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Posted: Friday January 23, 2009 12:12PM; Updated: Friday January 23, 2009 6:43PM
Michael Farber Michael Farber >
INSIDE THE NHL

Montreal: This city is hockey

Story Highlights

The site of the All-Star Game is home to the NHL's most self-reverential franchise

The Canadiens are a religion here and most people have a connection to hockey

Fans revere French-speakers, but gladly stuff the All-Star ballot box for any Hab.

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The All-Star Game is part of a much larger celebration in this hockey-mad city.
Dave Sandford/Getty Images
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Welcome to Montreal, All-Star city.

You probably will notice that in a city of crater-sized potholes and lunatic drivers that there are no right turns permitted on red lights, that the French lettering on commercial signs is twice as large as the English lettering (although spoken English is permitted to be at the same decibel level as spoken French, so you don't have to whisper), that the legal drinking age is superceded by a drinking height (sure, officially you have to be 18 but if you can see over the bar, there is an excellent chance you will be served) and that we take our hockey extremely seriously -- even that high-end confection known as the NHL All-Star Game.

The reason: The City is Hockey.

That was the Montreal Canadiens slogan in 2007-08, even if Detroit was saying pretty much the same thing a decade earlier.

The syntax might be awkward, but the sentiment, like the plagiarism, is genuine. Even before the world's most self-reverential sports franchise started bothering everybody with its centennial season celebrations (and Bogarting the All-Star Game and 2009 entry draft and every other kickshaw the league seemed to make available), there were 21,273 patrons at the Bell Centre every game. Since the lockout in 2004-05, not a single ticket to the NHL's largest indoor venue has gone unsold.

Not long ago an economist proclaimed the Canadiens, like the New York Yankees, "recession-proof." According to this dismal scientist, those blue $5 bills with the kids playing hockey on the pond on the back will continue to be directed towards the coffers of Le Club du Hockey Canadien. That's the difference between you in the United States and those of us who reside in this winter wonderland.

There: Lehman Brothers tanks. Here: Kostitsyn Brothers thrive.

Now, like most visitors, you might think the "H" on the familiar CH sweater stands for Habs. In fact, it is actually stands for Hockey, as in Club du Hockey. Still, Habs, a headline writer's best friend, is an accepted colloquialism if not abused. This is a great franchise for nicknames. Those include The Rocket and his brother the Pocket Rocket, Boom Boom (Boum, in French), Le Gros Bill (that's Jean Béliveau), Big Bird, Flower, Pointu (Guy Lapointe), and Casseau (Patrick Roy).

There is an undeniable familiarity that should challenge the notion of a professor at a local French-language university who teaches a course called "The Canadiens as Religion." That's an oft-repeated conceit in this city, but it always struck me as straining theological boundaries. If religion is the worship of a higher and mystical power, the informality and close personal relationship between city and team would make the Canadiens a secular force more than a sacred one, an entity that needs neither interpretation nor intercession -- even if RDS play-by-play-man Pierre Houde is heavenly.

The personal connection to the team, and the sport in general, led me to my one contribution to the sociology of hockey: the Canadian one-degree-of-separation rule. Through anecdotal evidence gathered in the almost 30 years since I moved from New Jersey to Montreal, it has occurred to me that pretty much everybody in Canada is only one person away from someone who has ties to hockey, specifically the NHL.

For the past 22 years, I have lived on a street that starts at the St. Lawrence River, runs two blocks and then loops into a crescent, like the shape of a basketball key. Six months before I moved onto this street -- and Raymond Bourque's brother-in-law was one of the moving company guys carrying my bed upstairs when I did - the widow of Hockey Hall of Fame forward Buddy O'Connor (opposite side of the street, six houses down) moved out to a western suburb. Scotty Bowman's parents lived diagonally across from my house -- Mrs. Bowman loved to watch my two children playing - and each summer, the great coach would bring his family in a Winnebago for a visit.

Before the league transferred him to Toronto, NHL statistician Benny Ercolani lived on the crescent. Don Meehan, the agent, grew up one block to the west -- his father still lived there until his death a few years ago -- and one of Meehan's boyhood buddies was Kevin Prendergast, the Edmonton Oilers assistant general manager who lived a few streets away in the adjacent town.

My mother-in-law worked as a waitress in the barbecue chicken restaurant owned by Denis Savard's family. My financial planner's brother-in-law is former NHL defenseman and Kings assistant coach Mark Hardy. Former coach Jacques Demers' father was the superintendent of an apartment building, where as a boy Jacques used to shovel coal for Canadiens player Floyd "Busher" Curry.

Rick Moffat, the English-radio play-by-play voice of the Canadiens, was a childhood friend of Bourque's. Two of the four officials working the All-Star Game, referee Marc Joanette and linesman Pierre Racicot, grew up in the same blue-collar town where I live. At my gym earlier this week, I eavesdropped on one teenager telling his buddies, in French, that he had bumped into Derick Brassard. I'm just guessing here, but I doubt that most people in Columbus wouldn't have recognized the injured Blue Jackets rookie if he had been dotting the "I" on the 50 yard-line at the Michigan game.

The love of the game, and team, is not the worship for some amorphous force -- it is easy to be hoodwinked by nicknames such la sainte flanelle for the distinctive bleu-blanc-rouge jerseys -- but an appreciation for those who get paid to play the game. These aren't deities. These are neighbors.

Like Texas women and football, Montreal women are expected to hold their own in a hockey conversation. (My mother-in-law can never remember which of the Kostitsyn brothers is older, Andrei or Sergei, but she is 75 and deserves forbearance.) So a few years ago when a woman behind the Air Canada ticket counter at the airport asked me at 6 a.m. who I thought was going to win the Hart Trophy, I impatiently mumbled, "Crosby, I guess."

"Yes," she agreed, "Crosby's had a wonderful year." She paused. "And who do you think'll win the Vézina?"

"Well, the writers don't vote on the ..."

"I know, the general managers do."

At last the cartoon light bulb went off over my half-functioning brain.

"Why, your son will, Mrs. Luongo."

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