The trouble with people like us who start so fast ... is that we soon have no place left to go.
— Pomeroy in Joseph Heller's Good as Gold
I leave before being left. I decide.
— Brigitte Bardot
I hear something and stir, then squint open my eyes. The room is filled with the morning sun. Sarah, aged four, appears and quickly disappears, shuffling noisily from room to room in her snowsuit, looking for something, apparently with no success. Downstairs, in a whispered shout, my wife Lynda tells her to hurry up. I look at the clock in the alcove beside me. It is 8:51. I start to get up, then I hear Sarah going down the stairs. I yell goodbye to her, and she yells a reply. I lie back, close my eyes, but I don't sleep.
It has been a short, restless night, yet I feel wonderfully refreshed. The sun, the crisp white sheets, a quilt pulled up to my nose — I'm filled with an enormous sense of well-being and for several moments I don't know why. Then I remember. The game, last night's game in Buffalo. I must be tired — it's less than four hours since I went to bed — but that can wait. I want to be awake, I want to lie in my bed and feel the feeling I earned last night, to wrap my covers around it, to gather it up and hold it, to feel all of it completely. It is the morning after aspecial night, and everything out of reach, out of mind, a few hours ago now seems possible again.
An hour later, my ski jacket undone, I bound down the front steps two at a time as the mailman comes down the driveway. I smile at him, he hands me the mail, and smiles — he knows. I back the car onto the street. Across the road, a neighbor carries in her garbage pails. I wave. She waves back and smiles — she knows. I drive along Highway 40 to the city, passing the few cars in sight, the weather cold and blustery, my window down, my elbow out, rock music screaming from my radio.
The car turns off at Atwater and cuts through the late morning traffic. Stoplights blink amber, then red; the car stops. My head bobs from side to side at unseen passersby, my fingers drum out rhythms from the radio. The light changes and the car starts up. Past St. Catherine Street, past de Maisonneuve and Sherbrooke, moving as if by some mechanical memory of its own to the same street, the same parking spot, as every other day. I get out and walk, faster and faster, the air so crisp and cold it burns my lungs. I go to the bank. A teller turns and smiles — she knows. I go to a coffee shop, to a bookstore, to a newsstand, they all smile — they all know. I'm as good as my last game and no one can forget it.
Last night was the sixty-second game of my eighth season with the Montreal Canadiens. It was perhaps our best game in what, for us, has not been a good year. After a tie in Chicago and a Saturday loss at home to Minnesota, we continued the frustrating pattern of good and bad play that has characterized our season by coming up with a vintage Canadiens performance — explosive, unyielding, immensely varied — and in doing so, reminded ourselves excitedly that what we've been searching for during most of the year is still there. For me, it was a personal triumph of sorts. I played well in Buffalo, where too often I haven't played well (until recently, where I haven't played at all). Replacing Michel "Bunny" Larocque, our team's other goalie, who is injured, I finally put aside the season-long doubts and thoughts of the future that have preoccupied me, and just played. Later, when I arrived home from Buffalo at 1:30 a.m., the house dark and quiet, I went to my office, turned on a light, and sat — excited, alert, unable to sleep, unwilling to sleep, wanting to feel then what I feel now. It is a rare feeling when expectations and hopes, when a team, a game, and I, come together. And now, after eight years and nearly 500 games, after those hopes and expectations have been battered and mocked, it is rarer still. So each time it happens, each time I get the feeling, I guard it and nourish it, feeling it for as long as I can.
I thought only good thoughts as I sat there: about a team, the best of its time; about Scotty Bowman and Claude Ruel; about Larry Robinson, Serge Savard, Doug Risebrough, Rick Chartraw, Doug Jarvis, Guy Lafleur; about Mario Tremblay, Yvan Cournoyer, Larocque, Pierre Larouche, Pierre Mondou; Jacques Lemaire, Yvon Lambert, Gilles Lupien, Pat Hughes. Flipping through images, hearing their voices, sometimes laughing out loud, feeling things I would never say, knowing that only good people can play the way they play. Bob Gainey, Réjean Houle, Steve Shutt, Guy Lapointe, Brian Engblom, Mark Napier, Rod Langway, Cam Connor; it has been the rare chance to play with the best to be the best; five Stanley Cups in seven years, three Stanley Cups in the last three years, a desperate fourth just three months away.
I also thought about me: a little wearied, a little worn, tormented by doubts and feelings and lifelong illusions I can no longer reconcile, yet still able to find joy in the game. It is a different game from the one I played on a driveway twenty-five years ago, grown cluttered and complicated by the life around it, but guileless at its core and still recoverable from time to time. I felt good about that as I did about a lot of things, and as the night went on, I leaned back further and further in my chair and closed my eyes, deeply content.
