For the first time since his firing 344 days ago, Claude Julien will coach a game within the confines of the TD Garden. He will do so as the head coach of the legendary Montreal Canadiens franchise, unparalleled in their mystique, aura and success.
When the puck drops Wednesday night, the Boston Bruins and their fans will be facing off against the winningest coach in their franchise’s history at home for the first time. This is the man who, from the helm, brought the Stanley Cup back to Boston for the first time in 39 years. He oversaw the renaissance of Bruins hockey, raised it up from the depths after a decade of mediocrity.
And yet, despite this, and despite the wonderful tribute video Julien is bound to receive, his return to Boston is merely a subplot. It’s a piece of a bigger puzzle. A single battle within a war.
This is Bruins versus Canadiens, in Boston.
It doesn’t matter who is on what bench. It doesn’t matter where the two teams are in the standings. Frankly, it doesn’t even matter who is on the ice. Seldom in the modern era of sports are we treated to a contest wherein the crests on the front of the jersey really, truly, mean more than the names on the back.
This is 93 years of crushing defeats and jubilant victories. There have been riots because of this rivalry. Once upon a time the NHL commissioner and his fiancee were pelted with eggs and rotten vegetables because of this rivalry. Men have been seriously injured and sent to hospitals because of this rivalry.
Boston versus Montreal makes grown men throw remote controls across living rooms, if not televisions themselves. Friendships have ended, marriages have been tested and children have been educated on the absolute obligation to loathe the opposing side (and their fans) because of this rivalry.
For my money, this is the most consistent, nasty and vitriolic rivalry in professional North American sports, let alone the NHL.
With the teams in the midst of an eight-day span which features three of these glorious meetings, the proverbial powder keg has been placed next to the fireplace.
Wednesday’s affair will be the 739th regular season meeting between the Black and Gold and the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge; Montreal has won nearly 100 more of those affairs than Boston.
The bitter foes have faced-off in the playoffs 177 times across 34 different series — Montreal has won a staggering 25 of those matchups, including an unprecedented (and frankly, cruel) 18 straight from 1946 through 1987.
No two franchises have gone head-to-head more in the regular season or playoffs than these two. Moreover, you’d be hard-pressed to find a rivalry which has historically been so thoroughly dominated by one team.
The two are a lesson in contrasts. Montreal has won the Stanley Cup 24 times, more than double the total of their closest competition. Boston, on the other hand, has been felled in the Finals an also-record 13 times — seven times by Montreal.
Some of the greatest to have ever laced them up have taken part in this rivalry on both sides and yet, historically, Montreal always seems to have the ace up their sleeve and the shamrock in their pocket. Especially when the games matter most.
A rookie goaltender appeared from thin air to stymie the greatest scoring machine the NHL had ever seen. A one-goal, third period, Game Seven lead (and season) was lost because of one sloppy line change. Most recently, a Presidents’ Trophy-winning Bruins squad was defeated in a game seven, at home, to a Montreal team that finished the regular season 17 points behind them in the standings.
You name it, it happened for the Montreal Canadiens and to the Boston Bruins.
Having said all of this, those not familiar with the rivalry would likely wonder just how this could even be considered one. After all, it reads like one beatdown after another.
“Hatred,” is how I (a dyed-in-the-wool Bruins fan) would respond. “Pure, blind loathing borne of my and my father’s anguish.”
The Rivalry from a Boston Perspective
I was fortunate enough to come of age at a time when the Bruins were beginning to right the ship. After the aforementioned 18-consecutive series losses, Boston finally got the “singe” (monkey, en francais) off their backs in the 1988 Adams Division Finals. It would be the first of five series wins in a span of six meetings. In my life, Boston has claimed seven of the 15 series.
Had I been born in an era in which the Bruins didn’t win roughly half of the meetings between the two perhaps I would have learned by now to merely hope for the best and expect the worst. That, or I would have stopped watching hockey altogether, as per my cardiologist’s orders.
Instead, I watch with bated breath and white knuckles as another one-goal battle unfolds before my eyes, undoubtedly taking months off my life.
It is precisely because of all of the losses (including those which came before our respective times) that the Bruins and their fans have these dates circled on their calendars. For the players themselves, it’s a rivalry game…there’s no doubt about that. It’s a statement game. A chance to reserve a page in this storied rivalry for one’s self for all time.
But for the fans it’s much more than even that.
The players themselves don’t carry years of futility into each contest, playoff or regular season. There isn’t the belief among them that, win by win, the agony, torment and ghosts of yesterday can be soothed.
For most diehard Bruins fans, that is precisely the manner in which the games are viewed. Each game is an hour-long session with a psychiatrist, hopefully chipping away at the wrongs of our past before the clock strikes zero.
Bruins & Whalers Providing Context?
I am not a Montreal Canadiens fan. I never have been and I never will be. I do my best to avoid them at all costs, though I’m sure the vast majority are wonderful people.
And yet, despite the animosity that many Bruins fans feel toward the Canadiens and their fans I would be shocked if that level of hostility were reciprocated.
Why? Because it’s difficult to muster up acrimony toward something over which you so regularly triumph.
I grew up just outside of Hartford, Connecticut. The Whalers were alive and kicking (barely) for the first twelve years of my life. I was a Bruins fan in enemy territory, surrounded on all sides by Whalers fans. I was the regular recipient of their unsolicited opinions regarding my team and, suffice to say, these weren’t things one would say in front of one’s grandmother.
And yet the best I could ever offer up in return was a shrug and a smile. There was nothing to say…my favorite team owned theirs. Even if something particularly nasty was said to me I couldn’t summon the inspiration or desire to fire back. It didn’t matter.
Perhaps someone in Montreal will reach out to me upon reading this and tell me that I’m wrong. But I have a hard time believing that Sugar Ray Leonard ever shared Jake LaMotta’s feelings regarding their rivalry, and I doubt I’d be any more inclined to believe that I’m wrong about Boston and Montreal.
Bruins & Habs Forever Intertwined
When the puck drops Wednesday night, the two are situated in relatively unfamiliar positions. The Bruins are white-hot, going 18-3-4 over their last 25 games, giving them the second best record (adjusted) in the Eastern Conference.
Montreal has stumbled greatly this season in trying to defend last season’s Atlantic Division title. They have the third-worst record in the East, their general manager seems to be halfway out the door and there likely isn’t a player beyond Carey Price, Jonathan Drouin and Shea Weber the team wouldn’t consider unloading.
And yet, therein lies the beauty of this rivalry. If Montreal came into Boston and absolutely beat the pants off the Bruins I wouldn’t be even remotely surprised. These meetings frequently defy logic, the standings, what should happen, et cetera. All of that goes out the window when these two get together.
Claude Julien, for obvious reasons, will likely grab the headlines during and after Wednesday’s affair. But having been on both sides of this rivalry, he would likely be the first person to tell you that this is much bigger than him. And it’s certainly bigger than a regular season game in January.
This is the Boston Bruins and the Montreal Canadiens from The Garden. Plain and simple and perfect.
Enjoy it, if you can.