By JD Lagrange – In Canada, on Remembrance Day, there is no poem more popular than “In Flanders Fields”. And for NHL fans, a couple of verses of that poem are tied directly to the Montreal Canadiens:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
It is so symbolic of a quote in the Canadiens’ dressing room, that some people likely don’t even know the origin. In fact, most hockey fans, including Canadiens’ fans, could not cite other verses from the historical poem. Just recently on Twitter, as Nick Suzuki was carrying the Torch to light center ice for the season opener, someone was asking the significance of it in every Canadiens’ ceremony…
A Guelph, Ontario native, John McCrae, is a veteran from The Boer War and from the First World War, for which he enlisted at 41 years of age. After the Boer War, McCrae moved to Montreal and became a respected doctor and accomplished poet. In 1914, he watched with dread as war broke out in Europe.
“I am really rather afraid, but more afraid to stay at home with my conscience,” he wrote his mother.
McCrae befriended a young man in his unit named Alexis Helmer. At 22, Helmer, a native of Hull, Quebec, had just graduated from McGill University and was engaged to be married. But on May 2, 1015, he was killed in battle.
“Lieutenant Helmer was killed at the guns – a very nice boy,” wrote McCrae. “His diary’s last words were, ‘It has quieted a little and I shall try to get a good sleep.‘ His girl’s picture had a hole right through it and we buried it with him. I said the Committal Service over him, as well as I could from memory.
And that’s when he wrote the historical poem, originally published on December 8th, 1915, prior to passing away himself in France.
Canadiens Dressing Room
As an original six team, the Canadiens came into the league in 1909 to create a rivalry for the Montreal Maroons. The original team consisted mostly of French Canadian players, several of them farmers (or Habitants as often referred to in French). Of course, we know the history thereafter. The Maroons disappeared to leave room for those Canadiens, who went on to win 24 Stanley Cups, most (by far) than any other franchises.
But with success come legends, as proven by the countless banners in the rafters of the then Forum, now in the newer Bell Centre. The Canadiens also have a record 15 numbers retired, with numbers 5, 15 and 16 retired for two players each. When you consider how hard it is to win the Stanley Cup, you can understand the correlation with the failing hands holding the Torch high…
Since 1952, John McCrae’s passage has been displayed above the dressing room stalls of the Montreal Canadiens. It was put there by then General Manager Frank Selke Sr., who saw a profound meaning in McCrae’s words for his hockey club. Those words were also dear to Dick Irvin Sr., who then coached them to his players.
So when you hear those words, when you read them in the Canadiens’ dressing room or at the Hockey Hall of Fame, always have a thought for those war veterans, including John McCrae and his friend Alexis Helmer, who have made the ultimate sacrifice for us to enjoy the freedom that we have, here in Canada.
Quotes and photos from cbc.ca
- Canadian Hockey Has Long Ties to War Veterans by JD Lagrange