Friday, October 24, 2008

Story Of A Lost Love

When We Fell Out of Love With Higgins

Do you ever regret taking something too far? Thinking that perhaps other people didn't quite understand that your gibes were merely tempered love and not simmering hatred?

Sometimes throw away comments can have this effect. I remember a few times in my life where I have said a couple of critical things about a person in passing and in the heat of the moment, that I then spent months trying to repair later. Words whether misinterpreted or not, never reflected a true opinion I held. Sometimes those words can go on to propagate negative sentiment about that person. Sometimes there's personal regret. I fear I may have done the same thing with our friend Chris Higgins...

Not really, I'm not actually having a delusion of grandeur. I merely needed an intro for this piece. I do think someone probably said something similar (I'd like to know who) because Chris Higgins, in the space of one short year (actually far less) has gone from media and fan darling to (by and large) a nearly forgotten and cast-aside man.

The Rise of Christopher Higgins
The ascendancy of Higgins is an interesting story. He was a first round pick and all, but never regarded as a sure fire prospect, even on the day he was drafted. Oh sure, we were fed all the same tripe we hear every time the Canadiens choose a player whose stats are not mind-blowingly impressive from a lesser league we can't relate to – he was to be a two-way forward and a leader (they should buy that, right?).

He spent the next year at Yale University again, in relative hockey obscurity (as far as Montrealers are concerned) and went about his business without anyone bothering him too much. Looking back, it is easy to say now that he showed great promise, and the Habs must have thought so. But the truth is we didn't know what 20 goals in the Ivy League hockey meant very much in NHL terms. After all, Yale isn't and hasn't been a massive hotbed for NHLers over the years (Jeff Hamilton anyone?).

But impressed the Canadiens brass he did. In a time when Habs prospects were more likely to be ending their careers in Europe than achieving any milestones, Higgins was an exception. He led his team in scoring, was among the top 6 scorers in his league, was a star on the US National team, MVP of the ECAC and his team and a finalist for two prestigious American hockey awards, the Herb Gallagher (top player in New England) and the Hobey Baker award (top player in US College hockey). In other words, there was more to this guy than stats.

The next year Higgins would forego the rest of his Ivy League education to sign with the Canadiens and give professional hockey a go around. As pro rookies go, he had a good season. He put up some goals and assists and even got a couple of NHL games under his belt – remembering that time now, I remember liking the fact we had a prospect that didn't play like Jason Ward. Really, though, it was the lockout season that was Higgins' breakout. This report from mid-way through the season spoke of his adapting to all the NHLers then in the league, but also gave him top-3 prospect billing with potential for first line winger (for the first time). It is worthy of note that he did turn things around later that year and scored more goals while playing a bigger role on the team. He was even selected Bulldogs Player of the Year that season.

His ascendancy entered its final stage the next year, during his rookie season in the NHL. Starting well enough, it was when he found himself thrust onto the top line with Saku Koivu and Michael Ryder to end the regular season that things really began to take off. In the final 25 games of the season, when the Canadiens were in the midst of yet another playoff push, Higgins picked up the torch and ran with it. He netted 16 goals in those final 6 weeks and built himself a huge fan base in the process. He was clutch, he was exciting, he was perfect.

Honeymoon over
The honeymoon would continue for Higgins over the entire following season and the beginning of the next. But, strangely, it all ended. When? It's hard to pinpoint. But it was certain when one of the two untouchable players became the number one chip in every fan-generated trade rumour coming out of forums in February.

The fall was not ugly, nor was it sudden. Perhaps that's how Higgins went from hero number one to peripheral in the minds of fans across the city.

The evidence of this fall, for me, is for all to see now. Last season we could not move for quotes from Higgins. We heard about what he ate in the summer, how many stretches he learned, when he saw himself becoming captain, how he would change the team. everyone wanted to know what Higgins was thinking about everything. He was the "it" boy of Fall 2007 and it showed. In contrast, we had this fall where Higgins showed up to camp with little fanfare, played the same way he always did, and then got injured.

What on earth happened?
The truth is, I have no real idea (well maybe a couple...)

As I related in my intro, there were some people during all that mega-hype of "future-captaindom" who were trying to cool things off a bit (myself included). I can only speak for myself really, but I remember on several occasions questioning whether there was a 40-goalscorer there, even when he was on 60-goal pace.

These negative comments probably had little to do with anything. But certainly, once the prophecies of another 25-30 goal season started to look more realistic some time around the end of December, it is possible fans who never harboured ill-will to Higgins before began to buy what we had been selling (i.e., reality).

I also harbour the personal theory that someone inside the team had a little sit-down with the human quote machine last season – probably some time when his mouth was much more productive than his stick. This would certainly explain why we don't hear as many Higgins quotes coming through. And I think it would probably contribute to a bit to his fall down the media darling pecking order.

Frankly though, I think there's something more. I think it probably has something to do with Chris Higgins' timing. After all, it was his once-fortuitous timing took him form rookie fourth liner to first line hero as he played a massive part in games during the final quarter of the schedule. The opposite effect was true last year, where Higgins scored 13 goals in the first 31, 11 over the next 49 and then when things were all signed sealed and delivered got 3 in the last 2 games.

Perceptions you see are a funny thing. And Montreal has always been a bit "What have you done for me lately?" with their heroes (ask Kovalev, Koivu, Huet, Lafleur even). The perception that 25-30 goals would not suffice after teasing us with 40 was palpable by the end of last season. It was also heightened by Ryder's similar problems and the appearance of four new darlings Kostitsyns, Kovalev (again) and Plekanec. The fact we won more when Higgins was scoring less and making just as important contributions to the team overall escaped most people. He was no longer the golden child, just the second line winger.

And this year has started the same way last year ended. Higgins, at the moment, apart from showing up in injury updates now and again is being largely overlooked. No one seems that concerned because we still have Kostitsyn and the wonder line from last season and the French Connection with Koivu has also applied ample distraction.

Recalibration needed
Though I certainly didn't like the media hoopla around Higgins last September, I would never have wanted his popularity to slump to this point. I feel it is my place now, then, to remind everyone what a thoroughly good player he can be, and is.

Perhaps we'll never love Higgins as fully as we did before, perhaps we still can. Perhaps Chris will never score 40 goals now, perhaps he'll pull it off. I don't think either matters. I could go on about what he's proven already, about his skating or his nous in both zones (but I think I did enough of that). What it comes down to for me really is just a few things I know about Chris that are unlikely to change:

1) In battles he never gives up, he seems to battle for a few seconds longer than his opponents – a winner of the puck

2) He cares about winning – a lot

3) He is still an absolute bargain in this league at his rate of pay

You need players with those qualities to win the Cup. You need them desperately in the playoffs. Someone who doesn't relent, who overcomes shadowing, who works out ways through the defence when the going gets tough.

And with Chris, I just have a feeling there will be a night one May, soon, where all the hopes of 40-goal seasons gone amiss will be forgotten as he jumps up and down in celebration of a seventh game OT winner.

That's the type of player we have here. He's always had that look about him.

(For those of you who read French, I should give a nod to En Route Pour La Coupe for their piece on Higgins too. In different ways, I think we're speaking the same language...)

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