A few days into the 2005 UFA free-for-all and already Bob Gainey is being vilified for not having plucked one of the stars that have been signed elsewhere in the NHL. Fans everywhere seemed to let out a collective moan at the end of the day Tuesday as the only signings made by the Habs were for depth players and Kovalev – who was already established here to some extent. The media has also weighed in on his lack of action in the UFA market and suddenly there appear to be cracks in Bob Gainey’s leadership for failing to attract players to Montreal.
Everyone blames the most visible person in the equation and forgets to look around and take everything into consideration. Sure, Gainey may have been rebuffed thus far by a player or two that has signed elsewhere. Reports have indicated that Adrian Aucoin was highly coveted by the Canadiens and yet somehow he utterly failed to land in Montreal. Why on Earth would he pass up a chance to play here when, apparently, he was offered the same contract as he received elsewhere?
Perhaps the fans and media who cover the Canadiens can take a long look in the mirror before they toss blame elsewhere. My guess is that Gainey did absolutely everything in his power, and continues to do so, to acquire the players he feels will propel this club to the next level. However, Bob Gainey is not a magic man. He can’t force players to decide to come here.
This is the most unique market in North America. It’s the only market where French is almost required, and let’s be honest here, how many players want to deal with a second language as well as coming to a new city and dealing with the pressure cooker that is the Bell Centre. It’s a very different culture in Montreal, as anyone who’s ever lived there will agree.
But more importantly, perhaps, is the terrifying thought of having to deal with the average Joe fan. Lest we forget, this is the city where we booed a pretty decent player until he had to take stress leave. Patrice Brisebois was not nearly as bad as the fans would have liked anyone to believe. And yet, there were nights when it seemed the entire arena booed his every touch of the puck.
During the last season, even though Gainey had come out in support of his beleaguered defender, there were still boos – and not just directed at Brisebois. The leading “French” talent received his fair share of cat-calls as well. Mike Ribeiro, the darling of the French media and a good portion of the fanbase was booed on occasion.
If that isn’t enough to scare prospective players away then consider the case of Saku Koivu, the man who conquered cancer and returned the same year he was diagnosed to play for the team tattooed on his heart. Koivu, who can’t help but give everything he has every night, Koivu who is a very productive player despite playing against the best the opposition has every night and despite having B-quality wingers at his side, was also booed.
How can any of us expect a player to want Montreal when the best of the best gets booed here.
Patrick Roy, hailed as one of the best ever at his position, was routinely booed if he had a bad night. Who here can recall how he raised his hands in triumph when he made a save – after letting in a few goals – and the crowd jeered him. Montreal likes to think they are the most knowledgeable fans, and that’s perhaps true. But what is also true is that they’re the most unforgiving, the most critical, and definitely the hardest to please.
Touch situation to enter for any player.
All this against a player coming to Montreal and we still haven’t touched on the media here. Yvon Pedneault, a well-respected journalist working for RDS, openly questions Gainey for his lack of movement and ability to bring in the goods. There’s a massive excrement storm around our first two centres that was fanned by so-called experts on 100%. Armchair GM’s like Pat Hickey and Jack Todd sometimes get more respect from fans than does the actual GM of the team.
That’s not to say that a little questioning isn’t a good thing, but here in Montreal every single decision, or lack thereof, is analysed to death. The media has an absolute right to question and comment, but they go too far here. In the past the media has influenced the team to the point of action, and that’s just not right in any city anywhere. A player is so much under the spotlight while playing in Montreal that it’s no wonder others don’t want to come.
Does anyone really think the players previously run out of Montreal by fans and media alike say good things to their peers about the city? Do you think Montreal would have been given a rave review by Pierre Turgeon if the Mike Modano had asked? Roy still has plenty of friends and contacts in Montreal; think he gives sparkling reviews of the club?
Okay, we can all take a collective breath and remind ourselves that it’s early days during the UFA period and that there’s still plenty of talent out there. Hey, perhaps by the time this makes it to your eyes, Montreal may have signed every good player left and Gainey will be hailed as hero. However the simple fact remains: all the issues touched on above will continue to be issues in Montreal for the foreseeable future.
This is not, as some might have you believe, a “destination” city. Not in the least. This is a scary place to play hockey and only the toughest mentally will succeed. The fragile need not apply. It’s a shame, but it’s true, and if you are one of those boo-birds who thinks it’s his right to boo every time someone doesn’t execute perfectly, then perhaps you should be prepared to shoulder some of the responsibility for the Aucoin’s of the league signing for other teams. You have your right to boo, and they have their right to decide not to live with overly critical fans.
In the end, perhaps we all should take a step back and give Gainey the support he needs to bring in the talent we so deeply desire. With a little less negativity, perhaps we can assist, rather than hinder, in bringing the star talents to Montreal.
But never, ever forget that this is the toughest place in which to play and that we are not a coveted location. Gainey – and all future GM’s – will do their best to attract the talent, but in the end, it’s the players decision and Montreal is a scary place to play hockey.