Rabid Habs

The “Bitter” North American Rivalry

Habs & Leafs fans

Most hockey fans get excited when they hear the words “Montreal Canadiens versus the Toronto Maple Leafs.” The rivalry between the two Canadian teams has been standing strong for the past 98 years. However, in recent years it seems that more Leafs and Habs fans are coming together rather than separating themselves when the two teams meet up in the regular season. On April 11th, the Canadiens will be facing the Leafs in their last game of the regular season and what better way to celebrate the final match up than by looking back at how the rivalry started and why it has watered down quite a bit in the recent years.

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The beginning of this “bitter” rivalry began long before anyone had ever heard of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The tension between English and French-speaking Canadians goes back to 1759, around the time of the French loss of Québec City at the Plains of Abraham. The English Canadians were for the most part of British decent, Protestant, and were associated with the British Crown, while the French Canadians (from Québec and other provinces) were not only of French descent, but were also heavily Roman Catholic in religion and as a group did not possess strong allegiances with the British Crown. Now you’re probably asking yourself, “What does this still have to do between these two specific teams?” Hold on, I’m getting there.

When the NHL was formed in 1917, the differences between the French Canadians and the English Canadians continued all the way to the ice, which became the birth of the rivalry between the Maple Leafs and Canadiens. The Leafs’ fanbase consisted mainly of English-speaking Canadians of British descent (even the team’s logo from 1927 was in essence a stylized version of the Canadian Army’s Cap Badge Insignia during World War One and held significance for Conn Smythe, the longtime owner for the club who had served as an artillery officer during the great war). Back in Montreal, however, the Canadiens were mostly made up of French-speaking Canadians, mainly concentrated in the province of Québec (the Habs also pioneered the use of “O Canada” with bilingual lyrics). Oddly enough, the Canadiens were actually responsible for the Leafs getting into the National Hockey League. At the time, the NHL had barely just been formed and four of the teams wanted to get rid of the Toronto Blueshirts’ owner (they were called the “Blueshirts” since they had no official name yet) but realized they couldn’t just vote him out. While the teams decided to create a new league (the NHL) and didn’t bother inviting the Blueshirts’ owner to join them, the Canadiens owner George Kennedy felt it would be preposterous not to have a team from Toronto in the new league. Also, they needed a fourth team to balance the schedule after the Québec Bulldogs suspended operations due to financial problems. The NHL granted a temporary franchise to the Toronto Arena Company which was later upgraded to a permanent one for the next season for the Toronto Arenas which then became the Toronto St. Patricks and then finally the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1927.

Even after Kennedy helped Toronto grab an NHL spot, the rivalry was still strong and became especially heated after the Montreal Maroons suspended operations in 1938 and never returned, leaving the Habs and the Leafs to be the only Canadian teams in the league for the next 32 years. However, years later the strong hatred between the two slowly watered down and was particularly acute during the 1960s when the two teams reigned exclusively as Stanley Cup champions during the decade. The rivalry had also cooled slightly in 1967 due to the NHL expansion and realignment, giving both fanbases new franchises in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Winnipeg and captured the allegiances of Canadians in Western Canada.

Both teams haven’t faced each other in the playoffs since 1978-79 and many of the superstars from both clubs have switched over to the other side at some point in their careers. Even former-Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden accepted the position of president of the Maple Leafs in 1997 and fought to bring Toronto into the North-East division to give the fans more Habs-Leafs games. You’d think this would truly add fuel to the fire, but both fanbases seem to get quieter each year. So the question is, why? We’ll get there but first, let’s take a look at how fans react to the question, “What is so exciting about watching the Habs and the Leafs play against each other?”

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If you’re a hockey fan and you’re on Twitter, then you’re most likely a part of “Hockey Twitter,” which is a pretty large community of hockey fans who talk about…you guessed it, hockey! So, when I asked the Leafs and Habs fans of “Hockey Twitter” what they thought was so exciting about the two teams meeting up, the results were a lot different than expected:

…a lot different than it was back in the day, huh?

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The reactions above are enough to make you wonder where all of the “hate” and rage went. As I said before, the question still remains: why do both fanbases seem to get quieter each year? The answer: it’s just not what it used to be. There hasn’t been a playoff rivalry between the Canadiens and the Leafs for 48 years, which is a long enough time for the strength of the rivalry as well as fans old and young to calm down. Also, take into consideration that the teams’ other “main” rivals (Montreal and the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings) are ten times greater and have had a long lasting effect on most fans. However, does this mean the rivalry is dead? No, absolutely not. There are still tons of Canadiens and Leafs fans out in the world who despise each other and don’t mind talking a whole lot of trash about the teams on a regular basis but while the rivalry hasn’t been fully killed off, it has definitely been watered down enough where even some Leafs fans can be great friends with Habs fans (I should know, considering I have made a lot of friends who are Leafs fans in the past year).

The Maple Leafs are currently in franchise rebuild mode, which could mean that the 2015-16 season might possibly be the year that the fire gets refuelled if Toronto does in fact make the Stanley Cup playoffs by next year (with trades and fresh young players, you never know). On the other side of the ice, the Montreal Canadiens are still one of the top teams in the NHL who are known to always fight until the bitter end. So, while the “bitter” history between the two doesn’t seem as bitter as it used to be, there’s still a great respect for it and it will most likely come back with a vengeance, so don’t expect it to stay asleep for too long.

(Purchase your Canadiens tickets here. | Achetez vos billets des Canadiens ici.)

Follow Jessica-Lyn on Twitter: @EarlxGreat.

One Comment

  1. SheKnowsHockey

    March 30, 2015 at 4:11 pm

    Great article – thanks for sharing!!