Oilers-Canadiens matchup in front of a full house is return to NHL the way it's supposed to be

Hockey fans in Edmonton bleed blue and orange. (Amber Bracken/CP)

EDMONTON — March 11, 2020. Was it only two years ago? 

By God, it seems like forever. Doesn’t it? 

Like a lifetime of mandates, of division, of the vaxed v. the unvaxed. Of information we didn’t always understand against misinformation we couldn’t stand. 

Remember those fake fan soundtracks that served as a disingenuous green screen to a year of empty arenas? 

Ooooh … aaaaahhh … yecch.  

They reminded us of how hollow the effort was, as hockey played on in months where we should have been at lakes and baseball parks. Because revenues. 

On March 11, 2020, we went to cover the Winnipeg Jets at Edmonton, and during the pregame meal the press room stopped as two men in suits ran out onto an NBA court before tip-off in Oklahoma City, abruptly huddling with game officials. That tip-off would never happen, after a player was found to have the coronavirus. 

Remember when we called it that? 

Rudy Gobert, who had scoffed at the virus only days before, became the canary in sports’ coal mine, and after one period of hockey that evening, we knew that basketball’s problem wasn’t just basketball’s problem at all. 

You could sense it: We were heading into foreign territory — What did they incessantly call it? Uncharted waters? — where hockey would take a backseat in the news cycle to far more important things. Where a daily look at the standings or scoring stats would be replaced by that 6 o’clock news board of death counts and percentages of how full our ICUs had become. 

“I was talking to Leon (Draisaitl) before the second period,” Jets captain Blake Wheeler said after that final pre-COVID game, “and he asked me if I had heard about the NBA? And the refs were talking about it too. It’s an unusual kind of night overall. The way things have unfolded the last few days, everything pretty much leading up to the game was talking about this.” 

And have we stopped talking about it since? 

Well, it is time to. Time to start clawing back our lives. 

Saturday is Hockey Night in Canada, and the Montreal Canadiens are in town to face the Edmonton Oilers in front of a full house at Rogers Arena. 

They will sing the Ukrainian national anthem pregame, as one tragedy passes its cruel baton to the next, and there will be a mask mandate in effect, loosely followed by many we would guess. But restrictions on crowd sizes have ceased, food and beverage is full-on, after two season of beerless fits and cheerless starts that rendered NHL hockey a shadow of what fans pay to enjoy. 

It’s back to the way they portray it is in the beer commercials: A Saturday versus the Habs; 18,000-plus fans; full food and beverage; and the usual 40 per cent Canadiens supporters revving up the emotions. 

May we say, “Two minutes for lookin’ so good.” 

This is who we are, right? 

Hockey, let alone Hockey Night in Canada, was never meant to be played in front of empty arenas, the game robbed of the emotion we will witness on Saturday, as 18,500 fans pour out of the Ice District pubs and into a building where the ribbing between fans will begin well before anyone’s tickets have been scanned. 

Remember, a trip out west by the Canadiens has always been special for a region of the country that never had its own NHL team until the late 1970s. In Alberta, many of us grew up cheering for Montreal. Or cheering for the Bruins or Flyers, and despising the Canadiens, who were always that much better than those other two. 

Here, the Canadiens jersey comes with emotions and memories, more than any other sweater in hockey, if we can beg the pardon of Maple Leafs Nation. They were our fathers’ favourite team, and here in Edmonton, it was a playoff sweep by Gretzky’s Oilers over Richard Sevigny and the Canadiens in 1981 that truly qualified Alberta’s capital as a bonafide National Hockey League city. 

That was when we arrived. Back when old Northlands Coliseum rocked us like a Dave Semenko right hand. 

It was one thing to beat the Los Angeles Kings like a drum, quite another to defeat Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey and Guy Lapointe in a straight-games series that announced us a city and a true Stanley Cup contender. 

A couple of weeks ago, I was so fortunate as to make a rare road trip with the Oilers, and as luck would have it, the schedule presented what is arguably the most memorable night in a National Hockey League season: A Saturday night game at the Bell Centre in Montreal. 

My travelling partner was young Daniel Nugent-Bowman of The Athletic, and as we sat through the quiet in an empty Bell Centre, I thought it such a shame that Daniel was missing out on perhaps the best Saturday night in the NHL. 

A game at the Bell Centre, followed by a romp on Crescent Street. It’s an evening that has fuelled the Professional Hockey Writers Association over the decades more than ink itself. And there we were, back at separate hotels rooms by 10:30 at night, watching the late game because the entire city was closed. 

To my eyes, poor Daniel still hasn’t covered a game at the Bell Centre. Not a real one, though we’re sure he’ll find another chance. 

For now, we’ll all settle for Edmonton on March 5. 

It’s a far cry from Edmonton on March 11, and the end of a long two years. 

Enjoy, mes amies

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