Les Miser-Habs

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:35 AM ET

In Montreal, Alex Kovalev has gone from toast of the town, to toast.

Carey Price has gone from "up and comer" to "down and outer".

If this team loses any more key players to injuries the trainer's room could double as the set for ER. And, when the Canadiens went into Washington last night having won three times in the last 13 attempts, who gets called up to fix things? Greg Stewart: A guy with seven goals ... in the minors. Who knew when Rocket Richard was laid to eternal rest, it would be a case of him predeceasing his team.

The season started with talk of winning a Stanley Cup to celebrate the franchise's centenary. It is less than a month since Kovalev sat on a podium as the All-Star Game MVP, declaring unflailing devotion to the tradition of Les Glorieux. Now, with one goal and five assists since Jan. 20, he just skates like he's 100 years old.

He's such a liability, his own team is asking him not to show up. Reports yesterday had Kovalev telling a Russian newspaper he will never play for the Habs again.

He's turned the calculating, plodding Bob Gainey into a frenzied George Steinbrenner personnel manipulator. Sit Kovalev. Dump Sergei Kostitsyn. Bench Price. Press panic button ...

It's as if Gainey drank the Kool-Aid that used to grace the corporate table at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment when it thought bringing back Doug Gilmour or Wendel Clark was a good idea. And, we all know how (ouch!) that turned out. But, Gainey gives up two perfectly good draft picks for Mathieu Schneider. Great deal - 10 years ago. Today? Well, that dog don't hunt.

Any other team, the coach would probably get fingered. But Guy and Bob are tighter than lint on wool. So, in the sports version of shock and awe, Gainey tells the slumping Kovalev not to bother showing up in Washington. Oh, and Price? The franchise's goalie of the future is just a bad rebound away from a ticket to Hamilton.

Where did it all start to go wrong? Maybe they could blame it on Mats Sundin, afterall, that always seems to work for Maple Leafs' fans. Some might suggest the team's anniversary prospects began to unravel when the Habs acquired the rights to Sundin but failed to sign him.

Since then this has been a winter's journey into discontent. The federal and provincial seperatist parties just this week spearheaded cancellation of the re-enactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham citing it as an "insult" to French Quebecers. There is some evidence that a similar excuse could be made to cancel the rest of the Habs' season.

The anguished denizens of Habland haven't been taken for chumps like this since a musclehead named Drapeau came down from Mt. Olympus and shouted: "Let the Games begin." But, Montreal hockey fans are much like their estranged Mapleschmuk cousins. They are besotted with devotion. United in grief. Ever hopeful.

When the team loses it is taken as a personal insult. So websites are full of invective and bloggers talk of being "embarassed" -- as if they believe Price is playing poorly so he can see them spit beer up through their noses when he turns on the red light.

The sense of betrayal among fans was fed when photos appeared on the internet of Price chugging a beer. Not sure what people expect of athletes but evidently having alcohol touch their lips is appropriate only if they're drinking it out of, oh I don't know ... the Stanley Cup?

Not to mention, he is seen in the company of women. Not that, like some Maple Leafs, they faked him out of his underwear but, he is smoking. A cigarette! Beelzebub. Talk show lines bristle.

Not sure what this has to do with him stopping a puck, but from public reaction evidently it is the worst thing to happen to this franchise since - ahhh, I don't know ... Guy Lafleur?

All he did was smoke himself into the Hall of Fame. Probably not the way you'd want your kid, or Price, to do it. But having a beer and getting chased by women is pretty much a part of pro sports. Always has been. We just didn't have cell phone cameras and the internet to show the world every cheezy pick-up line from Wilt Chamberlain to Joe Namath.

Today, Chris Chelios is regarded with grandfatherly warmth but when he was with the Canadiens in the 1980s his biography could've pretty much been summed up by watching Animal House. Chelios' carousing didn't make his game go bad and Price's problems -- by all indications -- aren't to be found either at the bottom of a bottle.

His problem, much like Kovalev's, seems to be a lack of focus, a fleeting determination, perhaps even a loss of ambition. Maybe a player can get away with that in Atlanta, or Los Angeles but not in front of 20,000 fans at every home game in places like Toronto or Montreal. The fans, the media, even the tradition of the team itself, demands at least the attempt to achieve excellence.

Anything less is seen as a betrayal of trust. A player who does not excel is a mockery to tradition. So in a Montreal newspaper a recent story on Kovalev carried the headline: "Play or Leave."

That all-star night of Jan. 26, his 6-year-old son perched at Kovalev's side, seems lost in a time warp now. "You can't ask for a better package than this," said Kovalev. "This is something you remember for the rest of your life."

Less than a month later that life -- or at least his part of it dressed in the pride of Les Habitants -- hangs on the cusp of becoming a footnote in franchise history.


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