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Habs are closest thing to 'Canada's team,' poll says @NHLdotcom

MONTREAL - Canada's oldest hockey team is also this country's most revered, according to a new poll released Monday in celebration of the Montreal Canadiens' 100th anniversary.

A third of respondents named the Habs when asked to identify 'Canada's team,' compared with a quarter who said the same for their archrival Toronto Maple Leafs.

Twenty-eight per said no franchise could claim to be Canada's team. As for the country's other squads, they were also-rans in the hypothetical contest: the Ottawa Senators, Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers garnered two-to five-per-cent support apiece.

Andrew Cohen, president of the Historica-Dominion Institute which commissioned the Ipsos-Reid poll, said he actually thought support for the Habs would be higher.

"A third of Canadians - which is still higher than any other team - is still a substantial number of Canadians," he said.

"It may be because the Canadians haven't won a cup since 1993 and when you're not winning, as it were, you're not top of consciousness."

Cohen, whose organization studies and promotes Canadian history and heritage, said the Habs aren't just a part of our sports history but have also become entrenched in Canadian culture unlike any other team and have helped bridge the country's linguistic divide.

Some of that may be owed to Roch Carrier's famous children's book, "The Hockey Sweater." The 1979 tale recounts the horror and humiliation of a small-town Quebec boy who is forced to wear a Maple Leafs jersey when all his peers are sporting Maurice (Rocket) Richard's No. 9.

It's now a curriculum favourite in elementary schools across the country and a scene from the story is featured on the back of the $5 bill.

Cohen said the proliferation of NHL teams in Canada since the late 1960s has likely served to split allegiances.

The Canadiens are the oldest surviving pro hockey franchise, dating back to the 1909-10 season. The Toronto Arenas - who later became the Maple Leafs - were born in 1917, the same year the NHL was created.

"Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton are newer teams and they just haven't got that iconography that the Canadiens have," Cohen said.

"It's hard to call yourself a national team if you haven't been around for a long time."

Of the 1,015 Canadians surveyed, just under half called the Habs the greatest hockey team in history, while two-thirds agreed the Montreal Canadiens are to hockey what the New York Yankees are to baseball.

Despite Montreal's 16-year Stanley Cup drought, four in 10 Canadians are prepared to bet on a win within the next five years.

Meanwhile, three-quarters of Canadians predict the Habs will hoist the cup for a record 25th time before the Leafs - who haven't won since 1967 - get another one.

The deep-seated rivalry between Montreal and Toronto plays out in the stats just as it does on the ice.

Although it won't happen as long as the teams remain in the same NHL conference - and as long as the Leafs keep failing to even make the playoffs - 44 per cent of Canadians say they'd cheer for the Habs compared to 38 per cent who would cheer for the Leafs if the two were matched up for the Stanley Cup.

But not all is flowers and rainbows for the Montreal Canadiens. More than half of respondents said the team's best years are behind it.

There's another disparity in the answers from Ontario and Quebec - this one's over the Rocket Richard vs. Jean Beliveau debate.

A strong majority of Quebecers - 62 per cent - said Richard was the best Habs player ever, while only 44 per cent of Ontarians said the same. Ontarians (17 per cent) were more likely than Quebecers (nine per cent) to say Beliveau was the best player ever.

Cohen says the Canadiens' cultural importance extends beyond players' exploits on the ice.

He notes that game announcements have long been made in both official languages in Montreal, where even the national anthem has, before games, historically been sung in both English and French.

"The Canadiens have always been a wonderful mix of French and English," he said. "The Canadiens are in many ways emblematic of Canada."

Carrier's classic tale even playfully highlights some of the tensions between Canada's two solitudes. The main character is benched for wearing a Toronto jersey, yet his mom refuses to return it so as not to offend the Anglo owner of the department store - a "Mr. Eaton" - where the jersey was purchased via catalogue.

Even the language tensions that ultimately drove many English-speakers from Quebec during the 1970s may, Cohen says, have played a role in the team's widespread appeal.

Cohen himself was born and raised in Montreal. He's now been away from the city for longer than he lived there yet the Ontarian, who splits his time between Ottawa and Toronto, remains a staunch Habs fan. It's an allegiance he even passed down to his son.

"People leave and . . . I think those loyalties go with them," he said.

"I think it's why there are pockets of support (for Montreal) all across the country."

The Ipsos-Reid survey has an estimated margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, and is considered accurate 19 times out of 20.

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