The Price of the Spotlight

Hockey fans are passionate about their sport, but there may be none more passionate than a fan of the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs have a rich and epic history filled with incredible accomplishment and success, and for both of those reasons contemporary fans have lofty expectations and hair triggers for poor performance. Right or wrong, in Montreal it’s all about the team; it’s all glory when they win, and all gloom when they fail.

To play in Montreal is to perform under pressure unlike any hockey market in the NHL. I’m sure there are fans of the Maple Leafs who would argue that there is enormous pressure in the self proclaimed “center of the hockey universe” as well, but they’d be wrong. Toronto hasn’t won the Stanley Cup in over four decades, and yet they sell out game after game and remain the richest team in the league. Performance isn’t as expected of them as it is of Montreal, and failure isn’t punished as harshly by the media and the fans. A player who isn’t doing well in Montreal feels it every time he steps on the ice, opens a newspaper or turns on the television, and maybe that comes with the territory for a player lucky enough to play for the most storied and honoured team in the sport. On the other hand, you’d have to ask Carey Price if he’d agree.

I started watching hockey during the 1986 playoffs. At the time, I was a fan of the Calgary Flames, but I became a quick convert to the Montreal Canadiens by way of my grandfather and the unbelievable play of Patrick Roy. I still remember lying on my parents bed watching the Habs win the Cup that year, and I’ve been lucky enough to grow up to watch my team compete year after year, again winning the Cup in 1993.
For me, Patrick Roy will always be the best goaltender to have strapped on pads and played the game. Some will say Plante, or Brodeur, and some will say that Roy was an arrogant ass, but I don’t think there has ever been or likely ever will be again a goalie who could singlehandedly dominate a game the way Roy did.

So, when Montreal signed Carey Price and the media began proclaiming him the second coming of Patrick Roy, I shook my head. Not only is it unfair to compare a rookie fresh out of the minors to the best goaltender to have played the game, it’s unfair to the kid to try and live up to these expectations. He had a good enough rookie season that the team decided to stick with him as their number one goaltender and trade away the more veteran Huet, but even then there should have been slightly lowered expectations. Price was only 20.

There is no disputing his talent. Winner of a gold medal with the Canadian juniors and having led his junior teams to championship success, Price has proven himself to be talented and capable. At the NHL level, he has struggled considerably, and a lot of that has to do with adjusting to a faster, tougher game with players who can shoot harder and faster, and part of it has to do with adjusting to the pressure. There is little doubt that his confidence has been shaken. Price has never been in a position where he was losing instead of excelling, and finding a way through that kind of adversity has to be like learning a new skill. Given his talent and ability, there shouldn’t be any doubt that he’ll find a way to come through it and succeed, unless the pressure heaped on him keeps him buried.

And, that’s why I blame the fans.

Price has played, at times, abysmally over the last two seasons. Other times, he showed flashes of his potential brilliance. But, there is no disputing that he could, on average, play much better than he has. With Jaroslav Halak’s heroics at the end of last year and through the playoffs, it might be a little difficult to set rational objectives, but it should also be acknowledged that Halak isn’t flawless either, and has been inconsistent at times. It’s not that Price isn’t Halak, it’s that Price isn’t Roy or Dryden.

Every time Carey has a bad game, and more recently this has come often, he is booed in his own building and subject to taunts and ridicule from his own fans. I was at the 6-2 drubbing that Canadiens took in Ottawa this past weekend, and devout Habs fans were chanting Halak’s name in some paroxysm of a seance, as though by uttering his name would somehow summon him from afar and possess the larger frame of Price with his essence.

Are you retarded?

Halak is gone. He plays for St. Louis now. And, he started the preseason about as well as Price, in fact. Either way, what’s done is done, and he’s gone. You can chant his name all you like, the 23 year-old kid between the pipes wearing 31 is the one we need to stop the pucks, not Halak. All that the jeers and taunts and prayers to Halak will do is heap more pressure on Price, which won’t help him to perform better.

I’ll let everyone in on a secret: Carey Price knows he needs to play better. He knows he needs to win games. I don’t think the armchari coaches watching the game can impress those facts on him any more than they already have been.

I’m a little disgusted with my fellow Canadiens fans. I mean, if Price doesn’t perform, he’ll end up being traded. Was it right to trade Halak? Who knows. The present is what it is. Just wish your team the best and cheer them on. That’s what support is about. Booing and taunting your own players is assinine and childish. There are plenty of fans of opposing teams out there to do that for us.

If this kid fails, we fail. Unless that’s what you’re hoping for, change your tune before October, or it’ll be a long, painful season.

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