I wish I could remember why I chose Lyle Odelein as my favorite player on the Canadiens. He was an old-school defenceman, tough and reliable, with many, many penalty minutes each season, but a player that could be relied on. He wasn’t flashy, although he did score a hat-trick once which absolutely delighted me. Somehow I ended up with his rookie card, and one year for Christmas, I got an Odelein jersey from my then-boyfriend. I watched him win the Stanley Cup in 1993, watched the hat-trick game, followed his stats, payed attention when he was on the ice, and just decided, yup, this guy is my favorite. He was drafted 141st overall for goodness sake! Maybe it’s because he was, well, kinda funny looking. Maybe because there were better, cuter, flashier players on the Canadiens at the time, but teenaged me choose the one who was none of those things, but successful and respected nonetheless.
I am compelled to try and remember why I gravitated to him after reading about how Odelein recently almost died. On October 11th, the Canadiens will celebrate the 1993 Cup winning team (before a game against the Kings, no less #burn), and Odelein will be there, and I will be watching, in my jersey, trying not to cry. I hope the Bell Center raises the roof for him. That whole team was special, but knowing now that Odelein almost died (seriously, it’s worth the subscription to The Athletic just for the description of his harrowing and completely unexpected ordeal) makes me appreciate him all the more.
I’ve been recently writing for a new online publication, Popula, and my beat so to speak has evolved into explaining Quebec to not-Quebeckers. I’m also teaching an online course on Quebec language and culture. It just so happens that Quebec had an election where a center-right party took control of the National Assembly and the hockey season started the same week that my students are reading about the Richard Riots and the 1960s and 1970s nationalist movement, just after learning about Duplessis.
The students are researching things like poutine and smoked meat and Carnival and Quebec’s unique education system and the Habs (why is the nickname for the Canadiens “the Habs” anyway?) and the Alouettes for their final projects. No one chose the Expos, unfortunately, but someone did choose Expo ’67. They all have lovely ways of pronouncing the names of people and places and things that they always apologize about in their videos. I’m trying to get them to connect the various phases and movements within Quebec’s history to their own experiences and culture, their own connection with language and religion and place.
I’m also writing a memoir right now about the year 1995 in my life. I’m finding myself re-immersing myself in Montreal, in Quebec, in ways that I wasn’t expecting, but obviously needed to do. I joked that my MA in Comparative Canadian Literature is FINALLY paying off, 20 years later, where I am finally professionally employed to do what my degree trained me for, explaining Quebec to people.
I have a long history of explaining Quebec to people. I started having to explain to people where I was from when I was 17 and started CEGEP. I was from the West Island, the cluster of Anglophone suburbs on the western end of the Island of Montreal. I went to CEGEP downtown, in Westmont, the place where very wealthy Anglophones lived. I had to explain that no, the West Island wasn’t just farms and summer homes and an airport. They called it the Waste Island. These people were rich, they traveled (I know because they would always be casually mentioning all the places they had been and by the way where had I been?), did they not notice all the houses they flew over when they landed at the airport?
When I went to Sherbrooke for university, I had to explain where I was from, yet again, assuring some of my classmates that, yes, I am Anglo, and yes, I am from Quebec. I had to explain that the Island of Montreal wasn’t the entire city of Montreal (not yet, anyway), and that there was a place where we all lived on the island. They all explained not-Montreal Quebec to me. I read and read and read Québécois literature from all over the province, made friends with people from everywhere in the province and beyond, listened and learned.
And then I went to Edmonton, Alberta, to do my PhD, and found myself teaching comparative Canadian literature to undergrads. This is really when I started explaining Quebec to people. Alberta in particular had a certain view of Quebec, but didn’t know a lot of the history of the province and the people and the culture. So I explained and taught and read and wrote. I studied translation and thought about issues of transculturation, appropriation, and audience.
And then I moved to the States to start all over and left Quebec behind, literally and figuratively.
The Canadiens were the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup. It was 25 years ago. I was in grade 10, or Sec IV as we called it. They won 10 games in a row in overtime, a feat that has never been repeated. It also meant there were a lot of late nights staying up watching hockey. The Finals themselves, against the Kings, who at the time had the greatest hockey player of all time on their team, were right during final exams. We showed up for our science exam the morning after the Habs won, and our science teacher hadn’t slept all night, having been at the game and then caught up in the subsequent riots. He had on his official Stanley Cup champions t-shirt, and we could all barely contain our excitement as we tried to concentrate on our final exam.
A few days later, we ditched out of our math final exam after only an hour or two and my dad drove me, my best friend, her boyfriend, and my boyfriend in his red Dodge Colt two-door hatchback downtown for the parade. We were at the end of the parade route, and by the time the parade reached us, the players were so drunk they could barely stand, let alone hold the Cup over their heads in celebration. We have pictures of all the players drunk out of their minds, covered in beer, but none of the Cup. My dad took a picture of Patrick Roy holding the Cup up at the beginning of the parade off the TV recap later that night, just so we had one.
It was the last time a Canadian team won the Cup. It was the last time the Canadiens won the Cup. The Habs have won the most Cups, are one of the most decorated professional sports teams in North America, if not the world. The years ticked by, and once we crossed the “longest period between Cups” threshold, it seemed (and still seems) that we may never win another one. Entire generations have no memory of their hockey team winning the Cup.
