A personal responsibility for improving the Montreal Canadiens

Montreal Canadiens (Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)
Montreal Canadiens (Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports) /

The calendar year 2022 saw the Montreal Canadiens front and center of a plethora of fascinating narratives that wove themselves through team staffing, the NHL draft, social/political interference, the Team Canada Juniors, and the record books. It was an exhilarating roller coaster ride that compelled much discussion about whether the year was successful for the Canadiens.

I, certainly, have applauded the Habs roster-building formula, and hoped stars would align to ice a very competitive team for this and future seasons. Unfortunately, the rolling of the dice on ‘Humpty Dumpties’ like Monahan, Dadonov, Drouin, and the like, hasn’t paid off thus far, most not having reassembled from their earlier falls.

The team’s future stars, Suzuki, Caulfield, and Slafkovsky, are still in a too-early-to-tell phase. Signs are promising, but they haven’t been able to consistently lead the Club to positive outcomes. As for the other rookies and young players, their performance has been pretty much as expected, and the team has suffered accordingly.

A roster comprised of so many first and second-year players is inherently compromised. Conclusions can not yet be reached as to how things will pan out with their development, it’s all potential at this stage.

The Montreal Canadiens can only go up in the future

The past twelve months were so dynamic for the Canadiens that opinions as to their degree of success have been correspondingly broad and varied. Some have said that the Habs +/- of around -100 in 2022, their worst calendar year in history, was a disaster. Others believe that securing so many building blocks for the future (via poor performance now) has been the ideal route.

Some, like myself, hoped for a better start for 2022-23 in the hopes of finishing much higher in the standings than last season. The list of talking points goes on and on. Is a ten-point improvement a successful season? Is .500 the mark of success? A playoff run? Or just not finishing last? Might 32nd place overall, and thus the best chance at the number one draft pick, be the most agreeable outcome?

A detailed mapping of the past year imbued with personal preferences and opinions while engaging to a point, ultimately leaves us at loose ends, for as Melville wrote in Moby Dick, the real place is not on any map.

So, as we begin the New Year, I propose that a more worthwhile focus would be consideration of how we, the Canadiens community of coaches, players, analysts, and fans, can improve our preparation, skills, critique, and engagement based on last year’s experiences. What place should we pursue to foster improvement in the hockey performance and culture of the Canadiens and beyond?

As a first step in a search for a New Year’s Resolution, we would do well to follow the lead of coach Martin St. Louis and Team Canada Juniors coach Dennis Williams. There is much to admire in St. Louis’s courageous and adventurous mixing of lines and lineups.

He has loaded up with rookies, sat out veterans, retained Slafkovsky despite his limited productivity, and audaciously manned powerplays with fourth-liners, all in the name of process and experimentation while eschewing notions of ‘failure’.

Most impressive, however, has been St. Louis’s insistence that he, and the team by extension, claim culpability for poor results. This is the wisdom of a good teacher who understands that there is no progress without first taking personal responsibility.

This sagacity was evident in Dennis Williams, who met the ‘controversy’ of Zach Dean’s five-minute major against Czechia in game one of the IIHF World Junior Ice Hockey Championships by astutely guiding his players to take accountability and stay out of the penalty box from then on. Or, more precisely to the point, to avoid situations that might lead to (major) penalties, right or wrongly called.

How refreshingly different are these coaches’ perspectives from those who blame referees, rules,  opponents, schedules, injuries, bounces, technology, and so on, ad nauseam?  The value of complaining is zero, and it’s especially disheartening when championed by mainstream media.

During the television broadcast of the aforementioned game, and just after the assessment of the five-minute major to Zach Dean, an analyst mentioned that in the NHL that incident would not have been a penalty.

Three Things To Look Forward To In 2023. light. Trending

One can give benefit of the doubt to the commentator and say he was trying to compare and contrast in order to frame for the viewers a better understanding. However, it’s more likely that this was media bias in the form of ‘sour grapes’ pandered through a pathetic non sequitur.

The intermission discussion was especially cringeworthy. It featured a panelist displaying the IIHF rulebook, which came across as some combination of “look, they changed the rules of (real) hockey!” and an unintentional suggestion that it hadn’t been read or understood by the Canadian contingent, plus a pitiful ‘joke’ by the host that the injury to the Czechian player was caused by his own helmet!

The theme of that charade – the refusal to accept culpability and instead play the victim – is not new to Canadian hockey broadcasting or culture. The pretense and pose of chronic victimization is not only the unseemly core of special interest politics and cancel culture, but wholly antithetical to learning, growth, and progress.

Thinking that you did right and others did you wrong undermines motivation to change and develop. Your energies are instead cynically directed toward coercion, whining, complaining, and bullying. Does anyone remember Guy Lafleur ever complaining to a ref? He knew where his energies needed to be spent.

Martin St. Louis and Dennis Williams understand that the right way to look at things is not “Did they do us wrong?” but “How do we avoid situations that could cause us grief?” and “How do we get better?”

In the excellent television documentary Pretend Its A City, New York-based writer Fran Lebowitz tells a great story about how she once flagged down a Manhattan police officer to report that her smokes got stolen from her car. When the officer asked where she had stored them and she indicated the dashboard, he suggested she not leave them where people can see them, and he left.

Personal responsibility – the two dirtiest words in the public discourse these days.

I would like to add a personal anecdote from just a few hours ago and a conversation with my mother. She disclosed to me that since childhood she has had chronic pain in her left leg. I asked why for seventy-five years she didn’t tell her family, and she replied, “It’s not enough that it hurts? I have to talk about it too? That would be exhausting!”

Exhausting indeed, not just in the sending, but especially in the receiving. Why are tiresome narratives and thoughtless, predictable platitudes so commonly repeated? At its most harmless, the reason is partiality and bias, at its most harmful, bigotry, and thus it’s worth reminding ourselves of Soren Kierkegaard’s dictum that maturity comes when one transcends themselves.

A Winning Habit
A Winning Habit /

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So, I invite all of the hockey community to join me in a New Year’s Resolution to foreground personal responsibility at every turn, every play, every move, and resist perpetuating the lowest common denominators of rhetoric, never blaming external factors for whatever difficulties the Canadiens, or whomever, are having. That is the place we should aspire to meet, and while not on any map, it is well worth searching for.