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

Fans watch the warm-up before Game 6 between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens in NHL playoff hockey action 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. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan RemiorzFans watch the warm-up before Game 6 between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens in NHL playoff hockey action 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. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Montreal Canadiens captain Shea Weber is introduced before an empty Bell Centre 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 Canadian NHL team will have paying fans in the arena tonight. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul ChiassonMontreal Canadiens captain Shea Weber is introduced before an empty Bell Centre 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 Canadian NHL team will have paying fans in the arena tonight. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

It was a scene 444 days in the making.

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

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

NHL rinks in this country have been without crowds, save for the odd first responder or front-line worker invited by individual teams, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

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

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

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

“It was it was pretty cool going out for warmups and seeing the towels going,” Montreal winger Tyler Toffoli said. “They were fired up and they definitely gave us that emotion to start the game.”

Fans sang O Canada without accompaniment in a emotion-stirring rendition that sounded like a lot more than just 2,500 people. Montreal supporters, whose team would pick up an exciting 3-2 overtime victory to force Game 7, heckled Leafs goalie Jack Campbell early and lustily booed a penalty call against their team.

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

“It was pretty electric.”

And while the gathering of roughly 12 per cent capacity was mostly pulling for the home team, the visitors had their fair share of support.

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

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

Montreal’s Major League Soccer team had the first Canadian crowd at a professional sporting event during the pandemic when they were permitted to allow 250 fans to a game at their outdoor stadium last summer.

Some junior hockey teams also have 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’ve seen down in the U.S. the emotion and how that can change an environment.

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

An encouraging step towards normalcy, Saturday at the Bell Centre was still a far cry from what NHL teams south of the border have experienced in the playoffs after clubs started to allow a percentage of fans into buildings as the 56-game season progressed and vaccine rates outpaced those in Canada.

The Boston Bruins welcomed close to 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 showdown with the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But this was a start. And a symbol of what’s hopefully to come at the end of a long pandemic tunnel.

“The Canadiens sent out something where it said, ‘Show Canada what it could look like to be open,’” Koehler said. “It is more than just a hockey game.

“It’s about the future.”

The Canadiens gave seat priority to season-ticket holders, luxury-suite holders, and corporate partners to purchase tickets in pods of two or four.

Buyers were allowed to resell tickets, and more than a few certainly took advantage. Prices were exorbitant for the average fan on the secondary market, with the cheapest pair available a couple of hours before puck drop still priced around $1,800 on Ticketmaster.

“This is huge for people — people in general,” Pierre said. “Not just hockey … just to be able to socialize and do this is such a huge thing.”

She wouldn’t disclose what she paid for her seats, but added the price wasn’t important after nearly 15 months of pandemic life.

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

“Every little bit is worth it. To be here and be with these people, is going to be worth it.”

Koehler, whose family has had season seats since the 1940s, said he and his wife 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’re doing it because we want to be part of it.”

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

None of that mattered for fans.

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

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

Quebec’s curfew — in place since Jan. 9 — was lifted Friday. Restaurant patios across the province were also permitted to reopen after being closed in some parts of the province, including Montreal, since Oct. 1.

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

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

“And these are the rewards that were earned.”

___

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

CoronavirusNHL

Just Posted

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney arrives at the 2021 budget in Edmonton on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Alberta launches COVID vaccine lottery with million-dollar prizes to encourage uptake

The premier says the lottery will offer three prizes worth $1 million a piece, as well as other prizes

Some examples of ‘kindness’ rocks that were painted by members of the Boys and Girls Club in Rimbey. photo submitted
The ‘kindness rock snake’ continues to take shape in Rimbey

Residents are asked to contribute a ‘kindness rock’ to a project near the Blindman Youth Action Building

The City of Red Deer sits at 249 active cases of the virus, after hitting a peak of 565 active cases on Feb. 22. (Black Press file image)
Red Deer down to 119 active COVID-19 cases

Province identifies 179 new cases Saturday

Member Terry Parsons’ custom built track vehicle.
Forestburg’s Area 53 Racetrack gears up for action-packed season

Site will also host a portion of the ‘Miles of Mayhem’ event in July

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in a plenary session at the G7 Summit in Carbis Bay, England on Friday June 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada donating 13M surplus COVID-19 vaccine doses to poor countries

Trudeau says the government will pay for 87 million shots to be distributed to poor countries

Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference, Wednesday May 19, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Indigenous child-welfare battle heads to court despite calls for Ottawa to drop cases

Feds are poised to argue against two Canadian Human Rights Tribunal rulings

The Great Ogopogo Bathtub Race has been held in Summerland as a fundraising event. Do you know which Canadian city introduced this sport? (Black Press file photo)
QUIZ: A summer’s day at the water

How much do you know about boats, lakes and water?

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

“They will never be forgotten, every child matters,” says Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone in a video statement June 1. (Screen grab)
104 ‘potential graves’ detected at site of former residential school in Manitoba

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation working to identify, repatriate students buried near former Brandon residential school

Denmark’s Christian Eriksen receives medical attention after collapsing during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group B match between Denmark and Finland at Parken stadium in Copenhagen, Saturday, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, Pool)
Christian Eriksen in stable condition, Euro 2020 match resumes

Eriksen was given chest compressions after collapsing on the field during a European Championship

As stories of the horrors of residential schools circulate after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said he feels a connection with the former students. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
2 sides of the same coin: Ex-foster kids identify with residential school survivors

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says the child welfare system takes Indigenous children from their families

Airport ground crew offload a plane carrying just under 300,000 doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine which is developed by the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies at Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
1st batch of Johnson & Johnson vaccines won’t be released in Canada over quality concerns

The vaccines were quarantined in April before they were distributed to provinces

Most Read