BROSSARD, Que. — On Saturday, for the first time in 585 days, the Montreal Canadiens will play a game at the Bell Centre in front of a full-capacity crowd, and this event will help restore a level of normality to everyone in attendance. Normality not quite experienced since COVID-19 landed—and took up permanent residence—in North America.
“It’s great,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme after running his team through its morning skate, ahead of Saturday night’s game against the New York Rangers. “I don’t think it’s just great for me; it’s for everyone. I think it’s just a sign that we’ve been through something that was difficult for everyone. And just having a full house is great for our team, it’s great for our players to feel that energy, but I think overall it’s just kind of a light at the end of the tunnel that we saw and, finally, we’re getting there and life is getting a little more normal now.”
Of course, it won’t be the same as it’s always been.
Attendees will be mandated to prove they’ve been double vaccinated against the deadly virus, and they’ll be constantly reminded by the ushers in every aisle to wear masks when they aren’t eating or drinking.
But the feeling will still be what it once was. And for many people, the experience—not only of being at the game but also going to it—will provide incredible comfort because going to the game is about tradition and routine.
When I was younger, mine was always the same. No matter who I was going with, we’d meet downtown at 5:15 p.m., take a walk to Drummond and Saint-Catherine for a quick bite at Mister Steer, savour the sights and sounds unique to Montreal on game-day coming out of there—hundreds of people in bleu, blanc et rouge waiting to cross Rene Levesque, scalpers waiting to greet them on the other side while barking out ticket quantities, a one-armed beggar stationed on Stanley (he was always shirtless, whether it was October or January) tipped and then passed on the approach to the Bell Centre, and cigarette smoke wafting over the growing buzz of the increasingly-eager and boisterous crowd —and arrive just on time to take in warmup from seats closer to the glass than our own.
I got to experience that about twice a season—three or four times in good years—and I cherished it.
I never realized just how much until I was sitting in an empty Bell Centre watching the Canadiens warmup ahead of every regular season game played there since Mar. 10, 2020.
What an incredibly bizarre experience.
But it was equally strange driving through desolate streets on the way there. It was unsettling to walk by bars with no patrons and restaurants with no servers, and it was eerily silent—and smoke-free—on Avenue des Canadiens.
It felt vaguely familiar, but not even close to normal during the playoffs, when people jammed that small stretch of road in front of the Bell Centre and as many as 3,500 (there might have been a few more who slipped through the gates) filled seats inside.
Saturday will feel like old times, though—in the Bell Centre, and in Montreal.
“It’s going to feel like it’s alive again,” said Jonathan Drouin of the city. “It was almost a ghost town after curfew or before the games. There wasn’t many people in the streets with their jerseys. Usually, you drive to games and you feel the energy, you can feel there’s a game coming.”
Drouin has experienced it many times as a player since joining the Canadiens in 2017.
So has Ben Chiarot, who signed with the team in 2019 and said this on Friday:
“The Bell Centre is the best place to play in the league. Having people in the stands is why it is the best place, and we’re excited.”
There are several members of the Canadiens who have only dreamt of experiencing gameday in Montreal as they will on Saturday.
“Even a guy like Cole (Caufield), who’s an up-and-coming star, (it will be) his first time in front of all the Bell Centre, all of our fans,” said goaltender Jake Allen, who will also experience it for the first time. “A lot of new faces and everyone else’s first time wearing the red jersey and going out for a home opener. It’s a little bit different, so we’re going to enjoy it.”
It’s going to be what Tyler Toffoli thought it would be like when he signed a four-year, $17-million contract just months into the pandemic.
“I think it’s one of the things—coming into the NHL, being able to play in front of the crowd for the Canadiens — (that in) signing here I was obviously looking forward to,” he said on Saturday. “Obviously, it didn’t happen last year, and I’m really excited for the opportunity and I think everyone in our locker room here is as well.”
No one will be more excited for it than the fans.
It’s anticipated they’ll fill over 21,000 seats—even if 24 tickets were still available through the box office and a couple dozen more were listed on after-sales sites as of Saturday morning.
It should make for a special atmosphere, and some long-craved normalcy.