“Two races share today the soil of Canada. These people had not always been friends. But I hasten to say it…It matters not the language people speak, or the altars at which they kneel.”
– Wilfrid Laurier, seventh Prime Minister of Canada (1896-1911)
The intrigue of the Montréal-Toronto rivalry is not just for what it represents on the ice, but what the rivalry stood for as a metaphor for Canada as a nation, particularly in the early part of the rivalry, but still valid to a certain degree today.
The province of Québec, with Montréal its capital and largest city, has long resisted its place within Canada following the English takeover of the territory in 1763, with Québec being a predominantly French speaking, French descending, Catholic province, under the dominant rule of the British Crown, outnumbered across the country by its loyal subjects of English descent and tongue, predominantly of the Protestant faith.
These tensions were highly prevalent when the NHL was formed in 1917, as the Canadian conscription effort during World War I was rejected almost universally in Québec, as its citizens did not want to fight and risk their lives on behalf of the Queen’s Army. At the centre of the fight was Prime Minister Robert Borden, in support of conscription, against the previous PM, Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s first francophone Prime Minister, who supported Canadian nationalism with Québec’s inclusion.
While these motivations did not have to do with the formation of the NHL (as it was the Canadiens who in fact helped establish the Maple Leafs as Toronto’s NHL team), they were evident when Conn Smythe became owner of the team in 1927, changing the team name to the Maple Leafs, named for the Army Badge Insignia from his wartime service. The Leafs would play “God Save The Queen” prior to every game, saluting a portrait of Queen Victoria (followed by Queen Elizabeth). In Montréal, no such tribute was paid to the Crown, and a bilingual rendition of “O Canada” was sung before each game.
The fact that both teams were often stocked with local players helped to further the rivalry, with fans embracing fellow Ontarians and Québecers, respectively, playing for the pride of their city, and on a larger scale, English or French Canada. A major turning point in the Québec nationalism movement was actually the Richard Riots of 1955, where Québecers rioted in the streets following a lengthy suspension to Maurice Richard, the assumption being that the severity of his punishment being due to his being French Canadian.
And while tensions rose during the “Quiet Revolution” of the late 1960’s, followed by separation referendums in 1980 and 1995, the rivalry in fact began to lessen in its tenacity, owing to the expansion of the league, the lessening of meetings per season, and the addition of more teams throughout Canada. Toronto’s shifting to a separate conference in the 1980’s reduced the rivalry to a mere two meetings per season on some occasions, down from up to fourteen games during the Original Six era. Additionally, the Canadiens and Leafs shifted in terms of success in the post-expansion era, with the Habs winning ten Stanley Cups since 1967, while the Leafs have failed to make a finals since then, let alone win their fourteenth Cup.
This is not to say, however, that the rivalry still does not have any its fire left in the present day. Since the Leafs rejoined the Canadiens in the same division in 1998, every meeting between these two still shows a spark of that old flame from the early days of the league in Canada, despite the fact that the league now carries five times as many teams, with players not just from Ontario and Québec, but from across Canada and the globe.
Language, culture and religion may not be the rallying cry of “us vs. them” as it once was thanks to Canada’s ever-evolving multicultural mix, but the notion of two races, two nations within Canada is never more evident than when the Maple Leafs face off against Les Canadiens.