Once upon a time the question of which National Hockey League team Halifax supports would have been a no-brainer. Boston may be a good neighbour, but that's about Christmas trees more than hockey. Toronto's Maple Leafs are constant post-season bridesmaids and Halifax has had enough disappointments. There's always the Penguins flirtation, but how can you love a team that the ownership is constantly trying to sell? It was obviously the Montreal Canadiens.
The voice of the Canadiens on Hockey Night in Canada telecasts for 32 years was a native son. Upper Canada and the Leafs had the Hewitts, the east coast and the Habs had the incomparable Danny Gallivan from Sydney. The former high school Latin and algebra teacher introduced a whole new lexicon to hockey and made the feats of the Canadiens sound legendary. Would a deke by Montreal defenseman Serge Savard look and sound as beautiful without Gallivan coining the word "spinarama" to describe it? Who else could make the skating of a six-foot-four Larry Robinson, nicknamed Big Bird, sound like elegant poetry? His nephew, Roy Gallivan, says the 1975 New Year's Eve game Gallivan called between the Soviet Red Army and the Canadiens captured the entire nation: "It was our system versus theirs." Danny Gallivan was a legend, one of ours.
The man who had the good sense to create a legend out of Ken Dryden, a goalie with all of six NHL games under his belt, was one of ours as well. When the Canadiens were in danger of missing the playoffs for a second straight season in 1970-71, they handed the reins to 35-year-old Nova Scotian Al MacNeil. MacNeil went with the rookie Dryden, who became the MVP of the playoffs and made MacNeil look like a genius as the Canadiens won their 17th Stanley Cup.
In 1971-72, The Canadiens moved their farm team to the Halifax Forum and MacNeil, let go as Montreal's head coach due to internal conflicts, followed them. He spent six years as the head coach and general manager of the American Hockey League's Nova Scotia Voyageurs, was at the helm of the Voyageurs' three Calder Cup championships, the only major hockey championship this city would see until 2010, when the Saint Mary's Huskies would win their first national university title.
What's more is the players that MacNeil and the Voyageurs developed would go on to play huge roles in the glory years of the Canadiens in the '70s. Hall of Famers Larry Robinson and Rod Langway, as well as key cogs like Brian Engblom, Pierre Mondou, Yvon Lambert, Mario Tremblay and Rick Chartraw all spent time on the farm in Halifax. The Canadiens would win six Stanley Cups in the '70s.
The '80s arrived, and although the Cup appeared less frequently in Montreal, it wasn't for lack of trying. Antigonish native John Brophy was behind the bench for the Voyageurs. Brophy, the inspiration for Paul Newman's character in Slap Shot, was a colourful character who taught his charges the meaning of hard work. "He demanded a lot of his players," says former player Mike Lalor, a veteran of over 600 NHL games. "He taught me what it was to work hard every day and even though I thought I was working hard every day before that he took it to a new level."
The 1986 Stanley Cup had Nova Scotia's fingerprints all over it. No less than eight members of that squad had laced 'em up with the Voyageurs, and two of Montreal's key forwards, Mike McPhee and Bobby Smith, were born here. While Smith's development as a hockey player took place in Ottawa, McPhee was a homegrown product.
No coach was more proud of his team than Brophy, who describes coaching the Voyageurs like a boastful parent: "Six or seven of them went right to the National Hockey League and won after they were in Nova Scotia with me. McPhee, Carbonneau, Lalor---all went directly to the Montreal Canadiens and won the Stanley Cup. It was absolutely the best time I had in my life."
That 1986 team was the last to have a major Nova Scotia imprint. Gallivan had called the play-by-play for 16 Montreal Stanley Cup victories, the Voyageurs had trained and supplied the players for six of those Cups, but the 1983-84 season was the last for both. The strongest Halifax tie on the 1993 Cup-winning Canadiens squad was captain Guy Carbonneau, a former Voyageur. The Edmonton Oilers and the Quebec Nordiques tried to emulate Montreal's success with Halifax as the home of their AHL farm teams, but neither the Nova Scotia Oilers nor the Halifax Citadels achieved much of a legacy.
In 1994, the Halifax Mooseheads became the first Maritime-based team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, filling the void left by the AHL. The emergence of Q in the Maritimes---and Sidney Crosby---has changed hockey dramatically in this region. While this Sunday's Habs-Bruins exhibition game in Halifax is doubtless playing to strong fanbases, the make-up of local hockey allegiances is shifting. How many Penguins converts did Crosby create? How many lapsed Bruins fans did Brad Marchand bring back to the fold? How many Haligonians watched their first Minnesota Wild game after they drafted local boy James Sheppard?
But where's the tradition in cheering for the Sharks or the Wild? The Canadiens are hockey royalty, but they've always been royalty anyone could be a part of. They've been the classy Jean Beliveau, the idol Guy Lafleur and the saint Patrick Roy; they've also been hard-working River Bourgeois, left winger Mike McPhee, hard-rock defenseman-turned-head coach Al MacNeil---who put his fate in the hands of an untested young goalie---and former high school teacher Danny Gallivan, who got his break when filling in for a sick announcer.
Halifax isn't the Canadiens stronghold it once was, but with prospects like Bedford's Peter Delmas and Cape Breton Screaming Eagles captain Morgan Ellis ready to pick up the torch, it will be again.
Hockey is about chasing dreams and there is no greater manifestation of that ideal than the Montreal Canadiens. That is why the Canadiens matter and will always matter.
Mark Black became a Canadiens fan when he read a Value Tales story about Maurice Richard in grade two. He maintains the Habs blog thetorch.ca.
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