The Meaning of Carey Price
Whenever management trades or pays a beloved player, a chorus of eternal killjoys rises from the dark depths of their accounting offices, groaning that hockey is a business. We saw it when Connor McDavid signed for $12.5 million a season, and we saw it when the Canadiens announced they’d be paying star goaltender Carey Price $10.5 million for the maximum 8-year term. The verdicts are swift and merciless.
The killjoys aren’t wrong, of course. Asset management and the allocation of limited resources are absolutely vital to the success of any organization. Teams that spend foolishly will eventually pay for their poor decisions with failure.
But that’s not really what I want to talk about.
There’s meaning in the game that transcends any reduction to business. This is, perhaps, nowhere truer than in Montreal.
The Canadiens live in their history as deeply as any franchise in sport. It is deadly serious. Watch a single pregame ceremony at le Centre Bell, and you’ll get a sense of the Catholic profundity that links the present team to all those that came before. The torch that sets the arena ablaze, passed from player to player and generation to generation, is no simple prop.
Since the 1950s, two lines of John McCrae’s immortal poem have adorned the Canadiens dressing room: “To you, from failing hands, we throw/ The torch: be yours to hold it high.” The rest is implied, and it is no reduction to the poem’s essential spirit that it appears in such a place. There is due reverence. Sitting here in McCrae’s hometown, having grown up a Catholic Canadiens fan, I feel it.
There have been many torchbearers, legends at every position that exemplify their moment in Canadiens history while reflecting the best of their forebears. A special significance has always been reserved, however, for the goaltender. But not just any goalie who happens to don the sacred CH; Montreal saves its deepest love only for a saviour.
Of course the trophy for the top goaltender in the NHL is named for Montreal Canadiens legend Georges Vezina. He sits at the head of a line of goaltending excellence that stretches across the history of the franchise. Vezina. Plante. Dryden. Roy.
The line of succession, however, wasn’t unfailingly continuous. Sometimes, season after season passed without a worthy heir.
Shortly after the infamous Patrick Roy trade of 1995, it seemed as though a curse had been set. With no one of note in goal, the Canadiens failed to make the playoffs for three seasons from 1999 to 2001. Jose Theodore emerged to win a Hart trophy, then promptly settled into mediocrity. Cristobel Huet suddenly became an all star, only to fall back down to earth just as quickly.
Almost 10 years after the departure of Saint Patrick, the Forum Faithful were still searching for their saviour. Did general manager Bob Gainey, who as a player had won championships with both Dryden and Roy, sense this desperation, this deep need? He used his first round pick, 5th overall, to draft goaltender Carey Price. The expectations were instant and enormous.
As early as 2008, just the second half of Price’s first season with the Canadiens, it was clear fans were desperate to anoint the rookie. The nickname “Jesus Price” (perhaps inspired by Sean Price’s 2007 album “Jesus Price Supastar”) was beginning to stick, as evidenced by this … remarkable video:
The faith of the fanatics was tested in the years to follow: Price struggled at times, turning in as many (relatively) weak as strong seasons, fighting through playoff failures. The 2010 playoffs looked like a breaking point in Price’s career: Jaroslav Halak took over in goal and guided the Canadiens past the heavily favoured and offensively potent Penguins and Capitals in consecutive rounds. Memes of Halak’s face on religious art and sculpture started to circulate. Whispers, then rumblings of a Price trade arose. Was 31 just another false messiah, another promising talent brought low by the crushing pressure of a city desperate for divinity?
It turned out that management’s belief in Price was unwavering: Halak was traded for two prospects, drawing the ire of some very prominent Canadians.
WHAT!?!? Halak for two hockey sticks and a bag of magic beans… I miss Bob. #Habs
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) June 17, 2010
In 2010-11, Price responded by posting the best statistical season of his career to that point while appearing in a whopping 72 games, rekindling the flickering hope of the city in the process. But it wasn’t until the arrival of goalie coach Stephane Waite before the 2013-14 season that Price began to put to bed the doubts that had lingered since his sophomore season.
With a game retooled for greater efficiency and consistency, Price went on the best run of his career. He brought home a gold medal with Canada at the Olympics in 2014 and then carried the Canadiens to the Conference Finals that same season before being felled by a knee injury.
At last, it seemed Price had grown into his early promise, and was ready to become the salvation the fans of Montreal needed: symbolically, this was perfectly expressed at the 2014-15 season-opening ceremony where Price received the torch from Canadiens legend Ken Dryden.
It was as though the Canadiens had anticipated, even scripted, Price’s annus mirabilis starting with that remarkable gesture. Price somehow outdid his previous season’s success, and elevated an already world-class game to new heights.
He won the Vezina Trophy without any real competition, shared the Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed, and captured the Hart and Lindsay trophies for most valuable player in the league (as voted by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, and the players, respectively). He had earned his place in the immortal line of Canadiens goaltending history: Vezina. Plante. Dryden. Roy. Price.
Despite a season lost to injury, and a merely very good (rather than otherworldly) campaign in 2016-2017, Price is still widely considered the best goaltender in hockey today. His technique is second to none, and the smooth efficiency of his edge work and skating is a model other goaltenders strive to emulate.
Price has become a living legend in Montreal not only for his skill, but also because he demonstrates a rare combination of team-first loyalty and individual intensity that marks the quiet power of his leadership. Sometimes, you need to give a teammate a boost.
And at other times, you have to make known precisely how displeased you are with the coach’s decision.
Though Price is surely getting paid because of his elite skills and personal qualities, his meaning to the Canadiens and their fans is greater than the sum of even those extraordinary parts. When you believe the best goaltender in the world is behind you, you always have a chance to do something incredible.
The Canadiens organization and fans are fiercely proud: an elite goaltender prevents the kind of embarrassment the team suffered in Price’s absence two seasons ago. In a market that has never known a rebuild, Carey Price ensures that the team, even as it ages and declines, won’t plummet to the bottom of the standings. He is an embodiment of ultimate hope while the team is good, and a ward against utter humiliation when the team is no longer competitive.
Speaking cynically and politically, it’s doubtless that Price’s contract serves other less lofty purposes as well. A great goaltender can mask roster holes that management hasn’t been able to plug, poor organization-wide player development, and coaching decisions that pull the team in the wrong direction. From this perspective, Price is an insurance policy purchased to ensure everyone keeps their jobs.
For the fans, though, and for the team in its fullest and truest sense, Price is much more. He is the link, missing for so long, to the team’s historic greatness, an extension into the future of the powerful past’s incredible legacy. He is a channel of hope for a new generation of Habs fans, their chance to live the glory they’ve known only through their parents’ legends.
The cost may be steep, but the price had to be paid.