Lightning's connection to Canadiens runs deep ahead of Stanley Cup Final

Tampa Bay Lightning's Yanni Gourde (37) celebrates his winning goal with Ryan McDonagh (27) and Alex Killorn during the overtime period of an NHL hockey game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Monday, April 19, 2021, in Tampa, Fla. (Mike Carlson/AP)

TAMPA, Fla. -- When Julien BriseBois first started working for the Montreal Canadiens, they gave him an office next to the one Jean Beliveau kept at the Bell Centre.

The early days of his hockey career were shaped by the organization’s alumni. BriseBois was raised in the Montreal suburb of Greenfield Park and got hired by the team as a 24-year-old lawyer in 2001, leaning heavily on the experiences of Bob Gainey, Guy Carbonneau, Rick Green, Roland Melanson, Pierre Mondou and Rejean Houle.

“I was learning a lot more than I was contributing at that point,” he says now, on the verge of watching his Tampa Bay Lightning face the Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Final. “I asked them a lot, a lot, a lot of questions and they were very generous in sharing their experiences.”

With that kind of education, BriseBois understands better than most what the pursuit of a 25th championship means in Montreal. How this unexpected playoff run has reverberated across the province over the last six weeks and sent thousands into the streets on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day to celebrate the berth in the Final.

And how several members of the Lightning have now gone from friend or family member to foe.

“There aren’t too many sports organizations where people write songs on the team and they become hits,” Brisebois said Sunday in French. “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.”

It was only in this pandemic-altered season that the Canadiens and Lightning could even meet with a championship on the line. They both usually play out of the Atlantic Division, and faced one another in Round 1 in 2014 and Round 2 in 2015.

It’s unusual for a Canadian player to go against his hometown team in a Stanley Cup Final because a decade has passed since anyone last had the chance -- when Milan Lucic’s Boston Bruins beat the Vancouver Canucks in 2011.

The Lightning are loaded with Quebec connections. Yanni Gourde and David Savard were both raised as Canadiens fans in the province, as was Alex Killorn in the Montreal suburb of Beaconsfield. Extras Mathieu Joseph, Alex Barre-Boulet and Daniel Walcot are all from Quebec, too.

Then you have BriseBois, director of hockey operations Mathieu Darche, director of player development J.P. Cote, goaltending coach Frantz Jean and strength coach Mark Lambert, among others.

Killorn said his text messages from 514 area codes have been pretty civil so far, but only because he’s got friends hoping to score tickets off him. He knows that even those wishing him good luck probably don’t mean it sincerely.

“Listen, I understand how important this is to the city of Montreal,” said Killorn. “I grew up there, I grew up a Montreal Canadiens fan. I’m happy for the city: They’ve been locked down and [under] curfew and for them to get this?

“It’s exciting, for sure.”

The Stanley Cup is destined to spend a fair amount of time in Montreal this summer no matter who wins this series. And not just because that’s where it’s engraved with the winner’s names each year.

Gourde is from Saint-Narcisse and scored the only goal in the Game 7 victory over the Islanders to get Tampa here. The prospect of playing his boyhood team is so exciting that he’ll be reminding himself to stay calm in the leadup to Game 1 on Monday night.

“It’s big, honestly. It’s very big,” Gourde said in French. “I’m excited for the challenge. I can’t wait for it to start, for that puck to drop, to leave all this aside and just play hockey, to battle against the Canadiens.

“We know how good they are, how tight they play, how hard it’s going to be to generate scoring chances. We’re looking forward to the challenge, it’s big for me and for the team.”

There are big historical undertones to a series that will be contested in the heat of late June and early July. The Canadiens can extend their NHL-best championship total by winning one that few thought possible as recently as two months ago. And the Lightning are trying to go back-to-back and claim their franchise’s third title in the process.

BriseBois has had a huge hand in their recent success, joining Tampa in 2010 to serve as Steve Yzerman’s right-hand man before taking over the GM post from him in 2018. He’s tried to transport some of the Canadiens’ culture to a place where many Canadians come to escape the harsh winter months.

“When Steve and I started putting the program together here, obviously he was coming in from a great organization, the Detroit Red Wings, and they had had a lot of success and so he was bringing those lessons to our management group and I was bringing experiences and lessons that I had learned in another great organization, the Montreal Canadiens,” said Brisebois.

“We kind of put all of those experiences together in trying to build the team that we have here and the organization that we have here.”

The last organization still standing between the Canadiens and the Stanley Cup.

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