“It’s a special opportunity to have a chance to take part in the Stanley Cup Final to bring that famous trophy back to Montreal. I have different emotions: a bit nervous, a bit excited, but most of all proud to have the opportunity to bring the Stanley Cup back to Montreal. It would be the ultimate dream for me, and then I could retire afterwards.” -- Marc Bergevin
MONTREAL -- I was 10 years old when the Montreal Canadiens last hoisted the Stanley Cup and paraded it down Saint-Catherine Street, when I first saw the city spring to life in tricolore and heard its heart pound so thunderously the ground shook.
The memories still burn as bright as police cruisers set ablaze on the night they won -- the people lining the streets in their white ’93 Champs shirts, the sights and sounds of Montreal’s burgeoning downtown landscape suddenly in full bloom and the start of a celebration that bled well into Jazz Festival and carried us through an electric summer.
The guys I now regularly lose to on the golf course were born somewhere between six and 12 months later. They’ve never experienced anything like it. They’re a part of a generation more and more disconnected from the team’s glorious past, the first to experience a decade -- close to three of them -- without anything to celebrate.
Their parents saw the greatest Canadiens teams ever assembled win six Stanley Cups in the '70s. Mine attended parades every second spring prior to that, with five Cups to close out their first decade and another four in five years of the '60s.
We grew up with their stories of people in suits and fedoras filling smoking sections at the Montreal Forum -- times we were so far removed from that the imagery resonates grainy -- and we wondered what stories we’d be able to tell future generations of Canadiens fans.
Now, here we are, with the current Canadiens authoring a fairy tale at a time the city needed something made of fantasy to bring it out of the nightmare of the last 16 months. A team born and shaped in the middle of a pandemic, on the precipice of capping a most unexpected and -- at times -- magical run through the playoffs with perhaps its most improbable win, with people experiencing it all together after a seemingly interminable time spent apart.
We watched them grow from home, from the confines of quarantine, during an eternal winter marked by a nightly curfew. Now summer has brought us to green zones filled with bleu, blanc et rouge.
And it feels different this time.
This isn’t like 2010, when the Canadiens goalie’d their way past the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins and people put Jaroslav Halak’s name on stop signs before the fire was quickly stomped out by the Philadelphia Flyers. It’s not like 2014, either, when the Canadiens swept the Tampa Bay Lightning and pushed past the Boston Bruins in seven games before Carey Price was taken out in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final and the Canadiens became a stepping stone for the New York Rangers to get smacked around by the Los Angeles Kings.
And for as much as everyone wants to compare today’s Canadiens to the boys from ’93 -- an overlooked group who came together with Guy Carbonneau shutting down Wayne Gretzky and Patrick Roy turning miracles through an NHL-record 10 overtime wins -- they’ve written their own story, and its chapters have been riveting.
The road to face the Lightning in the Final has been filled with more potholes than the Decarie Expressway. This team has faced adversity like none before it -- with seven new faces joining for an abbreviated training camp, with coaching changes less than halfway through, with a salary cap crunch that hampered the roster pre- and post-trade deadline, with injuries to its most important players down the stretch and COVID-19 hindrances every step of the way. They played without fans, travelled across the country several times over an abbreviated 56-game season that saw them play exclusively and exhaustively against the other Canadian teams, and they suffered the mental and physical strain of it all and still pulled off three improbable series wins over teams that were each heavily favoured to dispatch them in less than seven games.
Now, against the defending Cup champions, the Canadiens are once again being counted out by everyone but themselves and their fans.
“We are the underdog and that’s fine,” said general manager Marc Bergevin on Sunday. “We’ve lived with that all year, all playoffs, and we’re ready to meet the challenge (Monday) night in Tampa Bay.”
The Pointe-Saint-Charles native joked he’d retire if this “ultimate dream” were accomplished.
If Bergevin’s Canadiens can do it, they’ll connect an entire generation of fans to something they’ve only heard stories about but never experienced for themselves.
His counterpart, Julien BriseBois, who grew up on the south shore of Montreal, knows exactly what this means in La Belle Province.
“There aren’t too many sports organizations where people write songs on the team and they become hits,” the Lightning GM said. “We’re very conscious -- we have a number of Quebecers in our organization -- we know we have eight million opponents that we will need to beat if we want to win the Stanley Cup.”
The people he’s referring to are ready to line Saint-Catherine and resuscitate the vibe experienced in Montreal 28 years ago, the vibe that’s bubbling towards the surface for a 25th time in this franchise’s history.