I can’t really blame anyone for not knowing where I grew up, where, exactly, I am from. There are so many books about different parts of Montreal, so many different insider accounts of the city, from Mordecai Richler to Leonard Cohen to Michel Tremblay to Rawi Hage to Gabrielle Roy and everyone in between. Montreal, especially in the 1990s, was a dark, dangerous city. It is an interesting city to write about because of the clash of peoples and languages and religions.
No one has ever written about the West Island. It isn’t so much of a clash of anything other than a group of people steadfastly resisting…something. We were never on the news much save for a moment in the 1990s when the “Angry Anglos” or Anglo Rights Activists were making noise about protecting the English language in the province, largely in the West Island, but also in the richer western parts of the city, like Westmont.
When I began really studying Quebec literature, I was most drawn to novels set in Montreal by immigrant writers. I devoured La Québécoite by Régine Robin and Comment faire amour avec un Nègre sans se fatiguer by Dany Laferrière among others. The way they described Montreal was as outsiders looking in, the same way I felt about the city I grew up adjacent to. I was an outsider looking in. Robin imagines three different lives for herself trying to integrate into various Montreal communities, while Laferrière spends his time sleeping with rich, white girls from Westmont, girls I recognized from CEGEP.
I didn’t realize that I was looking for a book that described where I grew up, where I lived, in this strange in-between place, an Anglophone enclave in a Francophone province, a largely ethnically homogeneous place right next to the multiethnic city. It’s not like that anymore, and it probably wasn’t even that way when I was growing up, but a child’s view is as narrow as they are allowed to travel, and at least my neighborhood was largely white, middle-class, and Anglophone. Most of the neighborhoods we circulated in where as well.
Nothing I ever read in literature ever felt like home to me.
I went to Sherbrooke in 1996, one year after the Quebec Nordiques moved to Colorado, one year after Patrick Roy, two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Canadiens, was traded to those same Colorado Avalanche, the year that the Avalanche won the Cup themselves.
For most of Quebec’s history, Les Canadiens were Quebec’s team. It was always stocked with players from all over the province, and stood in for national pride, something that Quebec could claim was there’s, that they could claim to be better than anyone else in. But Montreal was being increasingly seen as not-Quebec, not really. And in the 1980s, kids my age in the rest of the province had a team they could call their own, the Nordiques. It was also a rebellion against their parents and grandparents who were largely still Habs fans.
Most of my friends in Sherbrooke grew up cheering for the Nordiques and transported their fandom to the Avalanche. So many of them also chose Sherbrooke because they didn’t want to go to the big city, to where (as one of my classmates put it) “all the immigrants and punks lived.” It wasn’t really Quebec to many of them; too much English, too many immigrants, too many accents that weren’t Québécois, too much urban, too much crime and debauchery.
They were some of the same arguments my own parents had made when they forbade me from traveling with friends into the city while I was a young teenager. Certainly, the Hell’s Angels and Rock Machine gangs were busy blowing each other up. And yes, unemployment was high. And yes, tensions were high between Anglophones and Francophones at that moment. But we never ventured further east than Peel unless we were going to see the Expos play, and even then, you just popped out of the metro and you were at the Big O. And so far east that you had crossed back over into suburbs.
My friends and I argued in university, relatively good-naturedly, about how the Avalanche weren’t the Nordiques, that if they were still in Quebec City, the Canadiens would never have traded Roy to them, and Roy was the only reason the team won the Cup. They would just shrug and say that we were dumb enough to trade Roy away to begin with, and I didn’t really have an answer. Little more than 20 years later, we would make another stupid trade, and while it hasn’t quite bit us in the ass the way the Roy trade did, I often wonder if hockey isn’t too much of a religion in Quebec that it would trade away one its best, most charismatic players because he’s unapologetically Black.
I’m writing a book about growing up in the West Island.
It’s not just about growing up in the West Island. It’s about being a Bill 101 baby, growing up in the shadow of the 1980 Referendum, of being adjacent to Montreal during the 1980s and 1990s, of having one parent who was from the same place as the Prime Minister of the country, of voting for the first time in the 1995 Referendum, about choosing, less than a year later, to go to a French university, about moving out west thereafter, about discovering where I am from along the way of explaining it to other people.
It’s about religious school boards and swim teams and summer pools and the 211 bus route and CEGEP and lifeguarding and Fairview and cheap Tuesday movies and an arcade and Annie’s and The Pioneer and Barenaked Ladies and Tragically Hip and Moxy Fruvous and hockey and soccer and Lakeshore Road and rants and MusiquePlus and Les Boys and Jean Leloup and Les Colocs and La Vie, La Vie and Watatatow and Fête Nationale and Vieux Quebec and Les Marches and Les Nerds and Nick Auf der Maur and Red Fischer and Jack Todd and Pulse News and Degrassi and the Expos and the Alouettes and the 90s tech boom and being from a specific place at a specific moment in history.
I realized as I was thinking about pitching this book that I have been working on this from the moment I started at Sherbrooke. My first magazine by-line was a piece in Swim World about the summer pool system I grew up with. I’ve written about language and culture and public transit and living in two languages and translation and representation and music and sports and public transit and…it’s all up here in my head and in my heart. I just need to get it down on the page.
I thought at first that 90k words would be too daunting, too many words for what I was trying to do. Certainly, I wouldn’t have THAT much to say about growing up in the suburbs. And then I go and write almost 2500 words just like that. So, maybe it isn’t so far-fetched that there is something here.
It’s about trying to figure out why Lyle Odelein is my favorite hockey player. Call this a really rough first draft to go along with all the other first drafts I’ve been unconsciously writing all along.