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On Second Thought

In Montreal, it’s in the blood

The scene of the crime, in the eyes of Montreal fans: Zdeno Chara crunches Max Pacioretty into the boards last March. The scene of the crime, in the eyes of Montreal fans: Zdeno Chara crunches Max Pacioretty into the boards last March. (File/Shaun Best/Reuters)
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / February 19, 2012
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We found out just how different Canadiens fans are last March 8, when Zdeno Chara veered Max Pacioretty into a turnbuckle at the Bell Centre, the young and talented Habs winger dazed and falling face-first to the ice in a crumpled heap. It was a frightening sight, the awkward collision and its end result far worse than the hit itself, and Montreal fans immediately called for Chara’s head.

Many of those fans also called 911, some because they sought immediate medical attention for their injured CH warrior, and others because they wanted Chara hauled off to jail.

Who knew that doctors and emergency medical personnel actually attend each NHL game and that the Montreal police, when not conducting investigations to find out whether the current Habs coach knows enough French to order dinner in centre ville, have more important sleuthing to do than chase down a 6-foot-9-inch defenseman who might try to duck out of town while dressed in short pants, long socks, clunky skates, and an oversized Spoked-B on his chest?

Some 11-plus months later, many of those same Habs fans obviously felt they finally got their reward, and Chara his comeuppance, when a clearing shot by Tomas Plekanec Wednesday night nailed the Bruins captain in the face and felled the towering defenseman on the same sheet of ice that once hosted a chilled Pacioretty.

Face-down and bleeding around the chin, a woozy Chara needed a minute or two to clear the cobwebs, straighten up, and make his way to Boston’s dressing room for repair.

“I’ve taken a lot of pucks in the face,’’ Chara explained later. “But in the chin . . . you’re going to go down. You’re going to get knocked out a little bit.’’

Chara’s brain wasn’t so addled, however, that he could miss the loud and churlish mix of cheers and boos that cascaded down from the crowd of 21,000-plus.

The Bell Centre, like the more intimate Forum that still stands down the street, repurposed as a movie house, has always been a very tough room to work. But cheering someone’s injury, while by no means unique to Habs fans, is detestable and ugly, even in a city where the words “it’s only a game’’ play to the ear like “it’s only a religion’’ or “it’s only your family we’re talkin’ here.’’

For many in Montreal, hockey isn’t what they watch, but what they breathe, how they think, who they are. The game and their team are as intertwined in their daily life as sleep, shower, commute, job, dinner. It’s the city of three H’s: hockey, health, and hygiene. The fourth H, for hysteria, isn’t always silent.

Remember, it’s a town that rioted after it won its last Stanley Cup in 1993. Local police would never admit it, but they’re probably relieved that the Canadiens have yet to return to the Cup Final.

Nonetheless, when the Habs are bad, as they have been roughly half the time over the last dozen or so seasons, it makes long Montreal winters ever longer. There is no NBA, no NFL. The Alouettes are pretty good, but that’s the CFL, forever the po’ boy of North American football.

The Expos, in their 35 years, were never much more than an oddball diversion, even with the oddest ball of them all, Bill Lee, in their rotation (bonjour, Stan Papi). To think that the Expos or anyone else ever offered healing salve to broken Habs souls would be to think that a disappointed Red Sox Nation could find relief in, say, the Head of the Charles Regatta, the Beanpot, or the Home Show.

Bruins coach Claude Julien coached three seasons in Montreal. He learned first-hand that the zeal of Canadiens fans can at times race off faster than an unimpeded Rocket Richard on a breakaway.

“It’s disappointing,’’ Julien said after hearing the Habs fans cheer Chara’s misfortune. “It’s their passion . . . but sometimes they care so much that they’re not thinking what is the right thing to do.’’

“I was disappointed,’’ added Chara, his words placed as carefully and precisely as the stitches in his chin. “[Injury] is nothing to do with sport . . . even with what happened previously with the two teams.’’

Fans of Les Glorieux will always love their hockey, even though their team hasn’t won a Stanley Cup for nearly 20 years (see: Jacques Demers, June 9, 1993). There is little doubt that some of the misplaced cheering and anger vented on Wednesday, though much of it related to L’Affaire Pacioretty, is connected to what is by far the longest Cup drought in the franchise’s storied history.

The Habs have won an NHL-record 23 Cups, and until this insufferable wait, the franchise’s longest hiatus was from 1931-44. Because it’s Montreal, we must count in dog years, which makes Montrealers feel like the current dry spell stretches back prior to the invention of the Zamboni, if not the wheel.

Boston fans obviously won’t have much sympathy for what some of them consider to be the devil of all sports franchises, especially not after watching that 1918-2004 slump play out in the Back Bay in segments of 162 games or more. Some Boston fans will even revel, often not secretly, in the ongoing CH malaise.

It’s fairly obvious that they’re hurting up there in Montreal, and more than ever they’re taking it very personally, passionately. The belly-down Chara, with the back of his No. 33 sweater flashed toward the rafters, presented himself as this oversized, convenient object of scorn. He was zee Big Zee, bloodied and hurting, and in that moment, fans couldn’t separate the hurting Chara from the sweater he wore or the game he played.

In Montreal, where the concept of keeping things separate is so dear, Habs fans displayed an innate inability to separate love of a game from basic decency. That’s not something to go all 911 about, but it is something that tells them, and others, about themselves.

Kevin Paul Dupont’s “On Second Thought’’ appears on Page 2 of the Sunday Globe Sports section. He can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.

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