If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that question.
When you spend your whole life living in Southern Ontario, right in the heart of Leaf Nation, people wonder why your a Canadiens fan. After all shouldn’t you be cheering for the blue and white, they always ask. Aside from an obvious, snide remark that insults Leaf fans, I always give them the simple answer.
I had no choice.
As a kid growing up we didn’t watch the Leafs games on television. In our house we only had one tv and I didn’t have control over what was watched. That power was in the hands of my father. And my Dad wasn’t about to start watching any Leafs games. I can actually remember nights where we would watch the french telecast of the Canadiens game, while my Dad would search throughout the dial on the radio so we could listen to the game in English. If he didn’t have any luck, we would watch the game in french. There was absolutely no thought given to watching the Leaf game.
Growing up as a Habs fan we were actually pretty fortunate in this area. In the days before satellite and digital cable run by major multi-media companies, you were stuck with whatever channels your local cable company carried. Luckily for us we had two CBC stations; the one out of Toronto that carried nothing but Leafs, and CHEX out of Peterborough that would carry the english broadcast of the Canadiens game. I’ve always wondered if this had something to do with the fact that the Peterborough Petes had been one of the Canadiens main farm teams back in the day.
So because I was young, impressionable, and only watched the Canadiens, it was only a matter of time. It also didn’t hurt that the Leafs team’s of the eighties were hardly an inspiring bunch, and besides I always enjoyed being the person who didn’t follow the pack. I remember the schoolyard of my youth being made up of mostly Leafs fans, with a few Habs fans, sprinkled in with Oilers fans and Bruins fans. Looking the other day at my class photo in grade two shows this melting pot. And for most of us these loyalties never wavered. Hell, I still hear every week that if it weren’t for Kerry Fraser and Wayne Gretzky, the Leafs would have rolled over the Habs in the 1993 finals. But that is the life of the Leaf fan, a series of what might have beens.
Now in hindsight, I see that what I had become was a younger version of my father, a devoted fan who lived and died every game with the team, with a love for the Canadiens that in many ways still bonds us to this day. Every time I talk to my father a discussion about the Canadiens is in order. My Dad is way more demanding about the Canadiens than I am. He never seems to be happy about the team. Of course if you grew up in the fifties and sixties, and witnessed the seventies your expectation levels for the Canadiens have been set a little high.
Of course, the story of my Dad becoming a Habs fan was startingly similiar to my own. My father grew up in the Ottawa Valley, just west of the Ontario/Quebec border, in the town of Pembroke. His father, my grandfather never missed a Canadiens game, and wouldn’t tolerate any distractions while he was watching the game. And if you watched the game, that meant cheering for the Canadiens and no one else.
The men who wore the uniform of the bleu blanc et rouge, became legendary figures in my father’s house and his father’s before him. My father heard stories from his father and passed them on down to me. Stories about Toe Blake, Elmer Lach, Doug Harvey, Jacques Plante, and above all; the Rocket were told over and over again.
One of the more often told stories revolved around an exhibition game that my grandfather went to see in the early fifties. Back in the day the Canadiens would barnstorm during their training camp and play exhibition games against local teams. On this particular night, the local team from Pembroke jumped out to a 5-0 lead at the end of the first period. And even though it was only an exhibition game, the score didn’t sit well with one player on the Habs. At the end of the second period, the Canadiens had tied the game 5-5; thanks to five goals from the Rocket.
I have heard stories similar to this many times over the years. Unfortunately, my father has been the one who has had to tell me all of these wonderful stories. I never had the opportunity to hear these great stories firsthand from my grandfather because I was only a year old when he passed away, ironically while watching the Canadiens play. You may have heard of the game, a much remembered exhibition against the Central Red Army that took place on December 31st, 1975.
And even though I never knew my grandfather, I’ve always felt a unique bond with him, similar to the one I share with my father, in addition to our family ties, a bond based on a shared love and passion for the Montreal Canadiens.
So you can imagine how excited I was about this past weekend. After all it’s not every weekend you get to spend some time with Henri Richard.
I have been incredibly fortunate in the past few years to meet so many of my Canadiens heroes; Yvan Cournoyer, Jean Beliveau, Ken Dryden, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Chris Chelios etc… Most of these meetings have been at autograph events. To come face to face and to spend a moment with these people you have looked up too for so long has been such a thrill. But this was different.
A couple of months ago, a friend of mine, John Ovens from Johnny O Collectables asked me if I would like to come along to help at an autograph signing in Brockville, that John was copromoting along with Dave Fox of Foxy Sports. What this entailed was helping out with various aspects of the signing and meeting with Mr. Richard the night before at the hotel, going to dinner with him, waking up in the morning and sharing breakfast with him, and then spending the day with him before and during the signing.
In the last few years, we have all read many stories about unscrupulous autograph dealers, who are in the business of making money, quite often at the expense of good taste. What doesn’t get as much attention are events like this; when people put in both the time and effort towards a worthwhile cause. Henri Richard’s signing at the Brockville arena coincided with a hockey tournament for young boys and girls and acted as a charity signing with the promoters donating all proceeds going towards the R.E.T.T. Syndrome Charity.
