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Heart on his cap

When you work at one place for 38 years, everyone gets to know your weakness. When that place is a hockey rink, you hear about it.

Robert Hannaford has been driving the Zamboni (well, it’s an Olympia, if you want to get technical) at Twin Rinks Ice Skating Rink in his native St. John’s, N.L., for nearly four decades. For generations he has worn his affection for the Montreal Canadiens on his sleeve, and, also, on his head in the form of a well-used red-corduroy number with the proud CH logo on the front. Pro hockey fandom in Newfoundland is a mixed bag, owing to the lack of an obvious geographical affiliation. There are Maple Leafs fans and Bruins fans and even Red Wings fans. Hannaford has them all in his own family.

But Hannaford himself is, was and always will be a Habs fan. He’s not sure why. His dad passed away when he was 14, so he can’t recall which team he cheered for. His mom was too busy raising seven children to have a strong opinion. But as early as he can remember there was only ever one team for him. His history dates back to Jean Béliveau and reached full bloom with Guy Lafleur, the fabled Canadiens skater whose portrait owns a place of pride on the wall of the apartment Hannaford shares with his wife, Linda, in the basement of their daughter Sharon’s house. The beer leaguers that he cleans the ice and tidies the dressing room for know all about it. When the Habs win, not a problem. When the Habs lose? “Oh, they give it to me,” says Hannaford. “They’ll be all: ‘He’s mad tonight, boys.’ When I get to work and step my foot in the door, all hell breaks loose. If you’ve been in a dressing room, you’d understand it.”

Hannaford loves every minute of it. He’s used to defending his allegiances. He grew up with six brothers and sisters in the bottom half of a townhouse. There were Leafs fans upstairs. When Dave Keon or the like potted a goal, the neighbours would stamp their feet in triumph. When Béliveau got one for the Habs, Hannaford would take a broom handle and bang the ceiling in retaliation.

For his first 60 years, Hannaford experienced the glory of Les Glorieux only through the glow of a television screen. But in August of 2008 he had a heart attack, and to celebrate both his recovery and his 60th birthday that year, one of the leagues he tends the ice for chipped in to provide a gift that even now seems more like fantasy than something that ever happened: a trip to see his beloved Habs play the hated Leafs (“the only good maple leaf is a red one,” he says) at the Bell Centre in Montreal. “I was there before the warm-up and sat in my seat and didn’t move till the game was over,” he says. “It was a godsend. I was in seventh heaven.”

It was also a 5–2 win for the Leafs, which he knew he was going to hear about when he got back to work, and was very happy he did.