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Call it the innocence of youth, but back in our younger days we tended to put all of those who wore the bleu, blanc, et rouge on a pedestal. And while Montreal was our favorite team we had a special fondness for the men who wore the uniform. We idolized them, we imitated them, we followed their every move, and we hoped that one day we would somehow become one of them.
When we played goal we shook our necks like Patrick Roy, when we scored a goal we would do a Stephane Richer arm pump, and when we'd block a shot we would think we were just like Guy Carbonneau.
Even now, as the years pass, we still look back at the players we grew up with, and we reminisce with a special fondness. It brings back memories of a simpler time when life was a little less complicated.
Memories of when Guy Carbonneau was our captain, when Chris Chelios calmly manned the point, when Patrick Roy stole games from other teams. When there was nothing more important in the world than the Habs game that night. When it seemed like 7:30 would never arrive. When you traded your Mario Lemieux rookie card straight up for a Craig Ludwig because you needed him to complete the team set.
Unfortunately, as we grow up we lose a little bit of our innocence, as your dreams slowly evolve into realities. We learned the tough lessons of the business of hockey. We watch helplessly as our captain is traded for Jim Montgomery and then goes on to win the Cup in Dallas. We wonder what might have been when Chris Chelios wins Norris trophy after Norris trophy. We see Patrick Roy winning Cups and Conn Smythe's for Colorado like he once did for us.
We see players hold out for more money, we see owners trade players and get nothing in return, we see the league become a marketing tool, we see teams pop up in cities where they don't know the first thing about hockey, we see cities that love hockey lose their teams. As we get older we slowly become more jaded.
In spite of all this we still cheer for the Habs. At some point there comes that day where you come to the stunning realization that now instead of cheering for the players, you cheer for the sweater. It's not that you don't like the current players, but you don't wildly cheer for them like you did in younger days. Where once there was blinding adulation, there is now a steady stream of criticism, because the now isn't what it used to be, at least in our minds and hearts.
And then comes along that special player that makes you stand up and take notice, that rare player that you cheer for, that player that makes you proud that the Montreal Canadiens are your favorite team.
Chris Higgins is that type of player.
For me Chris Higgins represents the best of this new breed of youngsters that have slowly started to assert themselves as the foundation for the Canadiens future. And while his hockey skills are undeniable, it is the other intangibles that Higgins brings to the table that make him a player worthy of our cheers.
Chris Higgins is that unique player that has first line talent but plays like a fourth liner; a player who plays as if every shift is his last. He is in many ways the most versatile forward on the Habs roster, he excels on the power play, he is a threat on the penalty kill, and he can play all three forward positions. But more importantly it is how he plays the game.
His focus on the game and what it takes to succeed is unmatched. He never complains about his injuries no matter how serious, and also never uses them as a crutch for his performance. He brushes off credit for his play, and always speaks in terms of team. His off-season workout regiment has become legendary and he is consistently the Hab who scores the highest marks on the team’s fitness test.
Nowhere was all this more apparent than in Higgins 2006-07 season. In his first thirteen games Higgins recorded 13 points until his season came to a screeching halt on November 7th with an ankle sprain so severe that the Montreal doctors had never seen anything like it.
On February 20th against the Washington Capitals, Higgins scored his 15th and 16th goals of the season in the first period before leaving in the third period because of injury. After missing the next game against Nashville, Higgins suited up on February 24th against the Islanders and scored his 17th goal of the year.
All of this was accomplished with a broken collarbone. At the time no one was aware of the injury until it first came to light during the dog days of summer. This is typical of Chris Higgins. He doesn’t search for personal accolades or our sympathy; instead he quietly goes out and plays the game.
Even with the broken collarbone Higgins continued to shine as the Habs made their desperate push for a playoff spot. A four point game against the Bruins on March 22nd was followed by three points in the Habs last and most important game of the season against the Maple Leafs.
Months later as the season became a memory it was Higgins who still seethed about the loss.
“A lot of guys were genuinely upset for a long time after the season about the way things ended up,” Higgins remarked to Montreal Gazette reporter, Dave Stubbs, at the beginning of this year’s training camp. “We have a lot of things we want to show a lot of people this year.”
It was later revealed that in the dressing room after that last loss to the Leafs, that no one took the loss harder or more personally than Higgins.
With the departure of veteran leaders Sheldon Souray and Craig Rivet a leadership vacuum was created inside the Canadiens dressing room. Into the void has stepped Chris Higgins. Along with Saku Koivu on the first day of the team’s training camp, it was Higgins who put himself out there, boldly stepping out into the swarm of reporters and proclaimed to all that the Habs were ready to surprise.
Chris Higgins has gone from highly touted prospect, to established star, to now team leader. In many ways he has grown up right before us. As for what the future holds, Higgins’ personal trainer Dan DiFloria summed it up best when he spoke to Dave Stubbs of the Montreal Gazette.
“Chris is not going to be satisfied with anything less than the Stanley Cup for his team, and until he has those 40-40 (goals and assists) seasons. He feels responsible not only for himself, but for the guys around him, and he’s showing what it’s like to be a team member all year. His character will enable other players to live up to his work ethic.”
Sounds like a player who realizes that his future is now, a player that we can all proudly cheer for, a player who represents all that is good about the Montreal Canadiens.
And besides who couldn’t love a player, whose father is a die hard Habs fan, a man who named his oldest daughter Jeanne, after the classiest of all Habs; the incomparable Jean Beliveau.