About 5:30 a.m., as the outside turned from black to gray, the feeling got tired, and I knew it was time to go to bed.
It has not been an easy year. Almost since last season ended, there has been disruption and confusion where, as a rule, there was none. The team was sold; Sam Pollock, general manager of this era's latest successes (nine Stanley Cups in his fourteen years), left and Scotty Bowman, Pollock's long-time protégé, was passed over for the job he thought properly his. Instead, it went to Irving Grundman, who until last year ran the business operations of the Forum. The decision has left Bowman deeply hurt and, for much of the season, distracted and petulant. At training camp, Bill Nyrop, a skilled, useful defenseman, skated off the ice and later that day was driving home to Minnesota, retiring at twenty-six. Days before the season began, veteran defense-man Pierre Bouchard, the popular son of former Canadiens' captain "Butch" Bouchard, was left unprotected and claimed on waivers by Washington. A public outcry followed, and Bouchard was traded back. The trade was against waiver regulations, and was nullified; Bouchard retired. Early in the season, Guy Lafleur left our dressing room in Toronto a few minutes before the start of a game and conferred about his lagging contract renegotiations with his agent, his lawyer, and Grundman; only then did he play.
For a team already distracted by success, these incidents have given us the crutches we were looking for, and definitely do not need. It's Grundman's fault, we complain, or Bowman's; it's everyone's fault but our own, and our ultimate fall — this year, next year, some year — now cushioned and comfortable, is more likely. Yet we feel no comfort. The season is slipping away from us. The signs are everywhere — defensemen who push and shove in the corners, but don't hit; forwards who shoot from long range, safe from the punishment that goes with rebounds, deflections, screens, and goal-mouth tip-ins; Larocque and I tight in our nets, or running out erratically, content that goals appear as "good goals"; injuries and illness we always played with that now seem too much; winning three or four straight games, not five or six, losing two, not one; scoring in late-game flurries to tie or win; looking for, needing, a "big play" — a blocked shot, a big save, a spectacular goal — to turn around a game, a "big game" to turn around a season. We have won too often, for too long. We know every signal, every sign; we see our demise in everything we do. Like a starlet at the morning mirror, we see everything as a haunting omen of breakdown.
Off the ice, it is no different. Depending on its strength and resilience, we have left the team to care for itself. We go in more and different directions after practices and games, with new and interesting friends, pursuing the conglomerate of interests that three Stanley Cups have opened to us. Most road trips have been cut to same-day commutes; we leave in the morning, and return after a game at night, without the bonding that life on the road can bring. Then, when things go wrong, someone, usually Lapointe, decides that we should have a meeting to make everything right again. It never takes long, a little beer and beer-talk and our problems disappear; in three or four weeks, the same problems three or four weeks worse, we meet again.
Like a once-rich man desperate to be rich again, we have gotten impatient, spoiled by our own success. The relentless discipline that got us here now bores us; everything must happen fast. So we wait for a moment — one game, one play — to trigger the "roll" that will sweep us along and make the rest unnecessary. But it won't happen that way.
Several times this season, I have felt the same nagging twinge — we're not going to win this year. It happens usually after a bad game when signs and signals swarm at us with their unmistakable message, but not always. I have felt it before in other years, but never so often and never with the same feeling, that if we lose, it will be because of us, no one else. It is not fun to feel a team break down, to find weakness where I always found strength; to discover that discipline and desire can go soft and complacent; to discover that we are not so different as we once thought; to realize that winning is the central card in a house of cards, and that without it, or with less of it, motivations that seemed pure and clear go cloudy, and personal qualities once noble and abundant turn on end; to realize that I am a part of that breakdown. There is something remarkably strong about a team that wins; and something remarkably weak about that same team when it doesn't. The team that is "more than just a hockey team," the athletic, cultural, and political institution that inspires romance in more than its followers, is just a hockey team if it loses; and the romance disappears. The team that won together, our favorite metaphor for sharing and cooperation, loses as twenty separate guys, each running for his own lifeboat. The forty-goal scorer with only twenty-two goals, insisting he's a "better all-round player"; the thirty-goal scorer with twenty, a victim of goalposts and injuries; the all-star goalie who is "playing the same as he ever did" — covering their asses while all about them are having theirs burned. And in whispers loud enough that everyone can hear but you — "Old Reliable's had it," "Young Phenom's no good," and "What the hell's wrong with Bowman?" With the season in doubt, with less credit to share, as Serge Savard put it earlier, "Everybody's pulling on the blanket."
In the fourth season after three Stanley Cups, a team is changed. Sated by success, we have different expectations, and the motivation and feelings we get from a game have changed with them. Joy becomes obligation, satisfaction turns to relief, and the purpose of winning becomes less to win and more not to lose.
