Monday, 21 October 2013

HABS-TOWN: "It was an absolute euphoric feeling!"

One of the very first followers I gained on Twitter was "the Professor" Avi Goldberg. 

Avi is no stranger here on "The Breakdown" having appeared before as a part of a roundtable discussion during the NHL lockout. 

Avi is a professor of sociology at Vanier College in Montreal. You can read him all over the web, as he is a Contributing Editor at The Barnstormer, and a Featured Writer at All Habs. He also has his own private blog where he uses his sociological mind to make sense of sport-media culture and the different ways that we as fans prosume (produce & consume) the contents and experiences of sport-media culture.

He's a very interesting guy, an excellent read, and today we meet Avi the fan, an integral member of HABS-TOWN.

What got you into hockey, more specifically the Habs?
Ok, you have to know that I was born in Montreal but raised in Edmonton. I am a fan of both the Habs and Oilers. With that out of the way, my first memories of getting into hockey are from family visits to Montreal for Passover and everyone running to the TV in the middle of the dinners to check out the score of the Habs games during the playoffs. As a youngster then, I would sit in the basement of my aunt and uncle’s place in Chomedey and watch Habs games with everyone. This was my first real exposure to hockey and the Habs. Since these experiences also introduced me to the unmistakable voice of Dick Irvin, Kojax souvlaki, and Montreal bagels, it’s not surprising that the Habs and hockey were so appealing for a young guy living in the prairies.     

Was it Hard to be a Habs fan living in Edmonton?
I certainly got teased by a couple of my good buddies. They laughed hysterically as I talked to them incessantly about Mats Naslund and, later on, Patrick Roy. 

The thing about being a fan back then, without the internet, was that so many people from Edmonton really knew so little about the Habs and vice versa. Kind of as it can be with politics in Quebec, most of my Edmonton pals just paid no attention to the Habs unless there was some reason for it. You have to remember that most of the attention Edmontonians devoted to visiting teams went to the hated Calgary Flames. So, most of the time, my love for the Habs was basically mildly amusing to my Edmonton friends and not so much the source of any serious rivalry or animosity. Much later, after moving to Montreal, this worked in reverse when a fellow Oilers fan and I would drive our Montreal pick-up hockey buds a bit crazy as we would endlessly tell stories of Oiler greatness in the dressing room prior to and following our games.

Do you remember your first Habs game?
Since I grew up in Edmonton, my first Habs game was in about 1988 when I came to Montreal on a winter vacation. A friend of mine took me to a Habs-Whalers game at the Forum and it was totally surreal to actually sit in the building I had seen on TV so many times over the years. The arena was smaller and busier than I expected. I was also surprised that people were smoking so much during the intermissions. The fries were great and I think it was the first time I drank orange soft drink in ages. The game itself, a 2-1 Habs victory, was a sleeper. Still, the banners, the players, those escalators crossing like two hockey sticks, the beautiful white home jerseys, and the walk out onto a freezing cold St. Catherine Street in downtown Montreal after the game made the experience worth it. 

So was that Habs game in 1988 your first NHL game? or had you been to an Oilers game in Edmonton first?

My first NHL game would have been an Oilers game prior to 1988, but I cannot truthfully remember a notable first NHL game.

Do you have a favorite Habs player ever? if so, whom, and why?
For some reason, I always loved Mats Naslund. Just liked the fact that he shot left (like me), wore that big helmet, and had those shifty smooth moves and playmaking skills on the ice. Due to his 26, that was the number I always chose for my jersey when I was on a team. My Edmonton pals made plenty fun of me for this choice, but to me, Mats was the man! 

Mats Naslund seems to be one of those forgotten players. We always hear about the Dynasty Era "heroes", like the Richards, Cournoyer, Beliveau, The Flower, the “big three, etc. When it comes to players from the 80's, Patrick Roy is the only constant. Yet, Naslund was a remarkable player who had good numbers, and it seems like the generation that grew up watching him often mentions him as their favourite. 

