Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What A Habs Fan Wants

Let me preface this opinion. I grew up in Quebec and I consider myself a Montrealer and a Quebecker. I am as anglophone as they come (bilingual, of course), and I don't think I speak for all Quebecois.

Even though I'm by no means a "Habitant", I still identify with its evolved, as it arrived on my door, late 21st century sense. As a fan I wish the team to be a reflection of Montreal, of me. In truth, I actually want it to be in the image of Montreal in its best pose with glorious sunshine poking through the spires, lighting the mountain.

In the ideal scenario, what this would look like would be an organization and a group of players who grew up idolizing the Candiens, many because they originate from Montreal (francophone or not) that wins their Stanley Cups in bunches and with regularity. It would be a team that drew on the passion of its fans to never be outplayed at home at any man strength and carried itself as the perfect ambassador for the city on its travels.

We can also be clear that this fan is not interested in the least in a team that exhibits none of the values it wants to project, has no players it can identify with and loses rather than wins both the majority of games and the majority of the battles it undertakes on the ice.

But this isn't an ideal world is it? Ideal left the NHL some time after they thought a team in Kansas City would be a good idea (the first time).

In the real world, when faced with the fact that ideal equates to unattainable, one looks to compromise to find the best alternative of the many.

Breaking it down to its simplest components then, we could say the choice in this case, taking into account league regulations and the real world of modern hockey talent, is between:

- Ideal team composition and
- Ideal team results

I suggested the other day that this was somewhat captured in the cute marketing tagline that has stuck with the team for a century: Flying (in this case an allusion to both the results and the flair with which they are accomplished) and Frenchmen (reflecting the local makeup).

I also suggested that it was perhaps the Flying half of the couplet that mattered more. For just as no one would wish to watch a team of Americans lose the conference every year, nor would they wish to watch a team of players from Roxboro, Rosemere and Repentigny do the same.

I think I speak for the section of fans with most attachment to this team that it is the winning that matters and it has been winning that has brought the most pride.

But one can't just build a winner, just like that. Columbus has been trying to build a winner, so has Atlantapeg, so did Rejean Houle.Winning depends on many things, and winning as defined only by Stanley Cups depends on those things plus timing and good fortune.

Through analysis, one can still build a team that has more chance of winning than another -- make a San Jose vs. a Florida -- but Cups will decide for themsleves whether that's enough.

So our new choice becomes: team built on well-researched principles to be in position to win if timing and good fortune line up (hello Boston) or team built to serve a different goal, made up to reflect Montreal as a people, both literally and spiritually.

The easier choice is the latter. A GM knows for a fact where a player was born, grew up and what languages he speaks. He konws with a pretty good degree of certainty, if he's watched him, how he approaches a hockey game. A GM on the second mandate could fill his team from this point in a couple of years, if not weeks.

Building a contender is harder bceause those well-researched principles aren't exactly written in stone. What seems to win today may not be what wins tomorrow. A player signed who once stormed his team, to an unlikely final may not work in your own mix of talent. Neither is it impossible, though. Others do it. Teams sit competitive for years, decades, because their management has worked tirelessly to manage their talent both present and prospective.

As a Habs fan who would love to get as close to that ideal as possible, I would hate for the GM to jump headlong into the geographic approach, because just as I won't identify with a team of Americans losing for my city, I won't relate to a team of Montrealais scraping the bottom of the barrel either.

But because winning in that Stanley sense is so unreliable (as San Jose and Philadelphia can attest) then neither do I want a GM to abandon all balance and number-crunch his way to a team with a 0.06% greater chance of winning.

I guess what I'm saying is that this fan does not want his team to be built by someone who disregards the many available paths to winning, and the flexibility in team make up and strategy that can land you in a parade. However, what I'm also saying is that the identity of the team, the "Flying Frenchmen" aspect of its essence is not to be interpreted only in its most literal sense.

In the hierarchy of importance, I think the winning (flying) is more essential to the image Montreal wishes to project. I hope that as the organization works to that ideal version of the team (a version, I might add, we were so spoiled to have for a couple of generations), it understands where the compromises should come.

How many do I speak for? At least one Habs fan.

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