A very specific period where Montreal isn’t the villain

This is going to be weird to admit, but it seems like it’s time to come clean:

It took me a long time to actually hate the Montreal Canadiens. Blame it on a combination of a great sweater, a storied history and current events, and they didn’t seem much different to me than the Quebec Nordiques, for whom I still have a soft spot.

As villains, they had nothing on the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had knocked Boston out of the 1991 Wales conference finals and, in the process, Ulf Samuelsson took it upon himself to upend Cam Neely’s career with a low cheapshot to the knee. The fine tradition of Penguins ruining the careers of Bruins is one that would carry on later, of course, but that’s another discussion.

No, in the early 1990s, knowledgable about the rivalry but entering the picture just as Boston began knocking Patrick Roy and company out of the playoffs every year they met, that kind of intense dislike didn’t register. I was already starting collect hockey books, and instead, there was this deep history that was fascinating, running from Georges Vezina and Howie Morenz to Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau to Yvan Cournoyer and Guy Lafleur.

And aesthetically, there was clearly a lot to like. I liked that they used the French spelling of their name; the way the blue stripe wrapped around the body of their red jersey, but that there wasn’t a red stripe on their white jersey; how strange that “C” crest looked, and the way the “H” fit inside of it; and how, through all these books and all these photos of Ken Dryden and Frank Mahovlich and Bob Gainey and Henri Richard and Jaques Plante, that uniform looked essentially the same.

Take a guy like Vincent Damphousse. He was a proficient goal scorer, topping 20 in a season 12 times and maxing out at 40 with the Canadiens on the year of this card. He was the kind of hard-working player with an interesting name I could get behind to some degree (see: Tugnutt, Ron). He wore a cool sweater and when the time came, his team would step aside when the Bruins wanted to pass by.

In the moment, they didn’t seem like a threat. Then it devolved. They traded their captain Guy Carbonneau in 1994 and their next captain, Kirk Muller, in 1995. Later that year, they allowed Patrick Roy to be embarrassed in a bad game against Detroit [1], which led to him demanding a trade on the spot and leaving the building. And instead of suspending him and allowing everyone to cool down, they traded him to Colorado and essentially handed the Stanley Cup to Denver [2]. And just before the Bruins’ playoff streak ended, so did Montreal’s.

Both teams eventually rebounded, and Montreal knocked Boston out in the first round of the playoffs in 2002. But the hatred didn’t start until 2004, when the Bruins, slogging through a first-round matchup while Joe Thornton was dragging himself through games with torn cartilage in his ribs, beat Boston in seven games, the last match being a brutal, 2-0 loss. And then it happened again in 2008 — even though Game 6 of that series saw the upstart Bruins kick off what would be a three-year climb to the peak of the game, Game 7 was still a 5-0 thrashing in the Bell Centre that was capped by Habs fans rioting in the street as if they’d won the Cup again.

Anyway, they still haven’t. Not since the picture on this card was taken, when Damphousse, Roy, Muller and Carbonneau were able to top Wayne Gretzky’s Los Angeles Kings in the final.

By the time the rivalry kicked back into high gear, Damphousse, and most of those Canadiens, were long gone. In 1999, less than two weeks after they’d sent Mark Recchi back to Pittsburgh, Damphouse was traded to San Jose in the middle of another rebuilding effort. He spent 5¼ good years there, playing in the 2002 All-Star Game and scoring 20 goals three more times. He signed on with Colorado for the 2004-05 that never happened, then called it a career.

He was a rookie in Toronto when Montreal knocked out Boston in 1987, and I was four years old and not paying attention. So it goes, the weird ways fandom and the irrational notion of sports hatred and how that clings to some players and not others. I will recoil when I see names like Mike Ribeiro or Maxim Lapierre, but I’ll admit to still having a soft spot for Andrei Markov and Saku Koivu. They’re not all bad, and I’ll admit that the playoffs are always a little bit better when they’re in it. Just as long as they don’t get too far.

1. I vividly remember watching this on ESPN 2 (then styled “espn2”) and discussing this on the bus on the way to school the next day. We were all stunned.

2. I will say that, even then, seeing Roy out of Montreal made him a much easier figure to root for. Being teamed up with Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and the former Nordiques made it all the better.

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