MONTREAL – The chanting is relentless, and it comes rolling in optimistic waves.
On the eve of the first Stanley Cup Final in Bell Centre history, one cannot circumnavigate the perimeter of the rink without hearing the loud, proud song of hope.
Melodic choruses of “Olé! Olé! Olé!” give way to bursts of “Go! Habs! Go!” bleed into “Car-Rey! Car-Rey! Car-Rey!” dissolve into a demand that's been swelling for 28 years: “Bring! Back! The! Cup!”
Hungry throngs decked head-to-toe in bleu, blanc et rouge hold aloft inflatable Stanley Cups and wave fleurs-de-lis.
Two pied pipers wield gigantic homemade cardboard-cutout photographs of Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki’s heads in ecstatic post-goal celebration, leading the charge.
One fan is old enough to drink but young enough to get away with wearing his Montreal Canadiens onesie pyjamas in public. All are smiling and making friends, bonded by a common cause and dress code.
An opportunistic rum company unleashes a fleet of employees to hand out two plastic, red inflatable tubes to anyone gathering. The young, attractive workers are equipped with pumps to quickly blow up the tubes. Fans use them as echo-y drumsticks, adding a beat to the chants.
Giddy crowds in the hundreds line the Centre’s adjacent streets to catch a glimpse of their heroes pulling into the parking garage and to cheer with each passing horn honk or television camera.
They cheese for selfies with a bronzed Maurice Richard. Some trade stories of how far they drove to get here. Others how much they spent on their tickets. Most don’t have a ticket.
Grown men carry girlfriends on shoulders, and grown men carry other grown men on shoulders. Like trophies they dream to win.
If you were to check the time, you might be surprised to learn that puck drop on Game 3 is still more than two hours away.
The crowds, the chanting, the anticipation — all of it is only growing.
Four men will file into Bell Centre, doff their shirts, and arrange the letters on their bare chests to spell out P-E-RR-Y. The fan second from the right has two letters painted on himself, and each nipple is strategically placed in the hole of an “R.” (Hey, man, they’re just trying to support the team.)
Were they to check social media, they might see their bilingual Prime Minister tweeting his encouragement for the home side, in both languages:
Sometime between rink announcer Michel Lacroix’s dramatic player introductions — lusty boos for Mikhail Sergachev; undying love for Carey Price — and catching Brendan Gallagher belting out “O Canada” en français through his slasher-flick face, the goosebumps set in.
Inside and out, the Bell Centre is alive with promise.
There might not be enough room in these rafters for a 25th banner, but they’d make it fit. Social distancing be damned.
A believer in Section 114 holds aloft a fluorescent sign that reads “IT’S NOT OVER.”
Then the hockey game begins. And within three-and-a-half minutes, it feels like it is.
So much cheering. So little to cheer for.
Tampa’s depth defenceman Jan Rutta sifts one high from the point that seeks twine. Montreal’s Eric Staal dumps a puck over glass. And Victor Hedman beats Price from a distance he shouldn’t be.
Surely, the privileged 3,500 inside to witness the first Cup Final game on Canadian soil in a decade begin thinking about how much they paid for their tickets. Or how much they could’ve gotten paid for their tickets.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the start we wanted,” Gallagher would say. “We’re in a hole.”
The game continues, of course, and Phillip Danault’s beautiful and rare strike ignites a loyal following scrounging for something, anything to rally around.
But the Lightning negate any advantage geography might play in what is shaping up to be a severely lopsided series.
Controlled and clinical, Tampa cycles Montreal into the ice, routing the Canadiens 6-3 on their own ice. Party poopers.
It is the most defensively porous Cup Final performance by the Habs in their own town since 1973, before Chicago’s Black Hawks became a compound word.
Price has fallen from Conn Smythe favourite to a guy with an .835 save percentage. From brick wall to against one.
"I can definitely play better,” the goalie says. “It's just not good enough so far."
The Lightning are outscoring the Canadiens 14-5. They’ve never trailed. They are 60 minutes away from back-to-back championships.
The Stanley Cup will be in the Bell Centre Monday night.
Technically, it may not be over. But there isn’t much reason to sing.