Every hockey fan should attend a game in Montreal at least once in their lifetime.
I have lived in Connecticut for nearly ten years. In that time, I have regrettably only been able to attend a handful of Dallas Stars games, usually whenever I was able to get back to Dallas on vacation. I've also attended Stars games in Boston and at Nassau Coliseum, while for some reason missing the chance to see some games at MSG. While you always prefer to sit back and enjoy a game with fellow Stars fans, it's always an interesting to attend a game on the road; every fanbase has their different traditions and every team presents the game a bit differently.
Last summer, after I attended the 2009 NHL Entry Draft in Montreal, I returned home and expressed my sentiment on how incredible it would be to see a game there. If the Habs fan's actions during the draft were any indication of what a game might be like, I felt that was an experience I could not let pass me by. Now I had originally planned to see random game (perhaps against the Bruins), and attend the game as a neutral fan. Yet my wife had a different idea; she surprised me with tickets to see the Stars play in Montreal on January 14.
So, we made the eight-hour trek up to Canada. It was a quick trip; due to work we could only stay two days and one night. Yet this was a Dallas Stars game in Montreal. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity. And what an experience it was....
On the Bell Centre...
The old Montreal Forum was one of the most storied sports arenas in North America. It was also poorly outdated, in bad need of repair and the team was in dire need of a modern arena in which to play. Enter the Bell Centre. I have to say, I was surprised when I read that the Bell Centre was opened in 1996. While it is certainly not a technical masterpiece when compared to the recent arenas that have been opened, it is far from dated.
It is located in downtown Montreal, and the hotel we stayed at was conveniently located just one block away. I understand that the parking garage is underneath the arena (as is most parking garages in Montreal), but I can't even begin to imagine what driving out of that mess would be like. It's a typical downtown setup; all one-way streets and not a good access to a highway anywhere close by. It seemed to me, judging by pedestrian traffic coming out of the arena, that most people didn't even bother parking nearby.
It's a very clean, very intimate atmosphere. Now I'm not a professional sports arena or stadium connoisseur, but I still enjoy comparing the pros and cons of each one I visit. Invariably every hockey arena will always be compared to Reunion Arena, what I feel is the most under-appreciated places to watch hockey.
The Bell Centre has three separate levels of stands, and holds over 21,000 fans for hockey games. There are a few main entrances and there are plenty of security guards and Bell Centre employs standing by to help assist you find your way. There are two levels of escalators that travel to the top, and just as it is down below it was incredibly easy to find your section.
Did I mention it was intimate? For such a large arena, the concession areas are incredibly narrow. There are a good number and variety of concessions available, and thankfully not a lot of extraneous stands you typically see at games, but I was amazed at how tight everything was considering how many fans they designed the building for. We arrived about 45 minutes prior to the puck drop and there weren't a whole lot of fans there yet. We enjoyed the pre-game warmups, and then the fans started to really pile in.
We had planned on meeting a fellow DBD reader at the game between intermissions downstairs on the front level, so I thought that leaving about one minute prior to the end of the period would be fine.
Turns out that the Bell Centre wants complete control of the flow of traffic. The escalators we took coming up; well, there aren't any going back down. If you wish to travel to the first level, you must first take four flights of stairs down and out the doors into the smoking area outside, then travel all the way around the building to the other side to get back in. Turns out that EVERY SINGLE FAN at the game decided to hit the concessions as well. So trying to get from outside (where we didn't want to be) back to the front (on the opposite side) meant pushing your way through thousands of people literally crammed into a very small space. There was absolutely no room to move.
I've been a good number of sports games in my lifetime, and not once had I experienced this. Giants Stadium comes close, but that was nowhere near the absolute mass of humanity we had to get through just to get back to the escalator to get back to our seats.
Other than it was fine.
On The History &The Presentation...
Right away I knew I was in for a brand new experience.
