“More than just a hockey game”: NHL fans return to the Bell Center for the Habs-Leafs

MONTREAL – It was a scene in 444 days.

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

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

NHL rinks in this country have been crowded with the exception of a few first responders or frontline workers invited by individual teams, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

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

“It feels good, man,” said Yves Bissonnette, wearing a red Montreal sweater.

The assigned seats where spectators could sit were adorned with gathering napkins – no less than seven rows from the ice on the penalty bench side 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 on the ice.

“It was pretty cool going out for the warm-ups and seeing 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 performance that sounded like well over 2,500 people. The Montreal fans, whose team would claim an exciting 3-2 overtime victory to force Game 7, heckled Leafs goalie Jack Campbell early and called a penalty against their team.

“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 NHL home opener against the Calgary Flames in Montreal on Thursday, January 28, 2021. For the first time since March 2020, a Canada’s NHL team 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 in the NHL Playoff hockey game on Saturday, May 29, 2021 in Montreal.  Quebec's easing of COVID-19 restrictions will allow 2,500 fans to attend the game for the first time in fourteen months.

“It was quite electric.”

And while the rally of around 12% of capacity was primarily for the home team, the visitors got their fair share of support.

Toronto fan Kim Pierre drove 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 incredible.”

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

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

“The return of some people to 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 this is a very good sign for everyone.

An encouraging step towards normalcy, 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 into buildings as the The 56-game season wore on and vaccination rates exceeded those of 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 games of their showdown with Tampa Bay Lightning.

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

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

“It’s about the future.

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

Buyers were allowed to resell the tickets, and many certainly took advantage. Prices were sky-high for the average fan in the aftermarket, with the cheapest pair available a few hours before the puck fell still costing 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, that’s such a huge thing.”

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

“We are also great musicians,” 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. It will be worth it to be here and to be with these people. ”

Koehler, whose family has had seasonal 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, sporting a Maurice (Rocket) Richard jersey. “(But) it’s not worth selling. We do it because we want to be a part of it.

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

None of this mattered to the fans.

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

“The second we could come back for a game, we would come back. We had to be back.

The curfew in Quebec – in place since January 9 – was lifted on Friday. Restaurant terraces 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 else in our country, and people deserve it,” Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher said on Saturday morning. “They were disciplined, they listened to what was asked of them.

“And these are the awards that have been earned.”

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

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Catherine J. Martinez