Montreal Canadiens: Dealing with an Unexpected Rivalry
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Forget the rivalry of the Habs and Penguins game I witnessed firsthand last Wednesday, January 12th.
For me the greatest rivalry I anticipated was my memories of the old Montreal Forum and how they would stand up against the newer, younger Bell Centre.
I had heard nothing but positive reviews about the Habs' new barn, from the roar of the crowd right down to the hot dogs. I even got beer reviews, although I don't drink beer.
But the Bell Centre was up against some serious competition.
When I was a child my father worked in upper management for a tire manufacturer that held corporate season tickets in the Forum. Some of my earliest and clearest memories are of watching games in that place.
I remember thinking how huge Larry Robinson appeared, and how delighted I was when opposing players struggled to get past him. I remember Guy Lafleur streaking up and down the ice, sans helmet, so fast I could barely keep up.
I remember the smell of the ice and how us fans were so madly in love with each and every one of the players. I remember the hard red seats that we barely touched our butts to anyway because we were too busy jumping up and screaming like lunatics fresh out of the asylum.
I remember my father laughing and smiling with me and my brother every time the Habs scored a goal. I remember the anticipation we felt whenever he suggested we take advantage of a Saturday night to drive from Sherbrooke into the city and grab some poutine before the game.
I remember how we took it for granted we could go pretty much whenever we wanted, and yet cherished it all at the same time.
How could the Bell Centre possibly compete against that? I feared being terribly disappointed.
Well now, we no longer have corporate season tickets. We don't even live in the same province anymore.
I got incredibly lucky with the Canadiens website seat sale in September, scoring fifth row Prestige seats. I left my mother and brother to duke it out as to who would accompany me on a 14 to 15 hour road trip each way, if you boot it and have at least two drivers.
My mother won.
There are moments she reminds me of Robinson, when she puts her foot down hard at her own imaginary blueline. My brother really didn't have much of a chance.
We started the day with a tour of the Bell Centre, which took about 20 minutes. If you haven't done so already I must highly recommend that you also take the tour.
My favorite part of all was, naturally, Jean Beliveau's inner sanctum.
He has his own personal seat that others immediately relinquish upon his entry. He has his flat screen TV hidden in a cabinet that predates even the Forum, and somehow miraculously survived a fire.
There is a lot of history in this room and I got a bit teary eyed while I lingered as much as possible, snapping a ton of photos.
I saw the corporate suites which are ridiculously overpriced and all too often filled with pin-striped professionals who care nothing for the game, but instead use it as a backdrop to conduct some big money business.
I don't remember that ever going on in the old Forum.
My father had little patience for any co-worker who might have wanted to talk shop. We were there for the game, and any interloper would at best receive a casual wave off or at worst, a stern word or two about his or her timing.
I saw a photo of James Wisniewski outside one suite and learned that he spray paints the bottom of his stick white to better track the puck on the ice. I learned that before his portrait occupied that particular spot Maxim Lapierre's had held that honor.
I saw the plaques and portraits of the retired Canadiens' players, though there was precious little time to examine them all. I contented myself with reading Maurice Richard's, my brother's favorite player of all time, and took a couple of snaps for him to enjoy.
I sat in the reds and watched the cleaners prepare the ice and clean the glass around the boards. The banners of 24 Stanley Cup wins hung from the rafters, along with the retired jerseys.
I wondered when the Bell Centre would bring home its own banner instead of merely protecting the precious keepsakes of the team's old barn.
The group wandered up to the press gallery, suspended from the ceiling itself, and I envied Pat Hickey and Mike Boone's excellent view of the ice below.
Normally I'm afraid of heights but not this time. It felt warm and welcoming and safe.
This is also where injured players or healthy scratches sit during the games. Josh Gorges spends a lot of time here lately.
During the preseason, before the teams decide their season roster, the gallery gets crowded with rookies hoping to make the final cut. I could practically feel their excitement, their nervousness.
Once the doors opened that night we found our seats and watched the warm-ups with unabashed interest. Hal Gill sprawled out and stretching on the ice was a sight to behold.
I thought Larry was huge but Gill is just a mountain of a man. He also likes to talk to his teammates a lot.
It's not even that Gill is a terribly slow skater. It's that his fellow Habs are so much faster, along with most of the Penguins.
Lafleur was always fast too but by comparison the Habs today are supersonic.
The players from both teams were almost close enough to touch. Had the glass not been between us I might have tapped Mike Rupp on the shoulder and offered a hello.
The last of my row didn't fill in until a few minutes before puck drop. The crowd sang along to the American anthem and applauded politely, but their joy and pride for the Canadian anthem was unmistakable.
The two teams squared off and the referee dropped the puck. I watched the players in the bleu, blanc et rouge battle furiously for a tiny round piece of vulcanized rubber.
I smelled the ice. I jumped out of my seat on every rush. I felt the crowd's energy wash over me, and allowed it to pull me in and we all fed off each other.
And I was a child once again, swept up in the madness and exhilaration that comes with being a Montreal Canadiens hockey fan. My mother screamed and jumped and laughed along with the rest of us.
The Bell Centre can never surpass the memories of the games I watched at the Montreal Forum with my father and brother. But in all honesty it came awfully damned close.
Let's just call it a tie.
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