Fans dish on complexities of the Toronto-Montreal rivalry: "This runs deep"

What’s in a name?

When it comes to the 401 Derby, the question is: What isn’t?

The name comes from Highway 401, the ostensible connector between the cities of Toronto and Montreal. On the surface, it’s a nice, benign way to describe the intense rivalry between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact, who’ll renew hostilities in this year’s Eastern Conference Championship starting Tuesday night.

Here’s the problem, though: Once you cross the provincial border from Ontario into Quebec, the road’s name changes to Autoroute 20. The 401 doesn’t reach Montreal. How could it be called the 401 Derby?

This observation may seem like irritating pedantry. But the naming oversight can be seen as symbolic of the alienation felt by many in Quebec, a narrative that’s animated national history since Canada’s founding in 1867 (and even beforehand).

It is the only province in Canada where French is the most common language. Walk down the streets of Montreal and the lingering cultural ties to France are readily apparent. How the province’s distinct culture fits into Canada – or whether it fits at all – has been on the minds of policymakers for centuries.

Quebec has held two votes on seceding from Canada; the most recent, in 1995, saw the “remain” side prevail with just 50.6 per cent of the vote. While separatist sentiment has waned since then, provincial pride still runs deep; it’s no accident that the Impact’s logo (just like Quebec’s provincial flag) prominently features the fleur-de-lis.

As for Toronto, a metropolis that oscillates wildly between self-aggrandizement and self-loathing (sometimes pulling them both off simultaneously), there’s also a nagging sense of grievance. Toronto semi-ironically views itself as the center of the universe; certainly, at least, the center of Canada.

So why, Torontonians wonder, does the rest of the country hate us? (The answer is, of course: “Who cares? We’ve got Drake, we don’t need the rest of you.”)

An us-against-them mentality is woven into the civic fabric in both places; and as fans of both TFC and the Impact know very well, that sense of combat is never stronger than when the two cities meet in athletic competition.

“The rivalry transcends sport,” says Rob Ditta, who will be among the hundreds of TFC fans trekking to Olympic Stadium for Tuesday’s first leg. “It’s historic. It’s cultural. It’s geographic. It’s political. It’s everything that makes passionate supporters drool.”

David Pinto, leader of TFC’s Kings in the North supporters group, believes that this playoff confrontation will add extra fuel to what he calls “an authentic dislike between the teams, supporters and fanbases.”

“This runs deep through the history of the two cities,” he says. “TFC vs. the Impact is just the most recent incarnation of the rivalry.”

Indeed, Toronto vs. Montreal is hockey’s most timeless rivalry, with the Canadiens boasting 24 Stanley Cup championships (most recently in 1993) to the Maple Leafs’ 13 titles (most recently in 1967).

On the pitch, as well, Montreal hold the recent edge, having sent TFC hurtling out of their first playoff appearance with a resounding 3-0 win in the 2015 Knockout Round. The sweetness of that moment wasn’t lost on the Montreal faithful.

“It was pretty gratifying,” says Carolyn Duthie, an Impact fan who grew up in Montreal but now lives behind enemy lines in Toronto. “I very much enjoy laughing to myself … when something bad happens to TFC. Sorry, TFC.”

Fellow Impact supporter Daniel Farrell – who said it was a “party in the stands” at Stade Saputo during last year’s playoff matchup – says Toronto FC’s newfound status as one of the league’s big spenders makes it extra special to knock them down a peg.

“It’s almost like a sibling rivalry where at first Montreal was ahead, and then Toronto took over,” says Farrell, who believes that the national sports media shine too bright a light on Toronto teams, at the expense of everyone else.

“You always want your sibling to succeed, but you don’t want your parents [the media] to brag about them to you. And you never want them to succeed against you.”

The sibling rivalry has gone overboard at times, with emotions reaching a boiling point between TFC and Impact fans during previous meetings. But as in any family, it’s always important to remember the similarities, not just the differences.

“[Montreal is] actually one of my favorite cities to visit – beautiful buildings, art, great food,” says Kristin Knowles, another longtime TFC fan making the trip to Quebec on Tuesday.

“Other than their soccer team, what’s not to like?”