Published on June 28th, 2021 | by Kim Kurtenbach0
Stanley Cup Magic Starts Tonight!
KK chats with his old pal, two time Stanley Cup winner and former center for the Montreal Canadiens, Brian Skrudland to discuss the 2021 Finals.
Most of my articles are about music and movies, with the odd book in there so people know I can read. But not today! Thanks to an incredibly flimsy loophole in the definition of “local culture”, I can finally talk about the NHL playoffs.
Starting tonight, the Montreal Canadiens will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in game 1 of the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals and there is debate abound as to whether or not people in Saskatchewan (and across the country, for that matter) should cheer for the Habs as “Canada’s team”.
Back in mid-June, when Montreal became the last Canadian team in the playoffs, the federal government sent out a tweet calling the Montreal “Canada’s team”. The online backlash was a bloodbath. Defiant, angry, sometimes funny, bile puking, venomous, hard-no! resistance followed swiftly. Most of Canada is not cheering for Montreal. They are not the Raptors or the Blue Jays, and the divide is uncompromising.
But it’s been 10 years since a Canadian team made it to the NHL finals.
And it wasn’t so great the 20 years before that. The short bit of it is this: the Bruins beat in the Canucks in Game 7 of the 2011 finals in Vancouver. The streets went batshit crazy and, blame whom you will, people laid waste to the city. Not a good look for Canada. And before that, we (Canada) were represented in the finals rather infrequently, to say the least:
2007: Ottawa Senators lose in 5 games to the Anaheim Ducks
2006: Edmonton Oilers lose game 7 to the Carolina Hurricanes
2004: Calgary Flames lose game 7 to the Tampa Bay Lightening
1994: Vancouver Canucks lose game 7 to the New York Rangers (come to think of it, this one ended in the streets of Vancouver with cars lit on fire until the tear gas and rubber bullets too! Huh.)
Including the Montreal Canadiens this year, there have only been seven Stanley Cup finals in the last thirty years with a Canadian team representing, and only once did the Cup come back to a Canadian city. As the league continues to grow, but more Canadian city additions seem like a long-shot, it stands to reason that this trend of US city vs US city in the finals will continue. This could be the last chance Canadians have to cheer for a city in their own country for a long time.
As I pondered this article, I suddenly realized that I had the option to consult with an expert on the situation with a quick phone call. Brian Skrudland played 15 seasons in the NHL, and made five trips to the finals where he won two Stanley Cups – one as a rookie with the Montreal Canadians in 1986 and then again as a seasoned veteran 13 years later with the Dallas Stars. Skrudland was on my paper route when I was 13-years-old, so I figured he would gladly pick up the phone and answer all my fan-geek questions without hesitation. He did.
I eased him into the conversation like a pro, asking why he thought it was so special to play in Montreal.
“Every time you turned a corner when you went to work, you ran into the Rocket, The Pocket, Mr. Belliveau, or Toe Blake. You had Jaques Lemaire, Serge Savard as the GM, and Jaques Laperrière as assistant coach. I mean, these guys had won so many Stanley Cups it made your head spin!”
In other words, back when Skrudland was the young rookie coming into the NHL, his environment was filled with wall to wall Legends. Seriously intimidating, living Legends. “And that’s what the Canadiens do to this day, they’ve got something that gets you so involved and caught up in the whole aura of the ghosts, The Forum and all the people that are always around you.”
Skrudland not only has great memories from his glory days in Montreal (he still holds the record for the fastest overtime goal in NHL playoff history at 0:09 seconds), he has fond memories of all manner of staff, from cleaning crews to administration and office clerks to (I think) a guy that used to sell hotdogs outside the arena. He has funny recollections of returning to the city with his kids, now all grown adults, and having new adventures.
I love the way Brian paints pictures of Montreal in the past, and in the present. Maybe it’s because I’ve been there several times and I love the city. I love the scenery of it all, the history and architecture, the food and wine, the fashion, the ridiculous amount of art galleries near Old Montreal and the lively feeling of their outdoor summer nights. I can say that about a number of Canadian cities, but Montreal and Quebec City feel more like Europe than anywhere else in Canada. A European vacation, and all you need is a bank card and ID to go; no passport required.
Then Skrudland told me a story that really will hit home for anyone who has ever dreamed big. He said, “Going from Saskatoon to Montreal – and this might explain everything – I wasn’t drafted, I was an invite. I show up and get a couple of phone calls and messages to my room inviting me out for beers with all the other young guys at camp. So I gotta go have one, I gotta show up, right? I go meet everyone, have two beer and leave, because I’ve got something on my mind. I want to play pro hockey and fuck these guys, I hope they stay out and have 24 each!” He pauses to laugh at this. “So I jump in a cab and the driver says, Where to, Mr. Skrudland? Well, I’m 20-years-old and this guy knew my face and it freaked me out! This guy recognized a kid from Saskatoon who showed up for training camp. That’s part of being a Montreal Canadien – you don’t go anywhere without people knowing who you are.”
And does Skrudland think the Habs have a chance at another Cup starting tonight? Does he recognize a little rookie magic brewing in the old cauldron? If for no other reason, I would think Canadians would cheer for Montreal simply because they’re the underdog here. Vegas had odds set at TB -275/MTL +225.
Is magic enough to win it all?
“That’s what you need Stanley Cup time.” he says, “Who’s gonna be the next hero? And there will be one. Someone will step up. To a man, if everybody continues to go absolutely emotionally charged, and still remain controlled, this is the time of your life. If there’s one thing you’ve been dreaming of, and you’re going to wake up a champion one of these days, 23 guys become a winner. Every single one of your teammates will be recognized, plus the guys that are in line waiting to become winners! Montreal has been doing that for decades.”
It feels like Canada could use an excuse to unite and celebrate something, and I for one am looking to any flimsy excuse that could make this happen. For all our divides, it would feel pretty great if everyone could find a temporary reason to toast a singular event, even for just a moment. I’d rather see a joyous party in Montreal than one in Tampa Bay. And even though I hate the Flames, back in 2004 I held the same position: I would have rather seen the celebration in Calgary than Tampa. Those entitled Florida hooligans are trying to come up here and take our stuff again, and I for one am saying pas cette fois – not this time!
Maybe calling the Habs “Canada’s team” is unnecessary and overbearing, but the idea of cheering for them as a nation has to mean something. Doesn’t it, Brian Skrudland?
“I think it means a lot. I think it means we might keep watching. As Canadians we love hockey, yes, but we only get three months of summer. If it’s a hot day, and I’m guilty of this too, I think people are only watching highlights. Now, with a Canadian team in it, I hope people are setting up their tv’s outside.”
We talked about the refs, the challenges, the rule makers, the overall state of the league and it’s future, which Skrudland says looks bright. He wouldn’t even let me bitch about Gary Bettman too much. We agreed that the finals, which start tonight at 6pm Saskatoon time, look more exciting than they have in years.
Skrudland even went so far as to say, “I think this could be one of the greatest Stanley Cup finals in history, if we get it right.” I am hoping so, and it’s a moment I wish the entire country could enjoy together before Bettman moves the Habs to San Francisco, and the Maple Leafs to Charolette, North Carolina and every one of our teams go south like retired folks from the prairies. I wish this could be a cool national celebration. Call my opinion what you will – a flimsy premise, wishful idealism or sentimental reasoning. Call it whatever you want. But for the next four to seven games, I’m Go Habs Go, and I hope you join me. It’s going to be magic.