Don Macpherson: Habs helped us more than they know

 

The Canadiens’ run deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs helped to heal recent divisions in Montreal and Quebec, if only temporarily

 
 
 
 
Marc Staal of the New York Rangers shakes hands with P.K. Subban after Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, the game that sent the Habs home for the season. The Canadiens’ playoff run provided a welcome change in the subject of conversation from politics in Quebec.
 

Marc Staal of the New York Rangers shakes hands with P.K. Subban after Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, the game that sent the Habs home for the season. The Canadiens’ playoff run provided a welcome change in the subject of conversation from politics in Quebec.

Photograph by: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images

MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens players, like all professional athletes, are mercenaries. Most of them haven’t lived in Montreal for very long, and few of them stay here in the off-season.

So while they know that Montreal is a cosmopolitan, multilingual city, they probably don’t know how deeply divided the city and the surrounding province are by language, culture and politics.

And so, in their disappointment over their elimination in the Stanley Cup semifinals on Thursday, they probably don’t realize fully what they accomplished off the ice during their three-round, 17-game playoff run.

Four years ago, I wrote about the “Halak spring,” after Jaroslav Halak, the backup goaltender who carried the Canadiens through a similar playoff run.

It brought down barriers across the city, I wrote, and “formed a community beneath the CH car flag.”

Newcomers wanting to fit in hopped onto the Canadiens bandwagon. The team’s logo on a T-shirt became a conversational icebreaker between strangers.

And “the word ‘nous’ was applied to a team that included almost no French-speaking Quebecers.”

All of this happened again this spring. But this time, the context was different.

The Canadiens’ first playoff game was only nine days after the April 7 provincial general election.

All elections are divisive, and this one followed 19 months of identity politics by the former Parti Québécois government that drove wedges between Quebecers along linguistic and religious lines, and had some feeling no longer at home here.

Again, a Canadiens team assembled from diverse backgrounds, riding the hot goaltending of first Carey Price and then his injury replacement Dustin Tokarski, brought Montrealers and other Quebecers together.

The Canadiens provided a welcome change in the subject of conversation from politics. The majority and minorities, federalists and sovereignists, could talk to each other again.

From their first game, the Canadiens’ playoff run lasted 43 days, 10 days longer than the depressingly dirty election campaign that preceded it, time for our wounds to heal.

(And along the way, the Canadiens eliminated the rival Boston Bruins, which is almost as sweet as a drink from the Cup itself.)

Of course, it’s too much to expect the Canadiens to solve our problems for us.

As we know from experience since the “Halak spring” of 2010, the good feelings they brought are only temporary. And now that the distraction the Canadiens provided is gone, we’re left facing our divisions again.

It’s true that O Canada was sung by more people with more enthusiasm before the Canadiens’ playoff games at the Bell Centre than on any occasion in Quebec since the massive unity rally preceding the 1995 sovereignty referendum.

But since all three of the Canadiens’ opponents in the playoffs were from the United States, the Canadian anthem was the equivalent of the home team’s fight song.

While support for Quebec sovereignty has softened, recent studies suggest that Quebecers’ feelings of attachment to Canada have weakened as well.

And Montreal remains divided politically. While the city is predominantly federalist, its French-speaking inhabitants have been the most nationalist in Quebec.

In the fall, the new Couillard government will reopen the “values” debate by presenting its “light” version of the former PQ government’s charter.

Identity as well as sovereignty will be major issues in the PQ leadership campaign.

And the language issue is always there, even though nobody talks about how many Canadiens players speak French as long as they’re winning.

But while the Price-Tokarski spring didn’t carry us all the way to the summer break in politics, it got us close enough that we can see it from here.

So to the Canadiens, thanks, and merci.

dmacpherson@montrealgazette.com

Twitter: DMacpGaz

 
 
 
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Marc Staal of the New York Rangers shakes hands with P.K. Subban after Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, the game that sent the Habs home for the season. The Canadiens’ playoff run provided a welcome change in the subject of conversation from politics in Quebec.
 

Marc Staal of the New York Rangers shakes hands with P.K. Subban after Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, the game that sent the Habs home for the season. The Canadiens’ playoff run provided a welcome change in the subject of conversation from politics in Quebec.

Photograph by: Bruce Bennett, Getty Images

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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