Playing For The Name
Montreal is a hard city to get to grips with. Most of the large buildings are empty or run down after companies occupying them have either folded or moved to the increasingly affluent city of Toronto.
Montreal is still footing the bill for the Olympic Games it hosted in 1976 and to add to that the Olympic Stadium built for the event is now left barely occupied. Not suitable for concerts or sports events. In fact when the Montreal baseball team played there they were quoted saying it was so unsuitable that it was like playing on concrete. The team were then moved out of Montreal and are now playing in the MLB in the form of the Washington Nationals.
The city has plenty of history, as part of the French-Canadian province of Quebec it has been through ups and downs over the years as French and British battled to stake a claim to the land. It has an underground city due to the fact it can get so cold there and they needed to find a way for people to visit the shops and restaurants from the hotels and businesses without having to go out and brave the sub-zero temperatures.
None of the above really scream out this a must visit city in fact it says quite the opposite but this is a must visit city and there is one very big reason for that – The Montreal Canadiens. It is game day and the streets are starting to fill up with red, the shops start extending out onto the street offering special rates on away team merchandise, the empty hotel lobbies are no longer full of suits but of hockey jerseys and the city is full of chatter and talk everywhere you go of that day’s game. On game day you really start to see why this place has won 24 Stanley Cups and why it is the oldest franchise in NHL history. Montreal lives and breathes its team. The passion here for these warriors on ice is second to none. At the time of writing the Canadiens (as in recent years) are not doing too well in the standings, currently sitting at the bottom end of the conference table. However at the Bell Centre, unlike other franchises in the NHL, there is not an empty seat in sight. Win or lose the people of Montreal and the surrounding areas turn up to watch their team. They are loud and passionate and they let people know that this is Canadiens country. If the team are not performing well, boos rain down on them and subsequently if they are doing well the atmosphere is electric.
This is the place where legends are made. Past heroes including the likes of Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard and Patrick Roy are celebrated all over, if you walk in to a cafe more than likely you will find something named after them. Statues outside the stadium celebrate their achievements engraved in the plinths holding up the life size replicas of the former alumni. Underneath the Bell Centre is a Canadiens Hall Of Fame highlighting past glory in a standard that rivals the Hockey Hall Of Fame in Toronto with talking exhibitions, old memorabilia as well as a short film that would send a shiver up the spine of even a Bruins fan.
The two games we visited at the Bell Centre were complete opposites. One was against the Washington Capitals who were launching their attack to the top of their division. The Capitals were boosted by the presence of Russian superstar captain Alex Ovechkin who was returning after a three game ban after charging into a hit against Pittsburgh. Though it was not Ovechkin who stole the show it was net minder Tomas Vokoun who shut down all attempts of the Canadiens offence and shut them out three goals to zip. The building was hostile to say the least, the fan base was infuriated. When Montreal defensemen Tomas Kaberle caused a penalty shot, which was then scored by Washington’s Alexander Semin, he was booed and yelled at every time he touched the puck. This crowd was letting him know he was responsible in every way they could. As a neutral spectator sat in the crowd it was quite a thing to see, some of the older fans were stood leaning over the barriers screaming how much they hated this player and how much in their eyes he was not doing the job, only in a few more choice words. As the clock time ticked down and the buzzer went, heads dropped and the Canadiens players headed to the dressing room in a wash of booing and shouting. This team is the lifeblood of this city and they had just let them down, this could not stand in the eyes of the fan base. The coach announced after the game that even though the team was playing three matches in four days he was going to pull the team in on the day off that separate the second and third game for a practice as “what had happened was just not acceptable”. This team was at a low.
Twenty four hours later it was game time again. This time the opponents were fellow Canadian hockey team the Winnipeg Jets. This is the first season back for the team as a replacement for the Atlanta Thrashers who were relocated north to become the Jets. Known for being a team with a lot of drive they sported such players in their line up as Stanley Cup champion Dustin Byfuglien, Captain Andrew Ladd and the up and coming forward Evander Kane. However none of these factors really came into play as it was the Canadiens who switched it up for the encounter. Whether it was the fan reaction, the coach’s talk and subsequent practice decision or everything just fell into place I will never know but the team that skated out that day was a different one to the previous day in every way. The physical play was the catalyst in this performance as the Montreal side crunched bodies from the beginning. One hit sent a Jets player half way into the bench to a roar from the crowd. The same fans that were distraught twenty four hours ago were now on their feet cheering. Net minder Carey Price earned himself a shut out to the same tune as the one inflicted on them in the last game three to zip, as well as going post to post with the glove to stone a shot at the back door which looked destined to go in. This goaltending clinic was accompanied by a huge game from second year rookie and Montreal fan favourite P.K. Subban who dropped the gloves with Andrew Ladd coming out on top to yet another roar. There was chanting echoing around the stadium, a Mexican wave set off in one of the breaks in play and this time when the final buzzer went the crowd gave a standing ovation, and remained there until after Price was named first star of the game and had circled the ice throwing a puck to the crowd in every corner. With a loss and a win in these manners it was obvious to see just how much this city cared for its team. The passion and the drive by this fan base is second to none I have ever seen. This place may not be first on the list for most holiday plans and it will never feature on any ‘Places to see before I die’ lists however if you are a hockey fan this should be. It is hard to match the passion and energy, whether winning or losing, as that in the Bell Centre on game day. I say if you ever have the chance to see at least one NHL game make it a Canadiens match. The experience is more than worth it.