Eric Toth, out of goalie equipment
Courtesy of the author
How often have you dreamed of playing for the Canadiens… then found yourself doing so in comic form, in the pages of the Canadiens’ official magazine?
Award-winning Canadian comedian Eric Toth, a native of Hamilton, Ont. – in the heart of Leaf Nation – recently sent me his story, and I thought it was remarkable enough to ask him to flesh it out for readers of Inside/Out.
He kindly has done so, and scanned the entire wonderful tale to support it with illustration. (Here’s Eric with the Rocket, Maurice Richard.) Go below to check it out in full detail.
And thanks, obviously, to Eric for all of his work to share this.
Eric Toth is a member of the Canadian Comedy Award winning sketch comedy troupe The Imponderables. As a member of the popular sketch troupe, Eric has made numerous television and radio appearances (CBC, CTV, Comedy Network, Global, Much Music) as well as performing at clubs all over Canada and the United States (Second City, Just For Laughs, Chicago Improv Festival). Additionally, Eric teaches comedy writing and performing at the Humber School of Comedy.
Special to Habs Inside/Out
From the perspective of a 10-year-old boy, I had a life-changing experience on May 24, 1986. It was Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals in Calgary, and the Canadiens were holding on to a 4-2 lead and poised to win their 23rd Stanley Cup. I was sitting with my Dad and brother on the couch nervously watching the game; every time a player was hit, or a shot was fired, I flinched and rolled around under my blanket like a lunatic in a straitjacket.
With seconds left, a lone Calgary player came out from the corner of the boards and tried to stuff the puck underneath the goalie. Patrick Roy dropped to the ice and stuck out his right leg, making a scissor-kick attempt to stop the puck. Bodies crashed and fell over top of Roy, and the referee blew the whistle.
Roy stood up from beneath the pile of bodies that collapsed on top of him, held out his glove so the linesman could take the puck out, and preceded to skate calmly away from the mess toward an empty corner of the ice, all the while lifting both of his shoulders up high and twitching his head from side to side.
Three things changed for me that night.
The first was that I got to stay up late, well past my bedtime, to watch television. I knew all along that exciting things really do happen after I’m sent to bed. No more fooling this kid.
A lifelong fan is born
Secondly, looking at my Dad sitting there wearing his bleu, blanc et rouge Jersey, enjoying all the laurels bestowed upon him by virtue of being a Habs fan, I willingly accepted my destiny and became a lifelong Canadiens devotee.
I thought to myself: “Does this Dad of mine really know what’s best for me? Maybe I’ll try eating vegetables, too?”
Finally, I was now worshipping two gods – the heavenly Father whom I accepted through baptism and visited every Sunday at church, and a more earthly version, born in a manger somewhere in Sainte-Foy, Que., who I watched from his pulpit every Saturday on La Soirée du hockey, the 21-year-old Patrick Roy.
I instantly became a member of the Montreal Canadiens fan club. It was the closest to the team a young boy from Hamilton, Ont., could get. I received my pink Canadiens membership card in the mail and promptly tucked it away safely out of sight from any wandering Toronto Maple Leafs fans who would surely find some way to poke fun of its girlish colour.
(Believe me, being a Canadiens fan in Ontario isn’t easy, but reminding any afflicted Leafs fanatic how many Stanley Cup wins the Canadiens have generally thwarts off their verbal attacks.)
My life began to play out exactly like the character in Roch Carrier’s classic short story, The Hockey Sweater. Except instead of idolizing Maurice Richard, it was Saint Patrick.
I bought a Canadiens road jersey and had Roy’s numbers put on the back. I cut his picture out of my Les Canadiens magazine, brought it to the barbershop and asked for his haircut. I pinned up my new Patrick Roy poster right beside my bed, collected every picture, and studied every story written about him in the newspaper. I would even twitch my head around and talk to my goal posts while playing net in road hockey games, just like Roy did on the ice.
Letter to the Canadiens
One lazy afternoon, when the rain cancelled our street hockey game, I decided to write a letter to the Canadiens expressing my admiration for Patrick Roy. I told them how I fell asleep most nights dreaming about being the goalie for the Canadiens, and coming up with heroic Roy-like saves to win the Stanley Cup.
I described my Canadiens-decorated room in detail, including the giant Patrick Roy poster I had in my room. Then I asked for an autographed photo of the hero himself.
I mailed the letter and continued to check the mailbox every day after school, flipping through mysterious white envelopes with my parents’ names on them. Which I later in life learned were called bills, which meant you had to pay for things like light, water, and even heat. What a scam!
About a month or so later, I got a large envelope in the mail from the Montreal Canadiens fan club. I tore it open and there was an autographed Patrick Roy team-issued card inside. In the photo, he stood with his helmet-mask off in front of a white background, his autograph etched on the back. I promptly placed it on my windowsill with some other photos like he was a member of my family.
