As I levitated from my couch after the Habs scored in overtime to beat the Las Vegas Knights in game three, I became a Habs fan again—the kind of fan I had been back in the Golden 50s and 70s. After I returned to the couch and savoured the many replays, I thought back to when I had first become a fan.
It was in 1955, before I knew where Montreal was and what hockey was. I had never heard of the sport nor of the Montreal Canadiens. I was seven years old and living in Hajdunánás, a small village in Hungary, a soccer-crazy kid who wanted to be like my hero Sándor Kocsis, the star of the Budapest Honvéd soccer team and a perennial member of the Hungarian national team. They were a world power at the time and he, along with Puskas, one of its stars.
Sunday afternoons, my father, my two cousins and I would be glued to the radio listening to Honvéd’s game of the week. Afterwards, my cousins and I and our friends would gather and replay the game, which they usually won. I was always Kocsis.
At that time (1954), post-war, Hungary was under Communist rule and Russian influence. Times were hard. Staples were hard to come by and luxuries even rarer. We were lucky, though. My aunt had left Hungary after the war and settled in Montreal— in America! To us Canada didn’t exist; America did. Twice a year she would send us a pillow case filled with used clothes that she had collected from people she knew. Used clothes from America were worth their weight in gold.
Their arrival was always a ritualistic event. We’d gather in our bedroom/living room, the stuffed pillow case resting on the bed like a holy object. We sat around the bed, I on my father’s lap, my cousins on their parents’ laps, anxiously waiting for the service to begin.
My mother was in charge. She carefully untied the string and rolled it into a ball, which she placed in a drawer next to the others. She unstitched the pillow case, removing each item and laying it out on the bed. Once that was done, she meticulously folded the pillow case and placed it with the others in the same drawer as the string. Then it began. One by one she held up each piece of clothing as we oohed and ahhed. She started with the most threadbare stained jacket because it was in the lining of these jackets that my aunt always hid a few American dollars and nylon stockings (illegal at the time). These jackets were the most unlikely items to be stolen by the Customs Guards who were known for searching and pilfering from every package coming into Hungary from dirty capitalist America.
The whole village of Hajdunanas awaited the biannual pillows with anticipation. The villagers knew that my parents would sell the clothes they didn’t want. A used piece of clothing from America was better than any new ones made in Hungary (if you could get them). My mother typically sold one pair of the nylon stockings, which tended to cause a bidding war among the women. She could easily get a month’s salary for a pair. Occasionally, my aunt included a few packets of Gillett razor blades, which, sold individually, also fetched a high price.
And then there it was: a red, wool, winter sweater with a band of white and blue across the chest and a CH in the middle! It resembled the uniform my hero, Kocsis, wore. (Many years later, here in Montreal, my father recalled that when I first saw it I jumped off his lap and made an Olympic record dash for it, pried it out of my mother’s hands, pulled it over my head and ran around the room leaping like a tiger. According to him, I wore it all summer whenever my friends and I replayed those Sunday afternoon games.) The fact that it had a couple of holes in it and that I sweated and itched like crazy when I wore it didn’t bother me at all. I was the only one who had a uniform. I wore it even after I had grown out of it. I really was Kocsis!
We escaped Hungary in 1956 and arrived in Montreal in one of the coldest and snowiest winters on record. I had never experienced anything like this back home. Snowbanks were higher than cars. I didn’t want to be outside in such weather. So, I mostly stayed indoors and when we got a TV a year later, my father and I began watching hockey together. We didn’t understand the subtleties and the brawls but I recognized my sweater and it belonged to the Habs, the best team in the world. I instantly became a Habs fan, cheering and rooting for Jacques Plante, Doug Harvey, Jean Belliveau, Dickie Moore, Boom Boom Geoffrion, and most of all for the great Rocket. How could I not be fanatic about such a glorious team in the city where I now lived? After a few mediocre years, along came the teams of the 70s: the Dryden, Lafleur, Robinson, Gainey, Savard, Lapointe, Shutt, Cournoyer and Pocket Rocket years. The Stanley Cups kept coming and overflowing with Habs greatness.
I never did own a Habs sweater again but the connection that was made in Hajdunánás remained and grew. And even though I’ve been living in the Habs’ Heartbreak Hotel for most of the last forty years, when I see this little David team in their Lycra white red and blue, scoring unexpected victories over the hated Leafs, the Jets and Knights and making a miracle run for the Cup, it rekindles my childhood itchy bond to Les Glorieux.
Dang, I jinxed them.
Endre Farkas was born in Hungary. He and his parents escaped during the 1956 uprising and settled in Montreal. His work has always had a political consciousness and has pushed the boundaries of poetry. Farkas is the author of two novels and eleven poetry books, including Face-Off, a series of hockey card poems.