‘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

Joseph Albert Brooks, 94-years-young pf Prince Rupert offers traditional prayers and smudging to the sick. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Heart of our City: Joseph Albert Brooks keeps smudging and praying for others

94-year-old Tsimshian elder just wants some help washing his floors

Land along Prince Rupert’s waterfront, PID 012-247-391, where residents say excessive industrial train noise is stemming from, has been found to be owned by the City of Prince Rupert and is not federal land like first presented, Prince Rupert Environmental Society stated on June 17. (Image: supplied by Land Title and Survey, Govt. of BC.)
Error found on land titles map may assist city with noise control enforcement of industry

Prince Rupert residents had been told there was no municipal jurisdiction to enforce noise bylaws

Department of Oceans and Fisheries has announced as of July 19 chinook salmon is not to be fished in certain areas in BC tidal waters until July. Spring chinook salmon are seen swimming. (Photo courtesy Michael Humling, US Fish & Wildlife Service)
Chinook Salmon limits set to zero in some BC tidal waters

DFO implement restrictions to protect Chinook Salmon

Visitors to a pop-up temporary aquarium in Prince Rupert will have the chance to see marine ecology from July 21 to Aug. 15, like this viewer watching sea anemones at the Ripley’s Aquarium in Toronto. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
Prince Rupert pop-up aquarium will bring sea level to eye level in July

A permanent peak to reef ecology centre is in the planning stages by North Coast Ecology Society

Prince Rupert’s Ellen Wright and Graeme Dickens jam out during filming the two Ring System Studio concerts to be broadcast on television during June. (Photo: supplied, H. Cox)
Ring System Studio sounds on television

Two concerts by the Prince Rupert music school will be broadcast in June

Marco Mendicino, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship during a press conference in Ottawa on Thursday, May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Canada to welcome 45,000 refugees this year, says immigration minister

Canada plans to increase persons admitted from 23,500 to 45,000 and expedite permanent residency applications

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

NACI recommends an mRNA vaccine for all Canadians receiving a second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Updated tailings code after Mount Polley an improvement: B.C. mines auditor

British Columbia’s chief auditor of mines has found changes to the province’s requirements for tailings storage facilities

A North Vancouver man was arrested Friday and three police officers were injured after a 10-person broke out at English Bay on June 19, 2021. (Youtube/Screen grab)
Man arrested, 3 police injured during 10-person brawl at Vancouver beach

The arrest was captured on video by bystanders, many of whom heckled the officers as they struggled with the handcuffed man

Patrick O’Brien, a 75-year-old fisherman, went missing near Port Angeles Thursday evening. (Courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard)
Search for lost fisherman near Victoria suspended, U.S. Coast Guard says

The 75-year-old man was reported missing Thursday evening

Bruce Springsteen performs at the 13th annual Stand Up For Heroes benefit concert in support of the Bob Woodruff Foundation in New York on Nov. 4, 2019. (Greg Allen/Invision/AP)
Canadians who got AstraZeneca shot can now see ‘Springsteen on Broadway’

B.C. mayor David Screech who received his second AstraZeneca dose last week can now attend the show

New research suggests wolves can be steered away from the endangered caribou herds they prey on by making the man-made trails they use to hunt harder to move along. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Culling cutlines, not B.C. wolves, key to preserving caribou herds: researcher

The government has turned to killing hundreds of wolves in an effort to keep caribou around

Gary Abbott (left) and Louis De Jaeger were two of the organizers for the 2014 Spirit of the People Powwow in Chilliwack. Monday, June 21, 2021 is Indigenous Peoples Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of June 20 to 26

Indigenous Peoples Day, Take Your Dog to Work Day, Onion Rings Day all coming up this week

Most Read