A challenge for Canadiens fans

This week, I’d like to address my fellow members of Montreal Canadiens Fans Anonymous.

Okay, that’s probably not the right name for my fellow Habs supporters. We’re hardly “anonymous.” Even in the toughest times, we proudly wear, fly, and bleed bleu-blanc-rouge. But the most rabid and demanding fan base in the NHL is likely a little quieter these days, since the Canadiens have finally stopped postponing the inevitable and officially fallen out of play-off contention.

Look, I get it. This was a lousy season. Several key players were out of the lineup with injuries, and even when they weren’t on the IR, they didn’t always show up to play. The chemistry was off. Certain experiments didn’t work, especially not Drouin at centre. Perhaps we missed Markov and Radulov more than we expected.

This kind of season happens every so often. And not just to the Canadiens. This year, the list of play-off outsiders includes five of the seven Canadian NHL teams, most notably Edmonton and Ottawa, who each seemed poised for a major leap forward after their post-season success a year ago. (The Senators were one lucky double-overtime bounce away from advancing to their first Stanley Cup Final in a decade.)

Also booking early tee times: the New York Rangers, Carolina Hurricanes, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, and Chicago Blackhawks. Yeah, the Blackhawks who won three Cups over the past eight years, those Blackhawks.

Remember, it’s a 31-team league and the sands of success and failure shift dramatically these days. Ask the Tampa Bay Lightning, who missed the play-offs last year and are now storming into the post-season as the NHL regular-season leaders.

So, buck up folks. Our time will come again, perhaps sooner than anyone expects. In the meantime, there’s the sticky little matter of the Habs’ most notorious rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, having a stellar year and poised to make some noise in the 2017-18 play-offs.

I know you’re inclined to grumble your way through a Toronto play-off run or ignore it entirely. So I’d like you to take a deep breath and consider another alternative:

Root for the Leafs.

Yeah, yeah, I get it. That goes against everything you’ve experienced as a Canadiens backer over the years. From kids playing Pee Wee, to the few among us who can still remember George Armstrong’s Cup-clincher in 1967, we’re all familiar with the thorny relationship Montreal and Toronto fans have experienced, endured and enjoyed for several decades.

But I’ve also noticed a trend among Leaf fans over the past quarter-century, since the last time my Habs won the Cup: By and large, they’re not inclined to support other Canadian teams once the Blue and White have been eliminated.

This was particularly true when the Canadiens made two Final Four appearances in 2010 and 2014, but I’ve also seen Leaf fans rooting for Anaheim against Ottawa in the 2007 Cup Final (claiming that the Ducks had more Canadian players on their roster) and backing the Rangers against Vancouver in the 1994 Final (because the Rangers happened to be an Original Six team).

At the risk of sounding jingoistic, that seems downright un-Canadian to me. I want every one of our country’s NHL teams to succeed, both in the regular season and especially the post-season. I once stopped a performance at a venue in Yarmouth because their big screen was showing Game 6 of the Cup Final featuring Calgary and Tampa Bay, and I wanted everyone to sing along to the national anthem at the Saddledome.

And yes, every time the Leafs have gone farther than the Canadiens in the play-offs – which is to say, eight times in the past quarter-century – I’ve rooted for them. There’s even a photo of me wearing a Toronto jersey in solidarity with a Leaf-loving family that was the beneficiary of a fundraiser that I supported in Judique 15 years ago. I’ll be posting that photo on social media once the play-offs begin, to drive my point home.

You can do it, Habs Nation. Put your CH jerseys, hats, and memorabilia away for just a few weeks, while Les Glorieux regroup. Put country before rivalry – something Leaf fans have never seemed capable of doing.

Don’t be that guy who shrugs, “Oh, I don’t really follow hockey” just because your team lost. Of course, you follow hockey. You live and die by hockey. Don’t be that hypocrite. Be a bigger, better, more generous person that that.

And hey, if slipping on a blue and white hat for a couple of weeks is too much for you to handle, you’ve always got another alternative: The surprising Winnipeg Jets.

Either way: Go Canada!