On the Wikipedia website, R.E.T.T. syndrome is defined as …
The clinical features include a deceleration of the rate of head growth (including microcephaly in some) and small hands and feet. Stereotypic, repetitive hand movements such as mouthing or wringing are also noted. Symptoms of the disease include cognitive impairment and problems with socialization, the latter during the regression period. Socialization typically improves by the time they enter school. Girls with Rett syndrome are very prone to gastrointestinal disorders and up to 80% have seizures. They typically have no verbal skills, and about 50% of females are not ambulatory. Scoliosis, growth failure, and constipation are very common and can be problematic.
Affecting almost exclusively girls. Development is typically normal until 6-18 months, when language and motor milestones regress, purposeful hand use is lost and acquired deceleration in the rate of head growth (resulting in microcephaly in some) is seen. Hand stereotypies are typical and breathing irregularities such as hyperventilation, breathholding, or sighing are seen in many. Early on, autistic-like behavior may be seen. Rett syndrome is usually caused (95% or more) by a de novo mutation in the child (so it is inherited from a genotypically normal mother, i.e. without a MECP2 mutation).
This was the third annual event, following appearances by Jean Beliveau and Yvan Cournoyer the previous two years.
I have told a few select friends of this event and many had no problem soliciting questions that they wanted me to ask Henri Richard. I quickly came to the decision not to ask Mr. Richard question after question. Trying to put myself in his place, I imagined how I would enjoy being bombarded with questions. To me it felt like an interrogation, and the last thing I wanted to accomplish was making Mr. Richard uncomfortable.
Instead, I chose a different course. I decided to just let the weekend flow and see what happened. To say this was a unique opportunity would be an understatement. After all not many of us get the chance to spend an extended amount of time with one of the Habs greatest legends.
I have met Henri Richard before at various autograph signings, but the one thing that strikes me every time I see him is his size. He is not a big man, but he exudes a certain dignity that he carries wherever he goes. And even while checking into the hotel, he made a point to talk to all of the younger hockey players. While many of them were unaware of who he was, there was a light that went off on many of the youngsters faces as soon as their fathers told them who this dignified looking gentlemen was.
Spending time with Mr. Richard was an experience in celebrity. Walking beside him I noticed the looks on people’s faces as they slowly came to the realization that they were looking at Henri Richard. Most had no problem reaching their hand out to Mr. Richard and telling him their own personal stories about Henri and his older brother, the Rocket. Mr. Richard handled all of this with grace and class and genuinely listened to all of their stories, and gave these people a special moment.
After we finished eating dinner that night, people at the restaurant we frequented came up to Mr. Richard asking for an autograph, and Henri was asked to sign the Canadiens jersey hanging in the bar part of the restaurant. I wondered to myself how many times he has gone to dinner and not been asked for his autograph. When was the last time he had a quiet dinner, the last time he went out unrecognized by the general public. It was definitely an experience to witness and one that Mr. Richard handled like a true professional.
After having getting a morning coffee at Tim Horton’s (where the thought occurred to me that Henri Richard had played over fifteen years of games against the store’s namesake) we made our way to the signing. To see people in line sharing their stories, showing their memorabilia was a treat for me. I had the chance to sit by Henri as he signed some autographs including one of him as a junior wearing number nine! Upon seeing that, Henri jokingly turned to me and claimed, “that when he joined the Canadiens he wanted to wear the number nine but somebody didn’t want to give that one up.”
To be able to spend unguarded moments like this with Henri Richard was very special. Every person who came up that day was able to share a special moment of their own with Mr. Richard and all for a good cause.
As for myself I was able to enjoy many moments with Mr. Richard, most of which I will keep to myself out of respect to his privacy. However, to get a chance to talk about the current Canadiens with Henri Richard was a unique experience, but the true joy was in getting to hear stories about the Canadiens past from one of the legends themselves.
After spending a weekend with Mr. Richard you realize that your faith in him as a player is only exceeded by his qualities as a man. He is a humble and by nature a quiet man, who when you point out that no other team is likely to win five Cups in a row, makes a point of informing you that of the five living members of all those teams, each man is still married to his first wife, each of whom they met back in those glory days. It is a fact of which he is equally proud. When you ask him about his eleven Stanley Cups, he responds that he was in the right place at the right time, downplaying his own contribution.
But the real treasure of the weekend was hearing the stories, previously unheard of by me.
It was hearing about Jim Roberts pouting on the train home after the 1966 Cup win, because his teammates wouldn’t agree to let the train stop in Roberts hometown of Port Hope, so Jim could go out on the platform of the train station and parade around with the Cup.
It was hearing about Henri carrying the puck up ice and heeding a yell to pass the puck. Because it was in french, Richard passed the puck to what he thought was Claude Provost. Instead, it was some kid playing his first game for the Leafs against the Canadiens, some kid named Dave Keon.
For a change I now get to tell these stories and more to my father, as opposed to the other way around. It will be a chance for the two of us to bond, to see my Dad’s face light up as I tell him these tales, to bring a smile to my Dad’s face. And there’s nothing more special than that. I’m sure that somewhere my grandfather is smiling.
And that’s why I’m a Montreal Canadiens fan.
A special thanks to John Ovens from Johnny O collectibles and Dave Fox from Foxy Sports for making this all possible.