‘More than just a hockey game’: NHL fans return to Bell Center for Habs-Leafs

MONTREAL – It was a scene that lasted 444 days.

Smiling, jersey-clad Canadian hockey fans – with tickets bought and paid for – enjoying beers and the sun before heading to an NHL arena on a spring evening.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Montreal Canadiens season ticket holder Rob Koehler. “It’s part of the story, things are starting to open up.”

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, NHL rinks in this country have been crowd-free save for a few first responders or front-line workers invited by individual teams.

That finally changed on Saturday after the Quebec government eased restrictions, allowing the Canadiens to admit 2,500 fans inside the 21,302-seat Bell Center for Game 6 of their first-round playoff series against the Maples. Toronto Leafs.

“Feels good, man,” said Yves Bissonnette, sporting a red Montreal jersey.

Assigned seats where spectators could sit were adorned with rally towels – no less than seven rows from the ice on the side of the penalty box and 12 rows behind the nets and benches – while organist Diane Bibeau played for the crowd before fans booed the Leafs and cheered the Canadiens as they walked down the ice.

“It was pretty cool to come out for warm-ups and see the towels go,” said Montreal winger Tyler Toffoli. “They were excited and they definitely gave us that emotion to start the game.”

Fans sang O Canada unaccompanied in a moving rendition that sounded like over 2,500 people. Montreal fans, whose team would earn a thrilling 3-2 overtime victory to force Game 7, heckled Leafs goaltender Jack Campbell early and booed a penalty against their team vigorously.

“It was exciting to have fans in the building,” Campbell said. “They took advantage of 2,500 people.

Montreal Canadiens captain Shea Weber is shown in front of an empty Bell Center for the Canadiens’ home opener against the Calgary Flames in Montreal on Thursday, January 28, 2021. For the first time since March 2020, a Canadian team from the NHL will have paying fans in the arena tonight.

  • Fans watch the warm-up before Game 6 between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens during NHL playoff hockey action Saturday, May 29, 2021 in Montreal.  The easing of COVID-19 restrictions in Quebec will allow 2,500 fans to attend the game for the first time in fourteen months.

“It was pretty electric.”

And while the rally of around 12% capacity mainly attracted the home team, the visitors had their fair share of support.

Toronto fan Kim Pierre traveled from Barrie, Ont., after securing tickets on Friday.

“A complete feeling of euphoria and happiness,” she said hours before the game. “The feeling is absolutely amazing.”

Major League Soccer’s Montreal team welcomed the first Canadian crowd to a professional sporting event during the pandemic when it was allowed to allow 250 fans for a match at its outdoor stadium last summer.

Some junior hockey teams have also been allowed to have limited crowds.

“Having some people back in the building is a sign of progress,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said before the game. “We have seen in the United States the emotion and how it can change an environment.

“I think in this case here … it’s less about the game and our sport and the playoffs and all that, but more just about the progress being made in the country. I think that’s a very good sign for everyone.

An encouraging step toward normalcy on Saturday at the Bell Center was still a far cry from what NHL teams south of the border experienced in the playoffs after clubs began allowing a percentage of fans in buildings as and as the 56-game season progressed and vaccination rates surpassed those in Canada.

The Boston Bruins hosted nearly a full house for Game 1 of their second-round series against the New York Islanders at TD Garden on Saturday, while the Carolina Hurricanes announced they would have more than 16,000 spectators for the first two contests of their confrontation with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But that was just the start. And a symbol of what will hopefully come at the end of a long pandemic tunnel.

“Canadians sent something that said, ‘Show Canada what it might be like to be open,'” Koehler said. “It’s more than just a hockey game.

“It’s about the future.”

The Canadiens prioritized season ticket holders, luxury suite holders and corporate partners to purchase tickets in groups of two or four.

Buyers were allowed to resell tickets, and more than a few certainly profited. Prices were exorbitant for the average fan in the secondary market, with the cheapest pair available hours before the game was still around $1,800 on Ticketmaster.

“It’s huge for people – people in general,” Pierre said. “Not just hockey…just being able to socialize and do that is so huge.”

She did not reveal what she paid for her seats, but added that the price was not significant after almost 15 months of pandemic life.

“We’re big concert goers too,” said Pierre. “We haven’t seen a concert, we haven’t done anything for a year and a bit. So for us to be able to go out and do something is huge.

“Every little bit is worth it. Being here and being with these people will be worth it.

Koehler, whose family has had season seats since the 1940s, said he and his wife had talked about selling their tickets.

“We had the discussion last night, today and even on the way down,” he said while sporting a Maurice (Rocket) Richard jersey. “(But) it’s not worth selling. We do it because we want to be part of it.

All Bell Center fans were required to socially distance from those outside their pod, while anyone aged five and over was required to wear a mask. Only bottled water was sold in concessions.

None of this mattered to fans.

“We’ve been talking about it since the last time we came here,” Pierre said. “Right before COVID, we came for two games.

“The second we could come back for a game, we came back. We had to come back. »

The curfew in Quebec – in place since January 9 – was lifted on Friday. Restaurant patios across the province have also been allowed to reopen after being closed in parts of the province, including Montreal, since October 1.

The new measures came as COVID-19 hospitalizations in the province fell to their lowest level in more than six months.

“The pandemic has hit people here as hard as anywhere in our country, and people deserve it,” Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher said Saturday morning. “They were disciplined, they listened to what was asked of them.

“And those are the awards that have been won.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 29, 2021.


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Catherine J. Martinez