MONTREAL — Cat Belanger-Toffoli figures her Monterey-born-and-bred personality is at least partially responsible for her downplaying the anxiety she’s been feeling since arriving in Montreal, 4,600 kilometres away from the familiar and comforting warmth of California, completely distanced from family, friends and every other person she knows outside of her husband, Tyler, whose job with the Canadiens keeps him away for hours on end and sometimes even for weeks.
She’s mostly alone, confined to a one-bedroom apartment in the heart of the red zone of a foreign city that’s been locked down since she emerged from her mandatory two-week quarantine in January. She yearns for the Golden State’s sunshine as she sets off for vitamin D-starved walks, sloshing through dreary winter conditions to Mount Royal, the Atwater Market, downtown and Old Montreal before night falls, curfew begins and her Groundhog Day existence creeps into her last waking thoughts.
But Belanger-Toffoli says the challenge of this life-altering move mid-pandemic hasn’t been all-consuming, that she’s been making the best of her situation and doing so without complaint.
“I have a very California-unfazed attitude towards things,” she told Sportsnet last weekend. “And I’m also so conscious of what terrible things everybody has been going through this past year that I don’t even think of what’s going on with us. Everytime I’m like, ‘Ugh, this is so difficult,’ I immediately think it’s not bad at all compared to the world right now. It’s not fun by any means, but it’s not bad.”
The Toffolis’ good fortune and favourable circumstances don’t diminish how difficult the adjustment has been to a new life in a new city, particularly for Cat.
A little human interaction beyond FaceTime and Zoom would offer her massive relief, if it were possible. Belanger-Toffoli’s a socialite. She's a former D1 softball player at George Washington University who revelled in the camaraderie of team sport from adolescence through early adulthood before transferring to USC where she joined the Delta Gamma sorority. She's a 10-year employee of the Los Angeles Dodgers who, in her people-person functions of marketing and event coordination, built lasting relationships with everyone from Claire in sales to legendary broadcaster Vin Scully, actor Eric Stonestreet and comedian George Lopez, who spoke at her and Tyler’s 2018 wedding in Hawaii.
But the strict rules she’s rigidly abided by in Montreal means she’s spent the past two months limited solely to fragmented time with her husband and some one-sided conversations with Dodger, the couple’s four-pound Toy Yorkie.
This is supposed to be home for at least four years, with Tyler agreeing to a $17-million pact with the Canadiens back in October. But, as he put it when we caught up with the couple last Friday, “I can’t really say it’s like home yet because nothing’s open and we haven’t been able to experience Montreal the way that I know it will be at some point.”
At least Tyler’s had the distraction of hockey and all that comes with it.
Not that the 28-year-old didn’t experience his own anxieties in leveraging a 562-game, Stanley Cup-winning career with the Los Angeles Kings—and 17 great games with Vancouver Canucks last year—to secure a long-term deal in a hockey market he accurately suggests is elevated pressure-wise from the ones he came from. Even if the Scarborough, Ont., native knew what he might be jumping into and embracing with this Canadiens-obsessed metropolis, the opportunity still had to be properly presented by Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin, well-positioned by agent Pat Brisson, and then carefully weighed and processed by Tyler and Cat.
Then the journey had to be embarked on with the second wave of a pandemic in full rage, presenting an added layer of trepidation.
Packing up and moving to a new city is stressful enough, but traveling across the continent through closed borders ratchets it up a notch.
“It was just a different, eerie feeling seeing the airport not busy. It was definitely stressful,” said Toffoli. “And then just coming to a new city, being set up in an apartment where we know nothing… I think it was snowing and like slush on the ground, and I was driving—we had a rental, a Chevy Malibu rental, two-wheel drive—and I was like, ‘I don’t remember how to do this.’ It was definitely stressful.”
On Dec. 23, stress turned into concern for Toffoli, with a helplessness akin to looking on from the penalty box as your team clings to a one-goal lead late in an important game washing over him.
“When I was back in L.A., I was skating and testing (for COVID) three times a week, so I was negative the whole time,” he said. “Came to Montreal (on the 22nd), tested negative, and then tested again (on the 23rd) and it ended up being positive.”
You can imagine what ran through Toffoli’s head: First, his health potentially being compromised and the possibility he and Cat unknowingly spread the virus to other people on their way to Montreal, and then the hockey implications of starting training camp on time and getting off to a good start to immediately begin proving he was worth the contract.
“We sat in a puddle of anxiety together,” said Belanger-Toffoli. “Just who, what, where, when, why? And it was definitely a little jarring not knowing anybody or anything, just kind of waiting around (to be tested again).”
When he tested negative again a day later it brought instant relief for both of them. “A Christmas present,” as Tyler and Cat referred to it in unison during our conversation, with concurrent negatives over the next several days further confirming it had been a false-positive on the 23rd.
Tyler emerged unscathed, passing all requirements to start training camp on time. Then he shot out to the best start of his nine-year NHL career, scoring 12 goals in his first 18 games.
It picked up with a hat trick in Vancouver -- the Canadiens’ fourth game of the season -- and Belanger-Toffoli missed it because she couldn’t have people over to install cable while she and Tyler were quarantining in December and wasn’t sure how to go about the process without breaking team rules afterwards.
— Cat (Belanger) Toffoli (@catbtoffoli) February 3, 2021
She has since only seen highlights of the other goals Tyler has scored despite safely securing a way to watch the games weeks ago.
“I realized he was doing so well that I probably shouldn’t watch,” Belanger-Toffoli said. “I’ve just chosen to watch Below Deck and Real Housewives when the Canadiens are playing.”
In this selfless endeavour, Belanger-Toffoli might not even realize to what extent she has connected herself to countless Montreal fans who believe what socks they wear or which sandwich they eat for lunch has an effect on the outcome of games.
“I’m a very superstitious person coming from baseball,” she said, “so when Ty scores and I’m not watching, I know I’ll be not watching for a while.”
It’s a rule Belanger-Toffoli will break if and when families are permitted to be at the Bell Centre at some point this season.
The thought of that experience has sustained her in recent weeks. So have the walks around town, enjoying some of the city’s awe-inspiring lookouts and peering through windows of stores she hopes to shop in when restrictions are lifted. Zoom calls with wives and girlfriends of other Canadiens players have allowed her to at least become acquainted with some of the others living a similar experience.
But Belanger-Toffoli is pining for the opportunity to meet everyone in person, and she and Tyler are both desperate for the real Canadiens experience—with close to 22,000 people filling the Bell Centre and providing the unique atmosphere that was sold to them as they mulled over the decision to sign with the team and uproot their lives.
Life in Montreal will also take on new feeling for the Toffolis once they move out of the condo the Canadiens helped set them up in. First they’ll ride out the rest of this season in that space, then they’ll summer in Los Angeles before returning prior to next season to build a real home life in their own place, with their own furniture and a brand new cable subscription.
For now, boredom, restlessness -- and some anxiety -- will reign for Belanger-Toffoli.
“Moving from our home in California to an apartment in a closed-down, foreign city has definitely been a life change,” she said. “From not being able to workout properly (something I love to do daily) to trying to figure out how to order things and stream television—it’s been a bit wild. Put on top of that there’s nothing I’m allowed to do outside of this apartment other than walk around and look at things, and being away from work, and our friends and normal life…
“Even so, saying it’s difficult doesn’t feel right.”
Clearly, her laid-back Californian outlook hasn’t frozen over.