Something was decisively different at the Bell Centre last night. Sure, the fans came to watch a hockey game but on this evening, it would be set against a larger backdrop.
The evening would begin with another trivial, if altogether insignificant tribute to an original six (add forgotten) rival. I have no problem with this raising of the glass to Blackhawk legends. One can't help but wonder however what set of circumstances divorced these two once were fierce adversaries to begin with. Chalk it up to a mix of mediocrity and estrangement. While both teams enjoyed interesting times in the early 90's (shout out to my homies, Boyz II Men, ABC, BBD, the East Coast family), with each making an appearance in the finals, they then fell from grace and began competing for who can miss the playoffs more often. Only recently have the Habs and Hawks enjoyed a resurgence fueled by young talent. There is hope still.
The retirees left the ice, the personnel removed the ugliest plants ever used for on-ice ceremonies, and place au match.
It was a back and forth type of night, with no team ever holding a larger than one-goal lead. It was played openly with plenty of skating room afforded to the many speedsters on each side. The Dance à Dix line continued to provide the menace worthy of the number 1 line. The Habs power play maintained its ranking as the best in the league. And Andrei Markov thanked the fans who voted him into the All-Star game by showing every dimension of his game in All-Star calibre mode. Easily one of the best games of his career.
There was plenty of action in this one, with excitement to spare. Mark Streit was awarded a penalty shot after having broken loose at the red line and done his best to jump rope over the desperate stick swinging antics of a René Bourque caught on the wrong end of a breakaway. Streit missed.
The crowd looked on in agitation.
Then the scoreboard flashed the score: Clinton 101 764, Obama 98 672.
A palpable discomfort muffled the buzz in the crowd. The Bell Centre had always been known as an ecumenical, apolitical venue where fans of all walks gathered to cheer for their favorite team. It did not harbour political dialogue. But on this night, as New Hampshire went to the polls to support the party candidate that would then maybe win the party leadership at the national convention and possibly win the presidential elections barring a voting scandal in Florida, hockey took a back seat. All of a sudden, the people in the crowd were not just Montreal Canadiens' fans. They had political preferences. They had their own thoughts on Iraq, on the subprime credit crunch, on the Federal Reserve.
The fans, who for the longest time could look at each other with complete confidence in the camaraderie shared in loving the same team, suddenly saw these facades come apart. That guy on your right that you would always salute at the game, the one who you would share amusing hockey banter with, well that guy was a Clinton supporter, or an Obama admirer, or a center of left voter, maybe a liberal, maybe even a right wing conservative, or a left wing moderate toward the center progressive religious reformer. Whatever the case, he was no longer just a hockey fan. The reaction to the story in New Hampshire peeled off private political affections and created a never before seen discomfort and divide in the crowd.
As coaches drew the players' attention to the only score that mattered, both teams knew instantly that the game had just become as irrelevant as the ceremony that had preceded it.
During the second intermission, as America's native son Francis Bouillon rushed to call his wife for the results at the polls, Luc Gélinas asked the defenseman if he was satisfied with his play. Bouillon immediately downplayed the question: "The important comeback tonight is occurring somewhere else. It's in New Hampshire, Luc. Mrs. Clinton’s victory came after her advisers had lowered expectations with talk of missteps in strategy and concern about Mr. Obama’s momentum after his first-place finish in Iowa. Her team is now planning to add advisers and undertake a huge fund-raising drive to prepare for a tough and expensive fight with Mr. Obama in the Democratic nominating contests over the next four weeks. I gotta call my wife Lolita."
"Obviously it's hard for the players to keep their focus", said coach Carbonneau. "I have to admit, even I didn't really care about the game anymore. How can you? We really had to dig deep in overtime, but in all honesty we just wanted to get off the ice as quickly as possible to see what was going on. We had the big screen tuned to CNN all night, and the players would just sit there in front of it. You had to pull them away from Blitzer and the boys to start the periods. I understand them. I just want to go home and hug my kids."
The home boys got it done in overtime. Maxim Lapierre knew the team had a job to do. He was torn between getting off the ice after a long shift to regain the action in New Hampshire - as the Habs' trainers had now installed little personal screens for every player on the bench - and going for a last gasp attempt at goal with friend for life, Guillaume Latendresse. "Of course it was a hard decision", said Lapierre in the dressing room. "Obama wins it and the race, at least on the Democrat branch of the equation is over, it means everything. But I thought, if we could just score now, at least we can go back to the TVs right away." And so Lapierre chose to follow Latendresse who had parked himself at the side of Patrick Lalime's crease, and to whom he delivered a beautiful pass. Latendresse ended the wait. The fans filed out nervously.
Never had an overtime win in Montreal seemed so insignificant.