MONTREAL – After watching Toronto miss the NHL playoffs for a third consecutive season, Leaf Nation must suffer one more indignity – being usurped by the Montreal Canadiens as “Canada’s team.”
A new Canadian Press Harris/Decima survey suggests 40 per cent of Canadians considered the Habs as the country’s hockey team of choice, compared with 24 per cent for the Leafs. The Ottawa Senators, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks were each chosen by only five per cent of those polled.
A similar survey last year placed the Leafs on top with 24 per cent and the Canadiens at 22 per cent.
Adding insult to injury for Toronto fans, support for the Habs was even higher among those who claim to know their hockey.
As many as 50 per cent of self-described “avid fans” chose the Canadiens as Canada’s team. Less than 30 per cent of the diehards picked the Leafs.
Early in the season, many analysts doubted either team would make the playoffs.
But while the Leafs racked up more losses than an Enron investor, the Canadiens finished first in the Eastern Conference and won their first-round matchup against the Boston Bruins.
“Canadians need to identify with a team that represents them somehow,” said Decima pollster Alain Cusson.
“Canadians are generally hard-working people who strive for higher ideals and they identified with the Canadiens’ dream season.”
Also playing in Montreal’s favour is that they are the lone Canadian team still in the playoffs.
Their Cinderella run had a hiccup Monday when Habs snipers were late getting to Philadelphia Flyers netminder Martin Biron. The goalie weathered a third-period rally to give his team a 3-2 win and a 2-1 lead in the series.
As they regroup for Game 4, the Canadiens can be buoyed by the team’s widespread national support.
They were the choice as Canada’s team in every region of the country except Ontario.
And yet even in the very heart of Leaf Nation, some people appeared to have a soft spot for their Original Six rival.
“All the Leafs guys are wishing me well and are telling me they want them to win just because they’re Canada’s team,” said Peter Kilgour, owner of Kilgour’s Bar Meets Grill – a downtown shelter for lonely Canadiens fans in the Big Smoke.
“I have had people tell me ‘I am not a Habs fan but I’m with you guys all the way.”‘
Kilgour, that curious specimen of a Toronto-born Habs fan, predicts most Torontonians now rooting for the Tricolore will abandon the team next year.
But he stressed the appeal of the team goes beyond success on the ice.
“It’s the respect and the class of the organization,” he said. “They have the respect of a lot of hockey fans because of that aspect… Frankly, I think the Leaf ownership doesn’t care as much.”
The survey suggested the Canadiens were more popular than the Leafs across most demographics in the country.
Among the few groups where the Leafs could count on more support were Conservative party supporters under the age of 24.
Troubling figures that raise the question: could being a Leafs fan become a liability for politicians?
“Well if you look at the percentages for the Maple Leafs, I’m not sure that’s the way I’d want to go,” Cusson said laughing.
The survey of more than 1,000 people across the country began April 24, after the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames had been eliminated from playoff action, and ended April 28.
It has a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.