It’s fighters versus floppers, grinders versus goaders, enforcers versus embellishers.
For the 34th time in National Hockey League history, the hated Montreal Canadiens stand in the way of the Boston Bruins’ march to the Stanley Cup. But when the league’s most storied rivalry resumes Thursday night at TD Garden, the story is as much the history of why we hate the Canadiens.
Gone are the decades when Montreal dominated Boston the way the Yankees owned the Red Sox or the hammer beats down the nail. What bugs Boston fans now is how the Canadiens play. In a sport based on mano-a-mano physicality, the Bruins are all of that: tough, gritty, punishing hitters, stalwart defenders. The Canadiens? They flop at the slightest contact; they provoke fights and skate away. The opponent gets called for penalties, and Montreal benefits.
“Hockey is a tough, brutal sport,” said Derek Slicis of Bridgewater, who was named after former Bruin Derek Sanderson. “Hard work, determination, and true grit go into every game, especially in a playoff atmosphere. To see diving, embellishments, and phantom penalty calls in an effort to gain a two-minute advantage in such a gritty sport drives me crazy. . . . Especially from a team that likes to think of themselves as the poster boys of hockey.”
They drive us crazy, but the Canadiens’ tactics, decried last year by Bruins coach Claude Julien, are effective.
“Boston invariably comes unhinged against Montreal,” reads an NHL.com set-up piece about the series. “Something the Canadiens consistently are able to do to the Bruins is get under their skin.”
And this rubs Bruins fans the wrong way.
“There’s a feeling that they must be cheating, those sneaky Canadiens,” said Cornelius Hardenbergh, a Bruins season ticket holder since 2008.
Hardenbergh, 28, and Slicis, 24, are too young to have witnessed the talented Boston teams of the 1960s and 1970s (they won two Stanley Cups in those decades) repeatedly shot down by Canadiens squads (they won 10) that seemingly had destiny, the bounce of the puck, and, Bruins fans insist, the calls of the referees on their side.
Rusty Sullivan, executive director of the Sports Museum at TD Garden, remembers.
“They wanted you going into the Forum thinking the building was against you,” Sullivan recalls of the Canadiens home until 1996. His favorite example: The too-many-men-on-the-ice call that helped Montreal torpedo the Bruins in the 1979 NHL semifinals (a moment Matt Drake, a pro-Canadiens blogger, called “the crown jewel of this rivalry”).
“They wiggled out on a technicality,” Sullivan recalls. “They had all the advantages, even when we had them beat.”
One of Sullivan’s favorite Bruins memories, incidentally, is Bruins forward Stan Jonathan pummeling Canadiens defenseman Pierre Bouchard in 1978. Montreal lost that fight but won the Stanley Cup.
Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Northeastern University Center for the Study of Sport in Society, said Boston’s distaste for the Canadiens extends from what is perceived as the Montreal team’s elitism, contrasted with “the handworking mantra of guys who carry lunchpails.”
“It’s almost like the 1 percent versus the 99 percent,” Lebowitz said. “The Bruins are the 99 percent, and the Canadiens are the 1 percent.”
Drake, the Canadiens blogger, objects to the idea that “fighter” and “flopper” are mutually exclusive terms, and points out that the Bruins have their share of instigators. (Forward Brad Marchand comes to mind.)
“We don’t feel that our team embellishes any more than the Bruins; if anything we see it the other way,” Drake said. “That’s not to say that we’re the fighters and the Bruins are floppers, but that the tough reputation of Boston doesn’t mean they don’t embellish.”
By the way, none of this is to say Boston has a problem with Montreal. Red Sox fans will always be grateful to the Montreal Expos for trading future Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez to Boston. Before Julien coached Boston to its 2011 Stanley Cup, he coached Montreal. We love Francophone Canadians: Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, a Quebec native who grew up rooting against the Canadiens, is arguably the most talented player in the series.
But we do have a problem with Canadiens fans. Some Montreal fans called 911 in 2010 after Bruins star defenseman Zdeno Chara hospitalized forward Max Pacioretty with a violent hit that the league declared did not merit suspension. (Chara was interviewed by Montreal police but not charged.)
When Montreal in 2011 named as interim head coach Randy Cunneyworth, who did not speak French, the Quebec government’s culture minister protested that this was not comme il faut.
Richard Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum, recalls Canadiens fans booing in 1971 when the coach, Al MacNeil, inserted an Anglophone goalie to replace the injured regular, Rogie Vachon . Canadiens fans changed their tune when Ken Dryden turned out to be one of the greatest netkeepers of all time.
Eventually, the hockey gods smiled upon the Bruins: Boston broke through with a playoff series victory over Montreal in 1988, the first of seven wins in the teams’ last 11 playoff series, including the Bruins’ first-round win on the way to the 2011 Stanley Cup, the only championship either team has won in the last 20 years.
Now fans are hoping for some celestial intervention that will help the Bruins overcome the diving and flopping.
“It’s an offense to the hockey gods,” said Johnson, the Sports Museum curator. “If this goes on, the hockey gods will respond, and the Bruins will win.”