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Boys want lotsa lucre. And everything else

Updated: Mar 8, 2022

David Sherman

Boys just wanna have fun. That’s been the refrain, repeated endlessly these last few months when excusing the miserable play of the Montreal Canadiens. If you’re not a hockey fan, don’t go way just yet, cause this isn’t about hockey. Not really.

Let’s start with the fact that when I and my age cohort were born, there were two channels on the tube (We called the TV the tube because, every once in a while, a human called a “TV repairman” came to the house to change a tube or two.)

If it was the picture tube, which beamed a miraculous and fuzzy Milton Berle, Jack Benny or Ed Sullivan, this was calamitous for a working man. A TV was often not just a TV, it was a large piece of furniture with speakers behind fabric, all encased in polished wood. The picture tube was the mother of all tubes and it came down to a choice between changing the mother or the entire TV. The other option was helping to pay the TV repairman’s mortgage and keep inviting him over to change tubes.

The important part of this story is that the only two channels – CBC and Radio-Canada, were government-owned and had the same program on Saturday night – hockey. In Toronto, it was the Leafs. Toronto was a backwater and didn’t know the plural of leaf was leaves, but there was so much to ridicule about Toronto, we gave them a pass. In Montreal, it was the Canadiens or Habs, a good headline word for les Habitants.

Some have opined that Canadiens hockey was as popular as the Catholic church in Quebec, then a powerhouse. The Habs, also known then as the Flying Frenchmen, were part of the fabric of the city, like steamed hot dogs, bagels and beautiful women.

Spending Saturday night in the company of the latter would soon be more important than hockey. But, for even the most precocious five-year-old, the guys in bleu, blanc rouge, often toothless and barely bilingual – “How were you able to score that winning goal in the third period, Henri?” … “I shoot the puck along the ice and I score,” was as good as Saturday night could get. The home team always won. It was our birthright.

As we aged, some of us went on to more exciting Saturday nights but playoff time sucked us in like a vacuum, no matter how raucous our hormones were screaming for girls, girls, girls. Some of us were lucky enough to have two black and white TVs, one for the parents upstairs and one in the basement for me and, when I was 18, a young woman who joined me in subterranean isolation for the game we soon became too busy to watch. Hi Fran.

Now fast forward too many years and we have been steamrolled by a pandemic. The Canadiens came through last season and went to the Stanley Cup final, even more enthralling because they humiliated the Leafs. It was almost as welcome as a Covid vaccine and it made the winter. You couldn’t go to your favourite restaurant or see a film or friends but you could plug into the flat screen and watch a game in HD and count the acne on the faces of the players, most of whom seemed barely old enough to shave.

Then, this year, the Habs, no longer the Flying Frenchmen; more like the misfiring Finns, crashed and burned. Last year’s hero coach, Dominique Ducharme, who had replaced the old pro Claude Julien and was behind the bench for the playoffs, was suddenly a pariah. Sports scribes, multiplied exponentially by the web, expounded on their failings and the worst season in Canadiens’ vaunted history. Not only couldn’t they win, they lost in humiliating fashion. The scorers didn’t score and the goal tenders didn’t tend. And the sports scribes mused coach Ducharme “has lost the room,” meaning the team wasn’t listening to him. And the other problem, everyone agreed, the players, age 20-35, weren’t “having fun.”

The theory is hockey is a game and the players, despite their talents, their life-long dedication to training and playing, weren’t having a good time. Now, as you well know, not many people are having a good time during the pandemic and many people have jobs that aren’t fun anytime. Depending on where Google takes you, you can find that 20- 60 per cent of us don’t like our jobs. But we do them. It’s called buying groceries, paying rent or mortgages and cable and cellphone bills and dressing the kids.

Hockey players make a minimum of a million a year, most of our no-longer-flying Habs earn anywhere from $2-10 million a year, not including bonuses, The Habs' highest paid player at $10 million a year, give or take, hasn't played all season.

Like all pro athletes, the Canadiens have the best medical care in the world, a chef to prepare meals for an athlete’s dietary needs, hot tubs, massage tables, a concierge service which will do anything a player would rather not, like picking up his dry cleaning, getting his SUV repaired and maybe servicing his wife if she is no longer fun.

They travel in private jets and buses, are heroes (or goats) to millions, are written about constantly, enjoy the affections of many a lady, often regardless of their marital status and, lest we forget, play for a living. A top player might play 20-25 minutes three times a week. A less effective teammate may play only six or seven minutes a game, maybe 20-25 minutes a week. Day after a game, most feel as if they’ve been hit by a truck, perhaps several times. It’s called “getting banged up.”

It’s a tough game, requiring life-long devotion, a high pain threshold and the athletic abilities of a figure skater and a football and basketball player, though none of whom worry about getting slammed head first into boards or walls. Just part of the fun.

The Habs cheated us this year. They did not give our Covid-damaged psyche a break, making the collective consciousness ache like that of a spurned lover. They broke the implied contract they have with all their fans. Canadiens win! Nothing less is acceptable. The expectation is genetic. They cheated us out of several hours a week of forgetting the isolation and tragedy of Covid, the insanity that is our southern neighbour, maybe the financial insecurity and terror wrought by Covid for people working in service industries that shut down or suffered the abuse of anti-vaxxers. They were paid shit, work was a nightmare, they definitely weren’t having fun, but they did their jobs.

Now, the Canadiens are winning again. They have a new coach and his mantra is the boys need to have fun and are now enjoying themselves again and hence winning. And the sportswriters are following the company line. They’re having fun again!

I thought professional meant you did your job, especially if you were paid millions to do it or more importantly, if you had pride in yourself. You take the money, you do the job, or, in this case, play the game. And let’s remember that last phrase: “Play the game.”

It’s a bloody game, but a game. If you can’t have fun playing professional hockey for more money than anyone needs, try pouring concrete or firefighting. Or a carry a fridge up a few dozen stairs.

Professional sports have evolved into a multi-billion-dollar industry. Hockey owns Saturday nights in Canada the way football claims Sunday in the U.S. Maybe Canadians are really too boring to do anything on a Saturday night but watch hockey. No wonder the birthrate is falling.

Some muse that big money has taken the “fun” out of the game. Each player’s performance can make the difference between a $50 million contract and no contract at all. Any second on the ice could be your last, the way any construction worker, cop or mover knows a wrong move could be their last. They don’t complain about not having fun. And no one sells bubble gum-enhanced trading cards with their pictures on them.

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