When You Point a Finger, Three Fingers are Pointing Back at You
This article was submitted by Max Harris.
I’ve always been fascinated by people who say they want certain things, but for whatever reason don’t do the things they need to do to make them actually happen. Often they are good people with good intentions. Ultimately, however, they fall short of their objectives because they are unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices to achieve them.
Currently, there is no more obvious example of this phenomenon than the Montreal Canadiens. If you were to ask Geoff Molson, Les Glorieux’s President and CEO, about his objectives, I am certain that he would say that his goal is to bring the franchise its 25th Stanley Cup. As a fan, you would want nothing less than total commitment to excellence from your team’s owner. If he were to come out and say it publicly, I would believe him; frankly, it would be hard not to. Unfortunately, his actions and those of Canadiens’ management under his tenure do not provide any hope that Lord Stanley will be paraded down St. Catherine any time soon. In fact, I fear the day that both Bruins and Leafs fans will serenade Habs fans with chants of “Nine-ty-threeeeee!”
Since the departure of Patrick Roy, the team has been constantly spinning in the cycle of mediocrity. Despite several changes at coach, GM and even owner, the team has been undersized, defensive and dependent on nothing short of stellar goaltending. The story never changes, just the names and faces. As a result, the team has consistently hovered in the middle of the Eastern conference. There’s little value in being a perennial playoff team if you’re just barely getting in, just ask St. Louis Blues fans. Their team made the playoffs every year from 1980 to 2004, with not so much as a conference title to show for it. So who’s to blame for the mess the Canadiens find themselves in? Many in this city are quick to point fingers. It’s the media! It’s the players! It’s the coach! It’s the general manager!
Perhaps based on my opening, you may guess that I am blaming ownership, and they definitely deserve some of it. Ownership establishes a culture which is felt at all levels of the organization. Presently, Canadiens ownership is nothing short of complacent. If they were truly committed to winning a Stanley Cup, they would have gutted the roster, rather than saddling it with overpaid and underperforming veterans. That being said, there is one entity that enables this complacency: the fans.
The status quo, as unpleasant as it might be, entails a full arena for each and every home game, a decent chance of making the playoffs every year and reaping the benefits of at least one round’s worth of playoff revenue. This model practically ensures profitability, but it also ensures that the team will not come close to winning a Stanley Cup any time soon. But because Canadiens fans accept the status quo, management really has no incentive to change. Despite their fervor and passion, the irrational and impatient fan base of the Montreal Canadiens contributes to the team’s failure as much as, if not more than anything else.
(Let me clarify something. I am not saying that people should stop going to games and stop supporting the team. If I did, I would be a total hypocrite because as an Expos fan, I kept going to games no matter how bad things got, and would have continued to do so under any circumstances. If they held “Throw Bags of Urine at our Fans Night”, I probably still would have gone.)
Firstly, Canadiens fans, like fans of most teams, have an inflated view of the team because they watch their team far more than any other. They focus on aberrations, such as last week’s beat-down of the Red Wings and convince themselves that the team is a lot closer than they actually are. In reality, the Canadiens’ best chance to win the Cup in the next decade is to clean house, spend several seasons at the bottom accumulating top picks and stop mortgaging the future for the hope of finishing in 7th place.
The NHL’s salary cap rules have made it virtually impossible to build a contending team through free agency. Additionally, Montreal remains one of the league’s most unattractive free agent destinations because of its bad weather, overbearing fans, critical media and high taxes. Marquee free agents don’t want to sign here and above average ones demand more money and more years to do so. In fact, the total number of marquee free agents available has declined dramatically since most of the league’s well-run teams (Detroit, Vancouver, Chicago, Pittsburgh, etc.) have locked up their homegrown stars, ensuring that they never become free agents in the prime of their careers. Therefore, the only way the Canadiens can right their wrongs is by committing to drafting and development, rather than trying to make the playoffs each year at all costs.
Canadiens fans also have to rid themselves of creating scapegoats and anointing potential saviours. When Jacques Martin was fired this December, the fan base rejoiced. While you can certainly argue that his termination was merited, it is hard to argue that the Canadiens have been better off without him. Considering the jubilation that was expressed after his ouster, you would think that he was everything that ailed the Habs. Based on what we’ve seen on the ice the past two months, this is clearly not the case.
Without Jacques Martin to whip around, fans have turned their ire to a new target: Pierre Gauthier. Gauthier has made some questionable moves as the general manager of the Canadiens, but fans ignore the motivation behind them. Put yourself in his shoes for just a moment. If you felt that you were going to lose your job if the team did not make the playoffs, wouldn’t you do anything in your power to try and get them in the post-season? Sure, giving up a 2nd round pick for half a season of James Wisniewski and inheriting Tomas Kaberle’s horrible contract are terrible long-term moves. But if your job security is based on what happens in the short-term, guess where your attention is going to be focused.
As long as the organization remains fixated on the short-term and the fans are going to blame the coach and general manager for all failures, it really doesn’t matter who fills these positions. This leads me to my final point: saviours. This past week, Habs fans have floated the possibility of bringing in Pierre McGuire to replace Pierre Gauthier. Many believe that he is the man who can turn this franchise around. I’m not one of them. Aside from my doubts as to whether or not he would be an effective executive under the right situation, the fact remains that the current situation makes it nearly impossible for almost any general manager to succeed. Even if McGuire were to administer a patient and proper rebuild, management’s hastiness and fan restlessness would never allow him to stay long enough to see things through.
I know this all sounds pretty bleak and pessimistic. After all, sports fandom is fueled by the hope that anything can happen. But just because anything CAN happen, doesn’t mean that we should tolerate the status quo and hope to get lucky. Instead, Canadiens fans need to see the big picture and not overreact to the most recent thing that has happened. Fans need to recognize the cycle of mediocrity that management has created and demand that it be broken. There are no longer 6 teams in the NHL; winning a Stanley Cup has never been harder and Montreal is one of the hardest cities to recruit and retain players. The fact that 24 Stanley Cup banners hang from the Bell Centre rafters, bears no impact on when #25 will join them. Rather than resting on our history and constantly applauding ourselves for being such great fans, fans need to wake up and recognize that they are holding the franchise back more than anyone else. I know that deep down Canadiens fans really do want to see their team with the Stanley Cup more than anything, but they need to start doing their part to make it happen.
Max Harris is a first time contributor to Jamalge. He likes arguing about sports and can be reached and followed on Twitter here: @maxtheguru.