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Want passion? Go to the Bell Centre
The third and final debate of the last U.S. presidential campaign took place on Oct. 15, 2008. It was the one that turned “Joe the Plumber” into a very famous man.
Some 56.5 million Americans tuned in, according to The Nielsen Company. So, those same 56.5 million Americans didn’t watch the clinching game of that year’s National League Championship Series that October night. For them, civic obligation trumped the Phillies and Dodgers. I guess it’s hard to argue with that.
Well, our neighbors to the north are having their own electoral fun this spring. May 2 is the big day. I’ll leave the details to the McGill political science faculty but, Canada being a bilingual nation, the leaders of the four parties are obligated to debate one another in French. This debate was to take place last Thursday.
One problem with that: The Montreal Canadiens opened the playoffs last Thursday.
The series began in Boston, so it wasn’t as if the debate and game would create logistical issues in the same city. Still, the nation’s political and media powers mulled over the quandary and reached the most logical, sensible conclusion.
They moved the debate.
As a cab driver told me in his heavily accented English, “If they make a speech that night, no one would watch.”
Sounds absurd, I know. Then you realize: This is Canada. And this is hockey.
“I wasn’t surprised,” said Canadiens fan Jean-Philippe Hamel, as he paused on his way to meet friends near the Bell Centre on Monday. “You’re going to watch the hockey game or the debates? For sure, it’s the hockey game. There is absolutely no question about it.
“It is crazy. But you expect that here.”
The American political calendar wouldn’t bow to anything so trifling as a playoff game in football or baseball — especially the first game of the first round. But that’s what makes Canada — and Montreal, in particular — so unique. No professional sports team in North America means more to its city than the Montreal Canadiens.
For years, I heard that was the case. On Monday, I saw it for myself. I had never visited the Bell Centre — or Montreal, for that matter — prior to arriving for Game 3 of the spiteful reunion between the Canadiens and Boston Bruins. A desperate effort by Boston, trailing 0-2 in the series, made for a riveting, up-and-down game with plenty of chances (and mistakes) on both sides. The Bruins took a one-goal lead into the final minute, pressing the 21,273 fans into a full-throated fury, before adding the empty-netter to seal a 4-2 win.
I can tell you this: I’ve covered the Super Bowl. I’ve covered five World Series. I’ve covered football games at Michigan Stadium that drew more than 110,000 fans. But I’m not sure I’ve ever heard passion from a crowd like I did on Monday night.
There is noise, and then there is cling-on-every-pass, wail-from-the-depths-of-your-soul bedlam. That’s the sound of the Bell Centre.
Perhaps owing to the province’s French heritage, Canadiens fans follow their team with a fervor commonly found in European soccer. On occasion — including last spring — this has led to fan rioting. On Monday, though, it simply brought about a chorus of “Olé! Olé! Olé! Olé!” before a crucial third-period faceoff.
Good crowds, like good penalty killers, know how to anticipate. Canadiens fans don’t need a scoreboard to tell them when a crucial moment is coming. They just know. On occasion, they yelp optimistically when their own players are sandwiched into the boards, to celebrate the coming of a power play. But the referees don’t always reward them — in which case they immediately boo.
I can only imagine what it was like inside the late, great Forum.
“It started in the Maurice Richard days,” Hamel explained, in reference to the icon who began skating for the Habs during the early 1940s. “Back in the day, everything was controlled by the English people. The only place in the society where the French people had success was hockey. This is where it started. From generation to generation, kids are taught to appreciate the Canadiens, to love them, and to love Montreal. There’s no other major sport here. The Canadiens are pretty much all we have.”
So, yes, the roars after each Montreal goal were earsplitting, most notably when Tomas Plekanec sent a whoosh of snow into the air as his sharp-angle wrister made it 3-2. But a lot of arenas get loud when the home team scores. The in-between is what makes this place special. Genuine anguish poured out of the crowd early in the third period, when a young centre named Tom Pyatt couldn’t . . . quite . . . settle the puck at the goal mouth.
I heard it again when a chance for (American-born) captain Brian Gionta was foiled later in the period, and then after Andrei Kostitsyn spun through the slot on another near miss. The torment built as the hour grew late. In the end, all the crowd could offer was polite applause for the effort of their heroes. “A bounce or two away,” lamented defenseman Hal Gill.
At least the Habs fans accomplished one objective for the evening: They showered Bruins captain Zdeno Chara with boos every time the puck entered his orbit, during his first appearance in Montreal after the controversial hit on forward Max Pacioretty last month.
Chara’s treatment was further evidence that the Bruins-Canadiens rivalry is, at present, the fiercest between a U.S. pro team and foreign competitor. (Really, does anyone hate the Blue Jays or Raptors?) With Boston and Montreal, there are differences in language and culture that don’t exist in most American sports. And different is good. (Packers and Vikings fans probably don’t want to hear this, but Minnesota and Wisconsin are awfully alike.)
Plus, there is the history. In case anyone had forgotten about the Canadiens’ postseason dominance over their archrival, the pregame montage included a year-by-year display of the whippings. With the house lights down, the ice lit up with one Montreal triumph after another. A thunderous bass note accompanied each illustration —1930, 1931 … all the way to 2008. The crowd cackled with glee.
Aside from Hall of Famer Jean Béliveau — who appeared during the elaborate prelude with, yes, an actual torch — the biggest cheers of the evening belonged to goaltender Carey Price. Booed at the beginning of the season, now Price can do no wrong . . . except on an ill-fated pass through the middle that wound up behind him for the decisive goal.
Game 4 is Thursday, and Price will be greeted warmly again. At least, I’m pretty sure he will. This is Montreal, where the hockey obsession is unhealthy and perfect, all at the same time.