Party pooping: Why smokin', drinkin' Habs aren't to blame

These are, in no particular order, Montreal Canadiens players Carey Price, Christopher Higgins, Josh Gorges and Ryan O'Bryne. You may have heard that their team is struggling, and now you know why: They are obsessed with partying while wearing nothing but goggles, swim caps and loud Speedos that resemble a couch found in a 1970s wood-paneled rec room. Oh, and at least three of them believe they're No. 1. Such egos ...

In truth, this a photograph taken last October as a Halloween party, as if the timing should matter. That now-infamous Carey Price photograph, which appears to be a meek attempt at setting a Guinness record for simultaneous smokes, was taken on a Mexican vacation in the off-season. But it's clearly an indication that he's too immature for a starring role in the NHL, right?

Of course not. Web-savvy fans, for the most part, understand that a few candid snaps of players taken at indeterminable times and locations are not an indication of anything more than tabloid-level fame. (Or, in Mike Commodore's case, a perverse sense of humor.)

But when they're used as evidence of larger behavioral or substance abuse problems, as they were by former Habs coach Jean Perron on a French-language radio show, they become something scandalous for fans and media to consider -- the root of a franchise's current struggles, the trigger for the possible implosion of a predestined season.

In true mainstream media tradition, most of the newspapers that covered the Partyin' Habs today refused to guide their readers to the source for many of these images:, the French-language realm of gossip and candid photographs run by a 25-year-old Canadiens fan that goes by the handle J.T. Utah.

We spoke with him this afternoon to find out some truth beyond the fleeting photos that have floated throughout the Web during Montreal's swoon. Do the Habs have a party problem? Or does the media have a young men being young men problem?

Utah finds much of the coverage about the Canadiens' partying ways to be laughable because of their sudden urgency.

"They could have talked about these stories such a long time ago," said Utah. "But they were winning games [at the beginning of the season]."

Utah would know. The proprietor of the gossip Web site has been on this facet of the Canadiens beat for some time. He used to work as a "spotter" for a nightlife magazine columnist, reporting on the nocturnal habits of the Habs.

Besides the e-mails sent his way from readers, he said a girlfriend of a current Canadiens player is a primary source for him. "I know friends of players. I know girls who occasionally sleep with players," he said.

Has he written about the sex lives of players? "Oh yeah, yeah ... they're pretty good in bed."

From everything Utah knows, the Canadiens-as-party-animals story couldn't have broken at a worst time in light of what he feels is their current level of revelry.

"At this moment, the guys are partying less than they were back in September and last year," he said.

"Jean Perron accused Higgins of being an alcoholic. From what I've heard, last year Higgins was living with Michael Ryder and [they] were partying big-time. Higgins was dating a barmaid," Utah said. "But as you may have seen during all-star weekend, Chris Higgins did not attend any party. Chris Higgins hasn't been partying at all lately. He's been focusing on his physical condition. So Perron accusing Higgins of being an alcoholic is pure [expletive]. An alcoholic usually doesn't have a six-pack."

(No, it's usually a 24-pack. But we digress.)

No one is saying that the Canadiens players have all decided to stay out of the clubs and curl up with a good book instead. It's just that Utah doesn't feel their night-lives impact their play, based on recent history.

"During each game of [last season's] playoffs, the guys were partying and they were winning games. The fact that the guys are partying does not have any impact on their performance on the ice. If the Habs were winning games right now, no one would be talking about that," said Utah.

"During the all-star weekend, they partied for four nights in a row. If you do that, maybe it affects them for one or two games. But at this moment, the guys are on a road trip and I have very big doubts that Higgins and Price decided to party hard in Edmonton and Calgary while the team is struggling."

What irks him is the same thing that irks Jack Todd of the Montreal Gazette: That segments of the media have chosen to pick and choose images and gossip, piece it together and lay the blame on a few players for the team's demise. When, in reality, they're just being young dudes with money to burn, as there have been for generations in the NHL.

From Todd:

Look, this is what healthy young men do. (Well, except for the smoking.) They drink, they carouse, they chase women. Unless they're professional athletes, in which case they get chased by the kind of young women who have calculators where their eyes should be.

The things Price is photographed doing have been done by athletes since Greek competitors were tossing a discus without a jockstrap. If cell phone cameras had been around in his day, Guy Lafleur would have kept entire websites in business. It's even possible that legendary Canadiens goalie Gump Worsley had an ale or two in his day.

That was then and this is now. Today, every joker has a cellphone camera and far too many of them are willing to use the things in order to invade someone else's privacy. "Hey Carey, look over here!'' Look, click, and you're infamous. It's a different world - and there are probably a couple of guys working behind the Canadiens bench who are happy it wasn't like that when they played.

But where Utah disagrees with Todd and other mainstream media is about this notion of "invading someone else's privacy." Utah feels that the photos on the Web aren't embarrassing at all -- that they humanize the players in a way that actually makes fans appreciate them more.

"These guys have the same lifestyle as every other professional athlete in North America or Europe. It's just that the Montreal journalists are so old, and they have no clue what the lifestyle of a 20 year old is right now. And they don't understand the Web," he said.

"The younger people are like, 'Hey, they're living the same life as us.' They understand."