The Montreal Canadiens have a very long, well-established history and this season is the 100-year anniversary of the franchise. Imagine that. This team has been in Montreal for one century. Every single person in that city is born a Canadiens fan, lives and dies with the team and you can feel it in the atmosphere and the way the team and the game is presented.
After the warm up and before the teams take the ice, there was an incredible presentation paying tribute to every single player to ever wear a Habs jersey. Using projectors under the jumbotron, the players names were listed in alphabetical order on the ice itself. Every now and then, one name would be highlighted and he'd be presented on the big screen. It was an absolutely awe-inspiring method for getting the fans into the game, for emphasizing the history of the team and for showing just how important this franchise is to the city.
After the historical introductions were completed, each current member of the team introduced themselves on the jumbotron. It was simple yet effective; you could feel the pride each player had for being able to announce themselves as a Canadien. Every player was met with resounding applause and cheers, but of course the French-Canadian players received the biggest ovation. I never thought I'd hear a cheer that big for Georges Laraque*. Each and every introduction was filled with pride and it was incredibly motivating and touching to see players so proud to be a part of that team. At least that's how it came across to me.
*When Laraque scored his goal in the second period, that was close to the loudest I have EVER heard an arena. You would have thought that the Habs had just won a playoff game in overtime.
I was also pleasantly surprised by the simplistic presentation of the game itself. There were no ice girls, there wasn't an overwhelming amount of dumb giveaways or promotions. More importantly, not once was there some cartoon or graphic on the jumbotron asking for noise from the crowd. No 'noise meter'. There was no baseball-stadium chants started by the PA guys, no 'motivational music'. There were no crazy puck-person races on the ice. They did have the requisite 'pretty lady crowd announcer' who promoted various items and events from the stands, but it was far from overwhelming.
They just let the hockey game speak for itself. And that was refreshing.
On The Fans....
Obviously, this is a product of growing up in Montreal and learning hockey from the moment you're born.
But every single one of these fans knows the game of hockey. You could just sense the knowledge of hockey in every person around you, how they understood every facet of the game. I don't know how to properly quantify this feeling or express it the way I want, but it was just absolutely incredible to see 21,000 fans watching the game from the edge of their seats and gasping at the slightest misstep. They know the strategy, the ins and outs of the game. You could FEEL it.
Even more important was that every single person was there to enjoy the game. This wasn't a social event. These tickets are expensive, and every person there wants to enjoy the game they are there to see.
You know how I said there were no 'pump up' tricks used on the crowd? Well, there didn't need to be.
This was the crowd I traveled to see. These were the fans I wanted to experience a hockey game with. The floor was shaking after every goal and the crowd continued to buzz throughout the game. You could sense that an explosion of cheering was just itching to unleash itself at anytime in the game. It was just an absolutely incredible atmosphere to be a part of.
Things were fairly tame until the third period started. You could feel the tension building as the Canadiens fought break out on the right side of a tie. The Stars actually had some momentum going and were on the power play, when Steve Ott was obviously slashed in the neutral zone. Instantly, you could feel the air go out of the arena as each and every fan knew the lead was suddenly precarious. Of course, that lasted just a few seconds later as Ott gave it right back with a completely un-needed boarding penalty. The Stars never recovered.
The fans' reaction to the Ott hit was about as expected, but that was about as vicious a turnaround in atmosphere I've ever felt. The fans wanted this win not just for the points, they were out for blood and wanted their team to give some brutal payback to a guy who just took out one of their most beloved players. All of a sudden, the game was personal and you could see that attitude feed into the teams on the ice.
If the Laraque goal in the first period was was playoff game victory celebration, then the Mike Cammalleri spin-o-rama won game 7 in overtime of the Stanley Cup Finals. That place went absolutely nuts, and while I was crushed by the back-breaking goal it was tough not get caught up in the emotion of the game and how these fans were so damned proud the Habs got a big win.
And this was on a Thursday night against the Dallas Freaking Stars.