It’s as strange as Montreal without nightlife.
A day after goaltender Carey Price spends time working on a separate sheet of ice with goalie coach Stéphane Waite, after the organization decides Price should go back in nets against Ottawa despite his early season struggles.
Waite is fired. And his firing is announced after one of the few feel-good events of the past month, a 3-1 win over the Senators with Price in goal.
Bizarre, surreal, mystifying, odd, curious and weird.
The Canadiens have long been one of the strangest organizations in sports. Not bad or good, just strange. People are fired for reasons not at all apparent from the outside. Good people. Habs lifers. One day they’re part of the organization, next day they’re gone – and no one knows why.
You could be a traveling secretary like Mimi Lapointe, much beloved by the players and the traveling media.
You could be Dominick Saillant, as solid a media rep as you will find anywhere.
You could be a former Canadiens player who commanded the respect of fans and players and claimed a personal relationship with GM Bob Gainey, like Rick Green and Doug Jarvis. You could be former captain Guy Carbonneau, whose only apparent difficulty was a disagreement with Gainey as to whether or not Price was ready for the NHL.
Heck, you could be a popular goal-scorer like Mike Cammalleri, effectively “fired” during a game in Boston, sent to the room and told to go back to your hotel and no, you were not allowed to take your team jersey when you left.
Weird, weirder, weirdest.
Even in this context, Waite’s firing is jaw-dropping strange. It begs a dozen questions, beginning with why, why now, and who is behind this?
Waite came aboard in 2013, at a time when Price was seen as a superb goalie who hadn’t quite stabilized his game or lived up to the hype. Price had spectacular stretches before Waite, plenty of them – but he was up and down and he had just one really good playoff stretch to his credit, the first-round, seven-game war with Boston in 2010 that he lost to Tim Thomas and the Bruins in overtime.
Enter Waite, and the best phase of Price’s career. A save percentage that was at .905 the year before Waite’s arrival jumped to .927, then .933, .934 and .923. The goals against went from 2.59 to 2.32, 1.96, 2.06 and back to 2.23.
To be fair, Waite has been unable to stop Price’s slow decline since 2017, a decline that has him at a 2.96 goals-against and an .893 save percentage even after giving up just one goal in the win over Ottawa. But Jake Allen has thrived working with Waite.
And why now? You’re in the midst of a short, intense season, under circumstances the league has never seen before. You’re clinging to a playoff spot despite a brutal stretch when the team couldn’t score and Price was good for five goals a game, which led to the firing of head coach Claude Julien and assistant Kirk Muller.
Waite seemed to have helped Price sort it out Tuesday, then he’s gone on Wednesday? Is this someone’s idea of a joke?
In many ways, Price has dominated this franchise since 2011 when Jaro Halak was unceremoniously run out of town for having the temerity to lead the Canadiens to the Eastern Conference final. In the midst of all that, Price took a monumental, stick-throwing hissy fit during a game against the Washington Capitals at home.
It was one of the few occasions when Price has lost it in public, but it was an Olympian display of temper, if nothing else. Price wasn’t happy and he let it be known, in no uncertain terms. Since then, the tail has wagged the dog. With his legion of media enablers and adoring fan-boys, Price has been the dominant figure in the organization, on and off the ice.
He still is. Despite his struggles, Price has started two out of three games since Dominique Ducharme took over. If you thought Ducharme might chart a new course away from such absolute reliance on Price, you thought wrong.
There is, it says here, no way the Canadiens fired Waite without Price’s consent. Perhaps there is bad blood between Waite and Ducharme, maybe they disagreed about starting Price Tuesday night. It’s still highly unlikely that Waite was let go unless Price gave the nod – and far more likely that it was Price himself who initiated the firing.
If Price has a career weakness, it’s work. I was part of the scrum after his first practice at his first training camp, and I was surprised that Price kept complaining about how hard the goalies had to work in the NHL. After his junior career, after the World Juniors, Price still didn’t know how much work was involved in making it to the top in the National Hockey League? It seemed strange then, as strange as Waite’s firing the day after he gets Price out for extra work.
I’m not unhappy to see the Canadiens add Sean Burke, even though it leaves the club without a permanent goalie coach during a critical two-week stretch of the season while Burke clears the quarantine. Burke is where I came in, covering hockey during the 1988 Calgary Olympics when Burke was Team Canada’s star goalie. The guy has a resumé longer than both his long arms put together.
But Waite’s firing leaves an extremely bad taste, especially coming on the heels of the club’s most satisfying win in a month. When it comes to information, the Canadiens are sealed up like the Kremlin, so we’re unlikely ever to know the real reason for Waite’s departure.
But this part you can take to the bank: It does not happen without the active consent and participation of one Carey Price, goaltender.