P.J. Stock was born and raised in Montreal and he still keeps his home there. But his best memories as an NHL player came wearing the sweater of his hometown Canadiens’ arch-rival, the Boston Bruins.
When the two meet up for a record 34th time in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs — with Game 1 starting Thursday night in Boston — Stock, who also briefly played with the Canadiens, will keep his loyalties to himself.
But he said his home city, which lives and breathes hockey, is abuzz with anticipation.
"Everyone’s jacked," said Stock, now a broadcaster for the CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada. ". . . For fans, for media, for people around, this is exactly what you want. This is the dream scenario. This is perfect. As a fan, as media, as people watching, you’re hoping that that hate is still there. That’s what we want. That’s what we’re hoping."
The archetypes could not be more stark. With players like 6-foot-9, 260-pound Zdeno Chara, the punishing wing Milan Lucic and fourth-line tough guy Shawn Thornton, the Bruins rely on a style of defense and physical intimidation, the way they did in the 1970s when they won the Stanley Cup as "The Big Bad Bruins." But just as those teams had Bobby Orr, this team possesses a high skill level, too, with some of the game’s top two-way centers in David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron.
On the other hand, Montreal, the NHL’s most storied franchise, wins with players like P.K. Subban, who earned the 2013 Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman as a result of his dazzling skill and skating ability. Stock pointed out that 22 players in the NHL stand 5-foot-9 or shorter. Four are in the Western Conference and 18 are in the East. Five of them play for the Canadiens: David Desharnais (5-7), Daniel Briere, Francis Bouillon (5-8), captain Brian Gionta (5-7) and Brendan Gallagher.
So not only does it represent a classic rivalry, it also will serve up the classic matchup of size vs. skill.
Stock said so much of what makes a great rivalry is not goals but other on-ice incidents. This rivalry is chock full of them. Arguably the most famous game in the series history of nearly 900 combined regular season and playoff games came in Game 7 of the 1979 semifinal playoff round. Boston led 4-3 with less than four minutes left in regulation, but the Bruins were called for a penalty for too many men on the ice. Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur tied the game with 1:14 left in regulation, the Canadiens claimed the series in overtime and went on to win the Cup in the next round. The loss in that series led to the firing of Bruins coach Don Cherry, launching him into a career as one of the most recognizable media figures in Canada.
The victory was emblematic of a period of decades in which the Canadiens held a mastery over the Bruins. They won 18 straight playoff series over Boston from 1946 to 1987.
In the 1980s, the Canadiens’ toughest player was a Boston native, Chris Nilan. Nilan holds the franchise record for both career (2,248) and single-season penalty minutes (358). In his book "Fighting Back," published last year, Nilan wrote of his first training camp in Montreal, "I was still in awe, but I skated with a determination, and with a residual dislike of the Montreal Canadiens."
When the Canadiens won the Cup in 1986, Nilan wrote of celebrating with notorious Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger. Nilan ended up marrying Karen Stanley, the daughter of Bulger’s longtime girlfriend, Teresa Stanley, who was caught with Bulger in hiding in California several years ago.
The Bruins finally broke the hex against the Canadiens in 1988 with the help of a son of Montreal, defenseman Ray Bourque. That victory turned the tide in the rivalry, as Boston has won seven of the past 11 meetings.
One of those meetings came in 2002 when Stock was playing for the Bruins and one of the series’ more infamous incidents played out. In Game 4, the Bruins, the top seed in the East, were leading 5-2 late and would go on to win and even the series at two games apiece. But not before Canadiens forward Richard Zednik, who led his team in scoring in the series despite playing in only four games, entered Boston’s zone carrying the puck with his head down and 6-foot-4, 219-pound Boston defenseman Kyle McLaren delivered a vicious elbow to Zednik’s head, knocking Zednik unconscious. McLaren was suspended for three games and Montreal won the series in six games.
Stock said incidents like that up the ante in rivalries. He said in the modern NHL, players have short tenures with teams so the rivalries among the players are not as intense as they used to be. In this case, there is some carryover. Three years ago in a regular season game, Chara rode Montreal wing Max Pacioretty into a stanchion, breaking Pacioretty’s neck. The Montreal police later conducted an investigation to decide whether to press charges against Chara. They ultimately did not.
"A 6-0 win doesn’t do anything besides, ‘We have to be better guys, that can’t happen,’" Stock said. "Chara breaking Pacioretty’s neck, ‘I want to kick that guy’s ass.’ You know? ‘Let’s get them. Let’s all get them.’ And it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what team you played on before. … You just did this to our best player, let’s get him and then en route to getting him, you might get somebody else and now they’re saying, ‘If you’re going to do that to my guy, now I’m going to do it back to your guy.’
"And it’s unfortunate but you do need that violence to light the flame in a rivalry."
Such is hockey. In terms of which team wins, Stock said he is in a no-win situation. He said the happiness of Montrealers is intimately linked to their team’s fate. When the Canadiens do well, he said, the city does well.
"If the Bruins win then everyone hates me," he said, "because ‘your stupid Bruins team, they only believe in beating people up.’ So I’m kind of stuck on whoever wins."
He might be stuck, but with this series hockey fans in general will win.