Leafs! Habs! It starts again

There were two famous Canadian rivalries in the NHL between the 1970’s and 1990’s: the Montreal Canadiens and Quebec Nordiques barely could be around each other, and the historical rivalry between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal.

After the Nordiques moved to Colorado in 1995, hockey fans in Ontario and Quebec were left with one rivalry, an ongoing one since 1917 when Toronto was added as a franchise in the NHL.

It is about to re-start again on Thursday night when Montreal visits the Leafs at Air Canada Centre for the season opener.

“Like all duels between the Canadiens and Leafs, the game will be exciting. Both cities strongly support their teams,” said Jean-François Chabot, a journalist at Radio-Canada Sports in Montreal, who has been covering the Habs and NHL for 10 years.

“I expect a close result, and I would predict 4-2 for Montreal,” he said, in an interview with the Toronto Observer.

Chabot knows a lot about hockey rivalries, having written the book La grande rivalité Canadiens-Nordiques published in 2009 — giving a complete historical and cultural scope about why such a rivalry existed between the two NHL francophone teams.

Toronto and Montreal have met over 700 times during the regular season and battled in 15 playoff series, five of them were for the Stanley Cup.

They haven’t played each other in the post season since 1979, and their most memorable games often happen during the regular season.

Since the Leafs last skated the victory lap with the Stanley Cup in 1967, Montreal has won 10 championships.

But those are just numbers.

The duel has a deeper meaning that goes as far as since the earliest settlers arrived in Canada where French-English relations were difficult.

“The rivalry between both cities existed way before hockey,” Chabot said. “The opposition between French Canadians, and English from Britain, language, history and culture were already putting Montreal and Toronto in a permanent opposition.”

Then it was just a question of time before it affected all aspects of the society including sports, especially the national pastime.

Chabot believes that with the NHL growing with more teams, and the games being nationally broadcast on television and radio, it encouraged the rivalry and transformed it into the modern version as we know it today.

Like it or not, the Leafs are carrying a weight of 44 years without a Stanley Cup victory, but it won’t end this year. Most observers believe it’s not for the Canadiens either.

Both teams are still gradually building with veterans and new players on their rosters, and making the playoffs this year would be an accomplishment.

The rivalry will begin again on Thursday night, but coaches for Jacques Martin, Ron Wilson and their players, all they want is to win.