Even the games we played with ourselves, when there seemed no other games to play, have changed. For three years, too good for the league, we competed against ourselves — most wins in a season, most points, fewest losses. We chased records and broke them, then chased our own records and broke them again. Then, two years ago, we won sixty of our eighty games, lost eight and earned 132 points. Last year, we won one fewer game, lost two more, and earned three fewer points. This year we will do worse. Like long-jumper Bob Beamon, proud of our records, we have a feeling that we have gone too far. We have set a standard we cannot match, so, competing against ourselves, we lose. It would seem enough to win, to compete against the rest of the league as others do, but our cranky feelings tell us otherwise. There is a different quality about this team, a quality we might deny, one that oftentimes we wish we didn't have, one that in the inflated rhetoric of sports sounds inflated but is not. It is "excellence." We are not a "money team" like the Leafs of the 1960s, aided and abetted by a generous playoff system.* We must win and play well all the time; we cannot wait for May. So unhappy with ourselves in the best of times, we play through a less-than-perfect season.
Yet there is time. In nine days, we will play the New York Islanders, our latest rivals. All season we have assured others, as we assured ourselves, that this was all we needed — the spark from an outstanding game like the Sabres game, a sense of late-season urgency, and a target. Now that we have them, more than an opportunity, it becomes a test, one we cannot avoid.
We have played the Islanders twice this season and lost both times, once in the Montreal Forum. Bryan Trottier and Denis Potvin, their two excellent players, are finally playing as well against us as they play against the rest of the league. No longer underdogs, the Islanders are anxious to prove what they can now sense — that they are the best. For us, the test might seem the same, but it is not. In nine days, we will have a showdown with ourselves — individually, and as a team — one that we have put off for most of the season, one we can put off no longer. It is a game we must win, a game we have always won; the kind that in other years reminded us and others that we were a team of a different class. We must prove it again. So as we gear up for the Islanders in our next days and games, we compete, as always, against ourselves. The only thing different is that this year, we are no pushover.
It is an optional practice, but the dressing room is almost full. I walk in, pretending to be early, but no one is fooled. Larry Robinson, a large defenseman with a snarl of curly hair that has given him his nickname — "Big Bird" — looks up. "Tabernac!" he shouts. "Look who's here!" (Most French-Canadian swear words are derived from religion — tabernac means literally "tabernacle"; câlisse, another commonly used one, means "chalice.") I try to be surprised at his surprise, mumbling something about always coming to optional practices. There is scattered laughter. Mario Tremblay, as usual, is unimpressed. He stops lacing his skates and looks up.
"Go home, Dryden," he says evenly. "We wanna shoot on the board." ("The board," a piece of plywood cut out at each corner and at its groin, is hung from a crossbar to cover a net when a goalie is absent.) A brief argument follows about goalies and boards until Tremblay, thinking it over, relents. "Naw, let him stay," he snarls, turning back to his skates. "Ya can't make the board scream."
It has the look and feel of a child's bedroom. Shin pads, shoulder pads, socks, jocks, gloves, skates, and sweaters lie in twenty little heaps on the floor. Players in various stages of dress move easily about, laughing and shouting in equal measure. It is too big to be intimate, about the size of a large living room, too antiseptic and bright to be cozy. In early morning or late afternoon, it appears quite ordinary — fluorescent lights, chrome equipment racks, a red indoor-outdoor carpet, concrete-block walls painted white with red and blue trim, a wide gray bench that runs around its borders. Functional, attractive in an institutional sort of way, it is a room that needs people. Only higher, above the chrome racks and near the ceiling, is it clear that this is a dressing room unique to one team.
Along the west wall and along parts of two others, team plaques, dark brown and lettered in gold, hang in two rows, one plaque for each season from 1918 to the present. Each offers just bare-bones information — the year, the names of team owner(s), executives, coach(es), trainer(s), and players (in two columns), the regular-season place of finish, and "Stanley Cup Champions" or nothing at all. I often look at those plaques, to read their names — Georges Vézina, Aurèle Joliat, Howie Morenz — to see the name "Maurice Richard" appear suddenly in 1943; to follow it up the right-hand column season by season as it gained seniority, jumping to the left column until it reached the top, and disappeared in 1961. I like to spot the changes that have happened in more than fifty years: the names increasing from twelve to more than twenty as hockey became a free-substitution game; then, as entrepreneurs gave way to corporations, to see "Owner" become "Chairman," to see "Vice-President, Corporate Relations," and "Executive Vice-President and Managing Director" appear. I like to look at my own name — fifth from the bottom in 1971, at the top of the right-hand column two years later, absent for a season, returning in 1975 fifth from the bottom again, now back at the top of the right-hand column — sharing the same plaques with Jean Béliveau, Henri Richard, Frank Mahovlich, Guy Lafleur, and other remarkable company.