MONTREAL — It was April 4, 2018, and Carey Price had just completed his 557th start to pass Jacques Plante for top spot on the Montreal Canadiens all-time list. He was quietly filing his equipment away ahead of holding court with the media from his dressing-room stall.
I saw him in my periphery, but he wasn’t my focus. I was standing and chatting with Paul Byron, committed to writing about how the former waiver-wire scoop had just passed the 20-goal mark for a second consecutive season and authored a pretty compelling story I was more interested in elaborating on after dedicating my previous column to Price tying Plante for this particular milestone.
After all, what was achieved by Price on that night didn’t put him past Plante on the franchise’s all-time wins list — Price would do that a little less than a year later with his 314th victory as a Canadien — and talking to him could wait as it was merely going to enable me to ensure I could collect a quote worth using as a footnote to Byron’s unique accomplishment.
We were mere seconds into Price’s availability when my plan changed and rendered Byron’s story the footnote to a moment that I knew would forever be seared into my memory.
During the game, coming out of a television timeout, the Canadiens ran a tribute to Price’s career on the scoreboard, which featured highlight saves and video messages from Montreal legends Patrick Roy and Ken Dryden. As it wrapped, fans at Bell Centre erupted, offering Price the biggest ovation he’d experienced in all his time in Montreal to that point.
The Canadiens went on to lose Price’s 557th start to the Winnipeg Jets, which was quite apropos considering how much they — and he — had struggled that season.
Afterwards, someone asked Price what that tribute and ovation meant to him, and his response leveled me.
“It was definitely an emotional moment for myself,” started Price, teary-eyed. “I didn’t expect it to be, but that video and that ovation was something that I really needed. I’m really thankful and really appreciate that.”
Something that I really needed.
This was Carey Price, the franchise goaltender; Carey Price, who was anointed the Canadiens’ saviour the day he was drafted in 2005 and considered to be that from the minute he helped Canada capture world junior gold in 2007 to the minute he earned MVP honours with the Calder Cup champion Hamilton Bulldogs through the day he took over as starter from Christobal Huet in his rookie season and just about all the way through to him setting this record; Carey Price, Olympic gold medallist; Carey Price, world champion; Carey Price, Hart, Vezina and Jennings winner; Carey Price, Ted Lindsay Award recipient.
I couldn’t get over this person saying he needed to feel love from a fan base that had long ago deified him.
Price had always played it cool, bordering on indifferent. But not then, and it was a profound moment.
But for as surprising it was to hear those words come out of his mouth, it was understandable. The Carey Price we saw that season appeared nothing like the decorated legend he had become. He was virtually unrecognizable in the early months, which played a considerable role in the Canadiens falling well out of the playoff picture quickly and never recovering, and he heard more boos and mock cheers along the way than he likely ever thought he would from his crease.
It hurt him.
But I never knew how much until that night. It wasn’t until after allowing five goals to the Jets and saying how much the crowd’s acknowledgement of him passing Plante meant to him that I truly understood just how much all of this means to him.
I have thought a lot about those words — and the feelings behind them — many times since. I’ve especially thought about them since July, with Price going from the Stanley Cup Final straight into knee surgery, and since October, with him going from preparing for training camp to preparing to announce to the world he was stepping away from hockey and into a rehabilitation facility to hopefully remedy a long-existing substance abuse problem.
Those words resonated when he returned from treatment, and they were once again ringing in my ears all throughout Friday, with Price finally breaking through several setbacks to return for the 696th start of his career.
After a 282-day absence from his crease, the 34-year-old made his way towards it during warmup with the familiar — and no doubt comforting — roars from the fans echoing throughout the Bell Centre.
It was special.
But when Price was introduced as a member of the starting lineup and given a spine-tingling ovation, it turned this into one of the most memorable nights in recent Canadiens history — and certainly that of the 26-year-old Bell Centre’s.
Emotions stirred every time the fans chanted, “CAREY! CAREY! CAREY!”
They did it after Price’s first save of the night — a casual blocker-save on Kyle Palmieri at 3:32 of the first period — and did it seven more times before the New York Islanders skated off the ice 3-0 victors.
That moment back in 2018 rushed back to mind and made it needless to guess about what this one meant to Price.
“Obviously, it was heartwarming,” he said after the game. “Made me feel really, I guess, wanted.”
That Price said that only reinforced how much validation from Canadiens fans means to him.
He needed this.
His wife, Angela, and his kids, Liv, Millie and Lincoln, who sat along the glass and held a sign saying, “We Love you Dada,” needed this. His parents, Jerry and Lynda, needed this. The fans in attendance — and those watching at home — needed this. And the Canadiens, who haven’t had much of anything to celebrate during this brutal season, needed this, too.
“He’s been the face of the franchise ever since he came into the organization, and he carries a lot of weight on his shoulders and is a great role model for everybody and really is a Montreal Canadien down to his core,” said teammate Nick Suzuki. “Just to have him back is special. The fans feel that, and so do we.”
The Canadiens showed it in the way they played, piling up 89 shot attempts to New York’s 39 and dominating the game with the exception of two sloppy sequences.
Ilya Sorokin was otherworldly in the Islanders’ net.
Price was Price. He was helpless on a 3-on-0 rush that turned into the first goal he allowed since Game 5 of the Final, with Zach Parise easily finishing Mat Barzal’s pass to put the Islanders up 1-0 in the fifth minute of the third period. He had no chance on the Noah Dobson goal that followed, and certainly none on the one he watched hit an empty net as he sat on the bench so the Canadiens could ice an extra attacker. He made 17 good saves, and once again got to hear the crowd chant his name as the final seconds ticked off the clock and the puck found his glove.
The fans were so generous with Price, with their opening ovation paused for a moment of silence to honour the life of legendary local — and Islanders — hero Mike Bossy, who passed away from lung cancer earlier in the day, at age 65. They showered him with affection he soaked in while trying to, as he put it, “stay focused because I wanted to play well tonight.”
“He’s a quiet guy, he’s got such a calm and passive demeanor to him,” said Byron. “But I know deep down that that meant a lot to him. It meant a lot to his family. He doesn’t always express his emotions, but I can imagine getting that kind of welcome back from the crowd. They showed how much they really love him, and it’s been an incredible run he’s had here in his career. He’s an incredible goalie, and everyone was really happy to have him back — us included — so special night for him.”
Never mind whether or not it was one of Price’s last ones in a Canadiens uniform, or in this league for that matter. There will be plenty of time to speculate on his future, and all he had to say about it was that his focus from here to the end of the season would be to “just to start feeling good about my game in general,” and just “to be able to feel like I’m playing at a level that I feel is acceptable.”
Price said he felt good overall, perhaps a bit rusty in his reads, but prepared and “not out of place.”
He didn’t have to say he missed this; it was obvious. He missed everything about it as his rehabilitation from knee surgery dragged on due to, as he put it, his age and the movements required from his position.
“It’s everything that goes with the game — being able to sit there in your stall before the game and have a few laughs, the preparation and the focus and the competitive nature of the game,” Price said after he was asked what specifically he missed. “Everything that goes along with it —the buzz of the crowd, making a save, hearing the chants.”
They’ve always meant a lot to him. More than I, or anyone else, ever imagined.