They say Habs’ fans aren’t really hockey fans because they only root for the Habs and have no interest in the rest of the sport. That’s true to some degree, if only because the Habs’ fan’s love of the team is so all-consuming, there’s not a whole lot of room for the absorption of facts like who plays on the fourth line in Nashville. In fact, one thing I love about the Canadiens is their ability to inspire the absolute devotion of their fans. I don’t mean playoff-style devotion. Or "cheer for the big star" devotion. I’m talking about "decorate the family room to look exactly like the Habs’ dressing room, perform mysterious playoff rituals, lose sleep because you live in England and watch every game online, name your daughter Jeanne because you were *having* a kid named after Beliveau whether it was a boy or a girl" kind of devotion.
That kind of team love can be expressed in many ways. There’s the "History Hab" who not only can tell you who signed the first contract to play for the Canadiens a hundred years ago, but also tell you how many career goals he scored and who replaced him when he retired. There’s the "Heart Attack Hab," whose basic mood and performance at work is based primarily on what the team did the night before. My favourite expression of Habs love, though is the frequent phenomenon of Hominus Incognitus Syndrome. Devotion to the obscure man.
When a team plays for a hundred years, there are a lot of players who end up making history. There are inevitably many more who become footnotes to that history. The supporting roles spawn the characters; guys who’d never be remembered except for the way they fought all comers and smiled while they did it, or scored all three goals in a 3-2 vital playoff win. The great players, and the great characters boast fans who keep the torch burning for them long after they retire. What makes Habs’ fans outstanding, though, is the total devotion some of them have for players most of us enjoyed as Canadiens and promptly dismissed from our minds when they left.
One guy I know had a huge admiration for Craig Ludwig. He found out Ludwig was going to be playing in a charity game on a Friday evening, in a town about a five-hour drive away from where he lived. Undaunted, he took Friday afternoon off from work, drove the five hours and arrived in time to stand outside in the rink’s parking lot…in the snow…with a bunch of runny-nosed kids who were waiting for autographs. This guy waited there for forty minutes until Ludwig showed up, and he got his favourite’s long-coveted signature on a battered number 17 Canadiens sweater. The sweater is framed now, and the centrepiece of a Ludwig shrine in the rec room.
I can kind of understand this. I personally had a huge fan-crush on Kjell Dahlin, who I thought was a very elegant player and would end up being the next Mats Naslund. It didn’t work out quite that way, but I still have a soft spot for the guy. Same thing for Gilbert Dionne, who won me some cash in my ’93 playoff pool.
But the best story of devotion to the obscure man I’ve ever heard is Brad Daw’s love for Benoit Brunet. Now, I liked Brunet as a player. I admired his ability on the PK, and his ten points in the ’93 Cup run. But, honestly, if Brunet had not become an RDS commentator, I’d never have thought of him again. Maybe, if his name came up in some discussion of former Habs, I might have said, "Hey, I liked him when he played for the Canadiens." And that would be about it. Not so Daw. He owns the later-years vintage Brunet number 17 sweater and when he went to a game at the Bell Centre a couple of years ago, he made it his mission to finally meet his hero and get his sweater signed. He and a buddy found their seats and scoped out the stairs to the pressbox where Brunet was commenting on the game. Of course, there was a security guard minding the steps, making sure any would-be Brunet attackers were kept at the proper distance. They waited until the guard was distracted and Daw made his move. Slipping behind the guard’s back, Daw darted up the pressbox stairs…only to be caught halfway to his goal by the chagrined security man. Luckily, the Dash for Benoit had attracted the attention of the denizens of the pressbox, including Brunet himself. When Daw noticed he’d caught his hero’s eye, he twisted in the guard’s grip and flashed the name and number on the back of his sweater. After Brunet stopped laughing, he called off the guards and invited Daw up to the pressbox. Daw got his sweater signed, and took these pictures, which still make him smile. Getting the signature was only one incident on the bumpy road to loving Benoit, though. Some time earlier, Daw and his buddies were in the Cage aux Sports when they noticed Jacques Demers sitting nearby. Daw approached the coach, and the first question he asked was, "Where’s Benoit?" Demers obviously looked less than impressed.
See, that’s why the Canadiens are different. There may be other teams that inspire deep dedication in their fans. There may be teams with a long, storied history from which fans can draw inspiration. But do you think anyone in Carolina would risk getting thrown out of a rink, or worse, because they just HAVE to meet Robert Kron? No way.