‘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

Vernon-Monashee NDP MLA Harwinder Sandhu supported a motion in the B.C. legislature for Canada to create a national Indigenous History month Monday, June 13, 2021. (Contributed)
Canada needs a national Indigenous History Month, Vernon MLA agrees

Harwinder Sandhu supports motion to recognize June as month to advance reconciliation efforts with First Nations

A for sale sign is shown in by new homes in Beckwith, Ont., just outside Ottawa, on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Thompson-Okanagan population grew despite COVID-19: report

The Chartered Professional Accountants of BC said there are 8,462 new residents in the region

Closure of the 2900 block of 30th Avenue will allow restaurants and other businesses to extend their patios onto the street. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Green light given to downtown Vernon road closure

Single block of 30th Avenue to close over summer months to boost business

Kelowna General Hospital. (File photo)
COVID-19 outbreak at Kelowna General Hospital declared over

Three people tested positive for the virus — two patients and one staff — one of whom died

A crash at the intersection of Harvey Avenue and Leckie Road on June 15. (Amandalina Letterio/Capital News)
Traffic stalled by Harvey Avenue crash in Kelowna

One lane is open as crews clean up after crash at Harvey Avenue and Leckie Road

People watch a car burn during a riot following game 7 of the NHL Stanley Cup final in downtown Vancouver, B.C., in this June 15, 2011 photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Geoff Howe
10 years ago: Where were you during the 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots?

Smashed-in storefronts, looting, garbage can fires and overturned cars some of the damage remembered today

(Facebook)
New trial date set for Penticton beach attacker’s triple assault charges

May trial was delayed after Crown witnesses failed to show up

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Graduating Grade 12 student Savannah Lamb has been awarded an approximate $40,000 scholarship from the Beedie Luminaries foundation. (Contributed)
Dedicated Salmon Arm student earns scholarship to pursue post-secondary education

Savannah Lamb is graduating from Salmon Arm Secondary with a $40,000 scholarship

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

A provided photo of the suspect. (Kelowna RCMP/Contributed)
Kelowna RCMP investigating after business robbed

An undisclosed amount of money and merchandise were taken from the business

Travel Penticton went to city council for support in increasing the tax on short-term stays to fund a convention bureau and affordable housing. (File photo)
Travel Penticton seeks to grow through increased hotel tax

The increased funds would go to creating a convention bureau and to affordable housing

(Black Press Media file)
Dirty money: Canadian currency the most germ-filled in the world, survey suggests

Canadian plastic currency was found to contain 209 bacterial cultures

Most Read