Do you think Saku Koivu will go down that way in the history books, or as something else? What about a current Hab like Andrei Markov?
Ok, this is my view on this. Koivu was a very solid player, worked his ass off, and did not get the universal support I think he deserved. He got caught in a very unfortunate crossfire surrounding language, politics, and hockey where some fans in Quebec clearly needed a scapegoat for the fact that there were no real Quebecois hockey heroes on the Habs to support and rally behind. Markov, when healthy, has been a tremendously solid, highly skilled, and valuable player. The problem with remembering both of these guys as legends, I think, is that neither one of them is a pure superstar (although Markov is close), and it is also debatable whether either one of them can be associated with team greatness. We will always remember and admire Koivu for overcoming cancer, and fans that hate the fact that he was singled out for not speaking French will always rally behind him as a victim of nasty Quebec politics. 

With Markov we will be aware of his great skill and the fact that the team wins so many more games than they lose when he is in the lineup. Think of the different things we can associate with Naslund, by contrast. The Swede was a quirky and effective player, used a helmet and stick that were memorable due to their lack of familiarity to Canadians, and ultimately contributed to an unexpected Stanley Cup victory in 1986. Aside from overcoming cancer (albeit a biggy), I am not sure if Koivu and Markov feature in a team narrative that will keep their memories alive in a meaningful way. Then again, with Markov, there’s still time!

Where do you like to watch games?
If I had the time, I would love to watch games with friends in a small bar-restaurant where staff and patrons know each other. I just love the idea of being out in public, lots of others there for the same reason, enjoying cold beer, and escaping time while watching the game of hockey.

Do you prefer to watch with guys? with girls? why?
When I was a younger person, the idea of watching games with women was virtually unheard of. Now, the passion for hockey exhibited by women is off the charts, no different from what I see from the guys. To illustrate, when I first met my wife, Lori, she was in the process of moving back to Montreal from Toronto and one of the things she was looking forward to was being able to watch the Habs in Montreal. In the early years she told me stories of how she would have just died of tension and anxiety if the Canadiens would have played the Leafs in the 1993 finals instead of the Kings. Though I would have been into a Habs-Leafs finals matchup, I totally loved the fact that we were sharing these kinds of conversations. In short, though Lori is not currently as tuned into the Habs as I am, my ideal situation would be watching with her and getting my daughter into it with us as well. So, I’m cool with watching with guys or women. And, if it’s people who are close to me, all the better.

Do you have any pre-game rituals or in game superstitions?
No real pre-game rituals but my friends and I in Edmonton pioneered some major in-game superstitions. It all happened during Oilers playoff games during the dynasty years. We would usually watch at Michael Chow’s house and his two brothers would be hanging out with us as well. So, we’d take our seats for the game, it wouldn’t matter really where we started off. As long as things were going well, we stayed in our spots. The moment things started to go bad for the Oilers, we would change seats, so I might move from the couch to the floor and Justin from the floor to the couch. We would continue to shift as needed until Oiler momentum would be restored. Needless to say, I still employ this basic tactic, even if I am watching important games alone.

What's the best game you ever went to? what do you remember about it?
I have to say that the two best games I ever attended were not Habs games but Oilers games. When I was 13, my dad took me to games 4 and 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Islanders. We sat in the nosebleeds at Northlands Coliseum. Yelled and screamed our heads off. Saw big bad Billy Smith yanked from at least one of those games (both of them ended up as 7-2 Oilers victories). The place was deafening and it was an absolute euphoric feeling to see this amazing young team inch close to the championship after having been thoroughly destroyed by the Islanders in the Finals the year before. My dad couldn’t score tickets to the Stanley Cup clinching game but we watched at a family friends’ place. The memories of those two games with my dad will forever live within.

If those were the best Oiler games you've been to, what's the best Habs one and why?
Though I am a huge hockey fan, I truly have not been to nearly as many live games as I would like. The most exciting Habs game I attended was during the 2004 playoffs, second round against Tampa Bay, the eventual champions just before the lockout. 

The Habs were down 2-0 in the series but played strong in game 3. They trailed by a goal heading into the 3rd. I joked with my friends just before the period that Patrice Brisebois, simultaneously hated and admired in Montreal, would be a hero of the game. In the dying moments of the game, Ryder and Brisebois(!) did score to put the Habs ahead. For a few moments, I was a real man for making that prediction. Sadly, with less than 30 second left, Lecavalier scores for Tampa Bay to send the game to OT. While I wanted to be optimistic heading into OT, I just didn’t think the Habs would pull it out. No surprise when Brad Richards scored 1:05 (I looked it up) into the extra frame to pull TB up 3-0 in the series. The loss was depressing in the end, but there was some great tension and drama, making it a pretty fun night. The less-than-friendly banter we exchanged with two Tampa Bay fans that made their way up to the game helped to create an all-around playoff hockey experience in MTL. 

