Saturday, January 22, 2005

Things said and unsaid

So the idea for Hochelaga Depicta is to have a place where I can talk about anything which seems interesting. This is a somewhat vague category that could include any number of books, comics, or political issues. All manner of bright shiny things which capture my attention, however briefly, and move me to write.

One thing which I apparently will not be writing about is the 2005 NHL season. This is because it appears that there will be no such thing. This is too bad.

I'm a Montréaler, and therefore a fan of the Montréal Canadiens. The Canadiens are, in objective historical terms, the greatest hockey team to grace the planet. They're tremendously popular in this city, and more perhaps than simply popular. The city's relationship with the team is something that goes beyond the sport itself; it's something woven into the fabric of the community.

In twenty-first century North America, communal identity is often a tenuous thing. Montréal has always been different in that respect. People here are proud of their home, proud to live here, proud to be a part of a city with a distinctive identity and a distinctive culture; which is to say, a city which mixes identities and cultures of all kinds in any number of distinctive ways.

The Canadiens, for their part, are the oldest franchise in the National Hockey League, just a few years shy of a hundred. In their history has been death, riots, drama, language controversy, hard-forged team accomplishment, and victory; constant, recurring victory. In this, they reflect the city around them. And out of this they have helped shape the city, and the city's image of itself.

Thousands of stories are told about the team and the players, some of them true, some of them false, many of them debatable. Did Howie Morenz, the greatest hockey player of the first half of the twentieth century and the man who popularised the sport in Canada, die of a broken heart after snapping a leg-bone on the ice of the old Montréal Forum? Or did the liquor his teammates smuggled in to him in the hospital have something to do with it?

Stories are told, lessons are drawn. Here is maybe the most significant of these stories, told breifly, with an interpretation:

Almost exactly fifty years ago, following a stick-swinging incident in Boston on March 13, 1955, NHL president Clarence Campbell suspended Canadiens superstar Maurice Richard for the remainder of the 1954-55 regular season and the entirety of the playoffs. Richard, arguably the greatest goal-scorer in the history of the game, at the time the only man to have scored 50 goals in 50 games, was idolised by Canadiens fans. The city was outraged. Nevertheless, Campbell insisted on attending the next Canadiens home game, despite public pleas from the Mayor. The result was a massive riot which left St. Catherine Street filled with broken glass for more than a mile.

Some have seen the Richard Riot as the first dawning of a modern Québecois nationalism; some have called it the beginning of the Quiet Revolution, the moment in Québec's history when the tyrannical government of Maurice Duplessis was exorcised and a new spirit of reform began to dominate the province. If either of these things are true — and there are those who argue strongly against them — then it means that the modern political history of Québec began with the riot. By extension, since much of the Canadian experience of the past several decades has been shaped by the ongoing dialogue with Québec, one may say that the whol history of the northern half of North America was determined by what happened on the ice of the Montréal Forum.

None of this may be the case. It is, after all, only a story. But, true or not, stories have meaning.

It's highly unlikely that anything like the Richard Riot would have happened this season, which is probably just as well. But it's a fair bet that something surprising would have ocurred. Something which would never have been predicted. Other stories would have emerged over the course of the season. Any number of stories. Instead of the one imperious meta-narrative we're left with, of fruitless negotiations between intractable owners and frustrated players.

The absence of the NHL leaves a hole not only in Montréal but across the country where tales that ought to have played out over the course of the year are left untold. It's not a great tragedy, though it's affected the livelihood of many people who are neither hockey players nor team owners. But it means that certain things which once might have been can now only be imagined. And certain things which might have been imagined will now not be thought of.

Granted that, in the great scheme of things, what we lose with the 1994-95 NHL season is not likely to be terribly major.

It's still too damn bad.

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