Included in the beige envelope was the newest addition of Les Canadiens magazine with a picture of Claude Lemieux on the cover; in the photo he was holding a bouquet of flowers while an empty suit of armour was erected behind him; his white home jersey draped around its back. Weird, I know.
Then I noticed that in the bottom left corner of the issue’s cover there was a headline for a story that read: “ÉRIC À la rescousee … and he saves the team”
I quickly turned to the story to find a cartoon about a boy who falls asleep dreaming about being the goaltender for the Canadiens. In the story, coach Jean Perron is disturbed because both of his goalies are stuck in New York because of a major snowstorm. Eric’s sister, who is watching the game with her brother, shouts at Perron from over the Forum boards that her brother is a great goalie and could fill in quite admirably.
Eric gets the start in goal
Naturally, Perron decides to start the young 10-year-old fan in net. The boy promptly gets into uniform, because the Canadiens always have spare goalie equipment for small children, and takes his position in net.
Eric then goes on to play marvelously, defeating the Minnesota North Stars 1-0. The team hoists Eric over their heads like he’s the Stanley Cup.
Tucked away in his office, GM Serge Savard gets on the phone and informs the press that they’re signing the young goalie to a contract. (Rumour has it the contract was a 15-year-deal for $67.5 million.) The crowd chants “Bravo Eric! Vive Eric!”
And "Wake up, Eric! Eric! Eric!"
Eric awakens to see his sister shaking him awake, and informs him that he was dreaming. "And wow, what a dream…"
I couldn’t believe it! I read the story over and over and showed it to anyone who cared to see it. Could the Canadiens have really taken my letter and turned it into a story so Habs fans everywhere could read it?
The package was absent of an explanatory note, or any other indication that the story was written about me. I was left to assume that the story was written based on my fan-club letter, and to this day, I still wonder if it was.
So fast forward 20 years, and instead of actually becoming the starting goalie for the Canadiens, locked into a 15-year $67.5-million contract, I’m a comedian who is paid to perform most nights for beer tickets. To be more precise, I’m a sketch comedian in a four-person troupe called The Imponderables.
We had toured across Canada multiple times, and by the end of our third straight summer, we decided to concentrate on performing locally in the Hamilton and Toronto area. We’d grown exhausted of sleeping on couches, riding the Greyhound bus, and losing the company of our girlfriends and wives for four months at a time.
The Montreal Fringe festival was always our favourite stop on our cross-Canadian adventures, and not just because of the 99-cent pizza slices and the fact that you could buy alcohol at the dépanneur, but because the top show at the Montreal Festival was awarded a spot at the world-famous Just For Laughs comedy festival. For any comic, the Just For Laughs is equivalent to an NHL player going to the Stanley Cup finals.
Having come home empty-handed from the previous three Montreal festivals without the prestigious award, I tried to convince the other guys to take one last shot at it. We would put together the best show we could in our bid to win the award.
Our competition would be stiff that year, our main opponent being an air-band that would not only lip-synch the songs, but also mouth the conversation bands usually have between songs. To be defeated by an air-band – comedy’s version of the Toronto Maple Leafs – would surely be a humiliation.
Channeling the Forum ghosts
To be certain we were fully prepared for the festival, I asked the guys to walk up Ste. Catherine Street to the most storied building in hockey history, now an AMC multiplex theatre, and stand at the marked centre ice area to channel the ghosts of the Montreal Forum.
For good luck, we called upon the spirit of Montreal players past, but we couldn’t call upon just any former Canadien. In fact, Howie Morenz, Aurel Joliat and Rocket Richard’s names weren’t even mentioned in our little pep talk. We had to call upon the players who best symbolized the comedian’s spirit, players such as Lorne (Gump) Worsley, l’ours de Joliette Marcel Bonin, and the famous André (Red Light) Racicot.
Two weeks and six strong performances later, we were standing on stage accepting our Just for Laughs award. The success of our show that year was based on the strength of our strongest sketch, a parody of Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater story.
Instead of watching a young Habs fan from Quebec idolize hockey great Maurice Richard, the kid grows up idolizing Céline Dion, and in a mail- order mix-up, he accidentally receives a Shania Twain CD. We eventually animated the piece ourselves to match the original National Film Board version, and posted it on YouTube.
So now instead of falling asleep dreaming of being the new rookie goalie for the Canadiens, who consequently was sent down to the Canadiens farm team in Hamilton, our comedy troupe chugs along with the hope of one day being able to quit our day jobs and actually perform for real money.
“And wow, what a dream!”
BELOW: Eric Toth’s 1986 Montreal Canadiens Fan Club membership card, the photo he received of his hero, Patrick Roy, the Canadiens magazine featuring "his" cartoon, and a photo of Toth and his comedy troupe The Imponderables. From left: Dave Brennan, Jon Smith, Tony Lombardo, Eric Toth.