Do you have any funny or interesting stories that are somehow related to the Habs?
I have a fairly good and interesting Oiler story if you want to hear it, but the best Habs story I can muster is the time I was invited to a Habs game by Rob Zamuner’s sister. This happened when Zamuner played for Tampa Bay. Again, the game itself is basically non-existent in my memory, but I do remember hanging around after the game waiting for Zamuner to come out of the dressing room to meet us. We kind of stood around like idiots as Habs and Lightning players, coaches, media people walked by wondering what the two geeks were doing there. Zamuner came out, chatted with us for a bit, then headed back to join his teammates. It really wasn’t that exciting but it was certainly interesting standing around in the bowels of the Forum with all these famous people walking right beside us and feeling like a complete clown for being there. 

I'll bite, what's the interesting Oiler story?
In grades 11 and 12, I dated the niece of the Oilers Assistant General Manager. This meant unprecedented access to games and to one private Stanley Cup victory party after victory over the Boston Bruins in 1987-’88. After the celebrations and interviews died down at Northlands Coliseum, the team went to a smaller banquet hall in another events building just next to the arena. My girlfriend and I attended the party at which a meal was served, music blared, and everyone in attendance got to mingle with the players and view the Stanley Cup up close. Similar to my experience in the bowels of the Forum, my girlfriend and I were a little shy about really interacting with the players, but for a couple of hours we were right there watching the guys celebrating their big win. As we were not A-list guests, we were assigned to a table with the unheralded Keith Action and Marty McSorley. At best, we shared a little small talk when they weren’t talking to each other or to their families. There certainly was champagne making the rounds, but the players were on very good behaviour. I’m sure the real partying and debauchery happened the moment the players left this official team function. Needless to say, we were not invited to join the after party!   
Last season, the Habs decided to keep Alex Galchenyuk and Brandon Gallagher in Montreal at the time, what did you think? 

Did they meet your expectations?

How do you think it relates to Jarred Tinordi, Nathan Beaulieu and Michael Bournival this season?
Previously, I was conditioned to think that, based on failings of the past, young guys should go back to junior or the farm and develop properly. I had this view even though I was also aware of teams that allowed young players to play right away and with great consequences. Based on this, I was very skeptical about keeping the Gallys up, but they (especially Gallagher) were more than respectable. Galchenyuk and Gallagher are exciting, enthusiastic players and they’ve picked up where they left off last year and I think it worked out great. With Tinordi, Beaulieu, and Bournival, as long as Therrien lives up to what he says about giving them real time to play and providing them with teaching and guidance, I say keep them here.

Is there anything that Brian Gionta and Andrei Markov can do to earn another contract in Montreal?
Here’s my preference/prediction. To me, the Habs need to go a little further along in terms of a generational change in its playing talent before it will be a serious contender for the Stanley Cup. What this means is that, as much as I respect Gionta, I see him in more of a caretaking role, helping the current team get to its next and better version, than as the leader who’ll be first to hold the Cup since 1993. In Gorges, Subban, Gallagher, and even Lars Eller, I think there is good captain material just ahead. As for on-ice, I hope there will be a younger and bigger forward who will ably take Gionta’s place. Markov is a little trickier for me, especially given the amount of time he’s been with the team, and even given the way he’s looked on the back end since being paired with Subban. If the guy plays the season like how he’s looked in the last few games, I’d sign him to a two year deal, as long as the money is ok. Let’s say he’s good, and let’s say all the young D talent develops as you want them to in the coming couple of years, how bad would it be to have Markov in the role that Bouillon is in right now? Gionta’s time in Montreal will honourably come to an end. Markov, assuming he stays healthy and productive (big assumptions!), will re-up and be there for at least one good run to the Stanley Cup.

For more from Avi Goldberg, follow him on Twitter @AviGoldberg


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