MONTREAL — Jaroslav Halak knew he had fans in Montreal, but even the former Canadiens goaltender was stunned at how many turned out for his farewell autograph session on Saturday.
It was estimated when the session opened that there were 5,000 lined up at the La Capsule Sportive store, a horde that stretched the length of the sprawling Fairview mall in suburban Pointe-Claire, Que., and continued a long way outside the building.
At least that many more turned up later — prompting the scheduled two-hour session to be extended by an 90 minutes.
"It’s really surprising, but it’s nice that many people showed up," the 25-year-old hero of the Canadiens playoff run last season said before sitting down to sign a seemingly endless stream of pictures, his No. 41 Canadiens shirts, sticks, newspaper clippings and other items. "It feels weird, but I have great memories here and that’s why I wanted to say thank you to the fans."
Store officials said fans began to line up at 8:30 a.m. for an event that started at 2 p.m. ET.
Canadiens fans got behind the Slovakian goaltender last spring as he won the starting job from Carey Price and led the team to the NHL playoffs. They fell in love as he led the team to upset victories over top-ranked Washington and defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh in the NHL playoffs before falling to Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference final.
He won the Molson Cup as the Canadiens player of the year for 2009-10, posting a 26-13-5 record with a 2.40 goals-against average and a solid .924 save percentage, compared to a 13-20-5 record with a 2.77 average and .914 save percentage for Price.
That’s why many were shocked when the Canadiens, unable to keep both young goaltenders, opted to stick with the younger, bigger Price, who they selected with the fifth overall draft pick in 2005. For all Price’s evident talent, it was Halak who produced victories.
Halak, the 271st pick of 2003, was traded to the St. Louis Blue on June 17 for young forwards Lars Eller and Ian Schultz.
"I’m sad I was traded, but I’m happy I will get a chance to play and be a No. 1 goalie," he said. "I was surprised, but I’m happy they got me.
"They showed me respect. I’m looking forward to it. It’s a new challenge, new team, new friends."
The Blues signed Halak to a US$15 million four-year contract on July 6. Negotiations with Price dragged on until this week when he signed a $5.5 million two-year deal.
That Halak trade will be debated all season, as the turnout to the mall showed which of them would win a popularity contest.
Halak’s representatives, David Walsh and David Schatia, were contacted by the Montreal firm Centre68 to stop by on his way to St. Louis to sign autographs for charity and, of course, promote the chain of sporting goods stores.
Fans paid $20 per autograph, with all the money going to the Ste Justine children’s hospital.
"Our expectations were that we’d have about 500 people," said one of the organizers, Steve Stein, who ran former Habs captain Saku Koivu’s charitable foundation. "It’s a great success, and the hospital benefits."
Halak looked a little shocked himself, but he smiled and kept signing as cameras clicked and fans wished him well. The orderly crowd was mostly parents with children, or groups of teenagers and other young fans. A few told him the Canadiens kept the wrong goalie, to which he replied "Thanks, but that’s the hockey business."
The only request he turned down was from some young women who wanted a hug. Instead he offered a handshake.
Behind him were racks of Halak shirts and jerseys from both the Canadiens and the Blues, as well as the item that sold like hotcakes during the playoffs — red stop signs with Halak written on them.
Halak has a date circled on his calendar — March 10. That’s when the Canadiens face the Blues in St. Louis this season, although it’s not quite the rush that playing them in Montreal would be.
"We play against them in March, and we’ll see if I play that game and how I feel about it," said Halak, who expects to arrive in St. Louis on Wednesday. "It’s strange, but I’m looking forward to the day I play for (the Blues) in Montreal.
"This is a great hockey city. Now I’m going to St. Louis and I hear they have great fans."