Just over a week has passed since the Montreal Canadiens historic playoff run came to an end against the Tampa Bay Lightning, conceding the Stanley Cup in five games. The thing about the Canadiens this season was that there seemed to be no quit in them. When the other teams, media, and some fans had them losing in 4, 5, 6, and 7 games, they just kept defying the odds, until of course they just couldn’t defy them anymore in the finals. There are a lot of factors I’ve written about including skill, officiating, bad NHL cap rules, and more as hurdles, but is that what we should dwell on?
A few days after the loss I was on a phone call with former Montreal Canadien’s Stanley Cup champion Ryan Walter as we were discussing a future leadership session and he asked me what I thought about the finals. Until that moment, most people I had spoken to were consoling me as I’d been cheering on the HABS as Canada’s team and wanting them to bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada since the last time it was here in 1993, courtesy of the Canadiens. This was the first time someone really asked me what I thought of their run, and I couldn’t help but think of an earlier conversation I had with Ryan in our April Podcast about going through a “process” and that what you do after you win or lose that is just as important. “I’m happy about all the good things that happened and how exciting it was to watch the evolution of those young players and what they may have learned. I just really enjoyed the journey the team took me on and how as the playoff season went on, they made me believe they were always in it,” I paused and finished, “or maybe that’s just what you say after your team loses”, as we both chuckled on the perhaps cliché reflection.
Regardless of how I, the media, or other fans feel in terms of disappointment in the loss, the Canadiens have a lot to celebrate when it comes to this historic run. The team had its Warriors, Generals, Soldiers, and Heroes as we saw a glimpse into its future.
The name on the gloves reads, “Warrior” and that’s exactly what Brendan Gallagher was. He wore crimson on his face and battled with pride, defending the crest on his jersey. While he did not put-up goals, he put himself up for his teammates, showing what many inside and outside of hockey need a lesson in – selflessness. Brendan Gallagher put the team ahead of personal achievements and it takes a special kind of person to do that. Another special warrior on the team is Shea Weber. While his hockey gloves do not bear the words, he quietly played the role, as we learned that he’s been playing through several injuries, one with his ankle that may be career-ending. Speaking of ending careers, as Corey Perry moves closer to those final games in a storied career, he was every bit of a warrior too, playing on a fourth line that could have easily been a second line on many teams, including this one where he left everything on the ice on every shift, sacrificing every part of himself. Honorable mention also goes to Jeff Petry as well, who played with taped fingers through the red eyes of a bull to put the team first. In most cases, those would be enough reasons to celebrate. This team gave us more.
There were several Generals on and off the ice. The defensive core of Weber, Chiarot, Petry, and Edmundson were one of the best to patrol the front of the net in front of Carey Price that I have ever seen. They owned that space for many games and put on clinic after clinic on how to clear the space and win the battles. Off the ice, the coaching staff’s resiliency in coaching the team back from a 3-1 deficit against the Toronto Maple Leafs and then dealing with COVID-19 helped reinforce that same resiliency culture through the rest of the team. Marc Bergevin, the Constructor General and GM of The Year nominee also showed how much he was in-tune with his players when you watched him interact with all of them, as he never wavered in his belief of the team. The greatest General of all however, was Carey Price. He played with purpose almost every game, giving the team confidence and a chance, being every bit of the million-dollar goalie he is paid to be. His calmness was the foundation for believing they could win.
They also won with soldiers like Phil “Pizza” Danault, who was a defensive gem without quit and an honorary member of the Warrior’s club, Joel Armia and Josh Anderson, who’s big frames and tenacity drove the play at times, and the unforgettable and timely goals that Paul Byron popped in, as they were all a major part of the team’s success. We know these players aren’t going to get you 50 goals or be in the top 10 of the league’s scoring, but they’re going to be there in those moments when you need something different. In Danault’s case, you don’t have him on the team to be a goal scorer, but to shut-down the goal scoring and his impact on the two-way play of Brendan Gallagher and Arturri Lehkonen can’t be ignored. There is also another tier of soldiers that can’t be forgotten – the ones who didn’t play every game but had to be ready to go. Brent Kulak, Alexander Romanov, Erik Gustavson, and even though he didn’t play, he helped them get there, Jake Allen.
If you park all of those players and chalk it up to adrenaline, passion (as I mentioned in my May 14th column History Always Matters), or even luck, there’s still only reasons to celebrate in upcoming stars Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Jake Evans, Alexander Romanov, and a handful of other youth that are going to make this team a great team for years to come, as this group of youngsters will help carry a generational torch that despite not landing the Stanley Cup, bridged history, passion, and generations of memories to reality. The youth core became heroes, catapulting the team forward and showing an exuberance and excitement that blended perfectly with the rest of the team as they scored timely goals and matured right before our eyes.
This team reminded me that while I said in my May 26th column, “Burn It Down”, “The Torch may have been passed from failing hands, but for now, unfortunately, to failing hands,” as they were struggling against the Maple Leafs, that they indeed did have the passion to persevere and turned me into a believer.
Yes, winning one game, any game in Montreal is a celebration that some team’s only experience with a cup, but in this Canadian hockey town, it’s embedded into the culture of the society, and you have to be a special kind of player to understand it, withstand it, be part of it, and celebrate it.
The 2021 Canadiens had all of that, more, and a lot to be proud of with their Warriors, Generals, Soldiers, and Heroes.
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