MONTREAL – Years from now, when the only remnants of the virus are scraggly-haired throwback selfies and some Doritos weight we’re still trying to shake, tens of thousands of Montreal Canadiens fans might swear they were in the building for the first Stanley Cup final game inside the Bell Centre.
Only 3,500 will be telling the truth.
Because government orders are trumping common sense and safety.
“Disappointing. Very disappointing,” Dominique Ducharme said in French Friday morning.
The Canadiens interim coach had just resurfaced from a personal 14-day quarantine ahead of Game 3 and his own Stanley Cup Final debut. Ducharme’s mind will be focused line matches, disciplined play and solving a way to get more than one puck past Tampa’s Andrei Vasilevskiy.
But there are thoughts beyond the ice, too.
About a moment 28 years in the waiting for the city. About how separation might not be the answer, nor the safest course for these Canadiens home games. About all those diehards denied at the gates — unless they’re willing and able to shell out the $1,023 to $24,260 (U.S.) being sought out for a Game 3 ticket on secondary market sites like SeatGeek. (Lemme check the couch cushions right quick.)
“As much as it could’ve been a way to reward those who have gotten their two doses, it could’ve been an incentive to get even more people vaccinated. It could’ve been a way to reward our fans, the people who have gone through 14 or 15 months of isolation, to have the chance to participate in an event like this. It’s special,” Ducharme lamented.
“Unfortunately, we’ll have 3,500 inside and probably 25,000 outside who are going to be shoulder to shoulder. It’s hard to see the logic.”
The club’s pitch to Quebec’s public health authorities to increase Bell Centre’s attendance to half capacity (10,500) and pull thousands out of the corridors and into the arena was shot down Wednesday.
Dr. Richard Massé, a strategic medical adviser for Quebec public health, said the government is choosing to be careful about making exceptions to public health orders, because doing so would inevitably lead to other groups demanding similar treatment.
And yet folks who can’t get a ticket to the opera or Black Widow are unlikely to flip over a police car and stir a gathering so large that officers feel the need to unleash tear gas.
Such was the scene last time the Cinderella Canadiens played a home date, their triumphant upset of the Vegas Golden Knights on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day. Eight patrol cars were vandalized, two police officers were slightly injured, 15 arrests were made, and 80 tickets were doled out, according to city police.
The 3,500 who enjoyed the victory safely inside were barred from exiting immediately until the crowds outdoors dispersed.
“The reality of the last game we just did here, I kept looking outside saying, ‘It’s a more dangerous scenario out there than it would ever be inside the Bell Centre,'” Sportsnet’s play-by-play caller Craig Simpson said on Hockey Central at Noon. “It’s a much more controlled environment. So, it’s too bad.
“If you’re worried about the health of people around, it’s a lot more dangerous outside than it would be with 10,000 inside.”
A heavy police presence is expected outside the rink Friday.
Montreal’s game-day buzz is still in effect, as one would expect in a town where Gaineyness is next to godliness. Flags fly from shotgun windows. Signs stamped the with CH hang in business windows. And stenciled support for the home team can be seen spray-painted onto the sidewalk.
A cluster of fans in “Goal Caufield” T-shirts mingled around the media entrance for the morning skate.
“If they were allowing more fans, I woulda been there tonight,” tweeted famous Habs fan J.J. Watt. “Regardless, feeling a big night for the Caufield-Suzuki-Toffoli line.”
Even the enemy is aware that, yo, 3,500 will feel like 35,000, swear to God.
“Montreal, their fan base is huge. We kind of saw pictures and throughout the playoffs the last round against Vegas,” Tampa’s Pat Maroon said Friday morning.
“All those fans watching — as much as they want to be inside, they obviously can't — to come together and watch the team. Playing regular season here, it’s a very loud building. Passionate fans. They love their Montreal Canadiens.
“No matter how many people are in the stands tonight, that building is going to be rocking. It’s going to be loud. We’re really looking forward to it. This is one of the coolest rinks to play in. We’re all excited.”