so long.
That this rivalry spills over to the fans is almost childish. Now, instead of cheering on the Habs for victory, they mumble when one makes an error and the other scores. Objectivity and fan pride has turned to arguments and bitterness. Instead of being pleased the Habs have two centres who can produce at a fairly substantial rate, there are constant tirades against one or the other and how each could do something differently to be better.
The funny thing is, the two are very different players and their different styles leave the Habs with two great elements to work with. Koivu is an energy player whose all-round game has improved dramatically this season with his inclusion on the penalty kill and at critical times during the game. Ribeiro plays a deception game and supplements that with ultra-slick passing while continually improving his defence.
The biggest difference between the two is experience. Koivu generally knows when to make a play, how others work, and how to get the most out of others. Ribeiro is still in the learning stage and makes mistakes. In fact, his biggest drawback is his inability to grasp two issues: the team game and the intensity factor. He occasionally takes shifts off, as most young players are wont to do, and he occasionally stays out far too long on his shifts instead of sticking to the system Julien has in place.
So, who is the better player? You can’t answer that question since they play two different games. You can ask who you’d rather have on your team, but again, that depends on the composition of your club and where each could fit in. The major problem with the two is size; both are sub-six feet. Now, Koivu tends to play much larger than he is, but Ribeiro negates his size deficiency fairly well at times by using good positioning – and that will only get better with experience and age.
The ultimate question, though, is whether or not the Habs can compete for a Cup with these two as front line centres. Simply, time will tell. It will be vital to surround them with large and competent wingers, for sure, but there’s no reason to think they can’t succeed at bringing a Cup to Montreal. There are plenty of examples of teams with smaller centres winning: look no further than the Colorado Avalanche.
The situation in Montreal is actually reminiscent of a similar one that occurred in Detroit not so long ago. Steve Yzerman, the guy who was the leading scorer and consummate captain for the Wings was suddenly supplanted by Sergei Fedorov as the number one player. There were rumours that Yzerman wanted out of town and that he was bitterly jealous with the situation.
Yzerman, though, is the ultimate team guy and carried on his leadership role as a co-number one centre in Detroit. He was the guy who was out there in all the crucial situations, and yet still a player the team could count on to produce at an almost point-per-game rate – sometimes more than Fedorov.
Koivu is not a stupid person, and will understand that, while Ribeiro might have the ear of the French media, he’s still the captain and leader of the team. For his part, Ribeiro will shortly come to understand that Koivu makes everyone on this team better, including himself. It’s probably only a matter of time before the two work out a comfortable coalition and carry the team to bigger and better things.
Now, if fans in Montreal could just reconcile themselves to this notion, perhaps we could all go about cheering the Habs to victory regardless of who gets the goals and points. Seems to me that’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.