05/19/2010 12:38 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hockey's Les Canadiens Far More Than Just Another Sports Team

The Montreal Canadiens are truly unique in North American sport. They are not just a sport team; they are also a cultural institution.

Forget that ice hockey (along with soccer, it's the most-played sport in the world) was invented near Montreal, by British soldiers batting around puck-like objects on the frozen St. Lawrence River (La Fleuve San Laurent).

That's not the main reason hockey is so important to Montreal, perhaps even more important than it is in the rest of hockey-obsessed Canada, where I lived for several years.

For a long time, many players on Les Canadiens, arguably the most successful professional sports franchise in North American history -- they virtually owned the Stanley Cup for three decades -- were from La Belle Province (Quebec).

The Canadiens generally got the best French-speaking players, and names like Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, Henri "Pocket Rocket" Richard and Jacques Plante are legendary in this cosmopolitan, French-speaking city.

This week, as the Canadiens (even their nickname, the Habs, for Habitants, or rural farmers, is rooted in Quebec's history) play in the National Hockey League Eastern Conference finals against Philadelphia, the city of Montreal pretty much comes to a stop during the games.

As a young French-speaking American sportswriter who arrived at the Montreal Gazette not knowing much about hockey, I soon learned that the Canadiens' old arena, the Forum, was the Lourdes of hockey. (On my first assignment there, to write a post-game story, I was taken aback when I saw the Canadiens' logo on their dressing-room door with a single word under it, "Douches." Then I remembered this was the French word for showers!)

I also learned that the Quebecois consider themselves an oppressed minority like African Americans. Quebec author Pierre Vallieres called his people "Les Negres Blancs d'Amerique," or "White ("n"-words) of America." That's largely why Quebeckers tried to secede from English-speaking Canada. Taking their beloved club du hockey Canadien with them, of course.

Seeing Les Canadiens upset two higher-ranked teams this month - the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins - reminded me how special that team is to the people of Quebec. Seeing the gritty Habs skate past the world's two best players - the Caps' Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby - made it even sweeter. Quebec's license plate reads, "Je Me Souviens," "I remember." The Quebecois remember all that hockey glory -- and their second-class status under the English.

Montreal will always be a special place, even when Les Canadiens are less than special.

I was assigned to cover the 1971 Stanley Cup Parade after the Habs won the championship. I got to ride in one of the cars with the players (the Mahovlich brothers, as I recall).

Easily 500,000 exultant Montrealers lined Ste. Catherine's Street downtown on that sunny day. This American was amazed: There was a tidal wave of fans pushing in on our car, and I never felt in any danger.

"This sure isn't an American city," I thought.

And the Montreal Canadiens aren't just any sports team.

Today, this former sports editor hardly ever watches sports on TV, for a number of reasons you might surmise.

But when it comes to Les Canadiens, I make an exception. They'll be in action next on Saturday.

So, Vas-y, Canadiens! Gagnez la Coupe Stanley!