Monday, January 10, 2011

Arena review series: The Bell Centre, Montreal

I once saw the Yankees play at the old Cathedral in the Bronx, but I haven't been able to see any of the old hockey buildings yet. The Bell Centre, a flashy, spacious and amenity-filled rink right around old downtown Montreal, would no way compare to the rink where Rocket Richard and Guy Lafleur once wowed audiences. This was rather the house of Joe Juneau, Andreas Dackell, Jose Theodore and Jan Bulis. Hockey grows, and with it, Montreal fans lost the right to cheer exclusively for future legendary french players who defined the culture of an entire province and a nation* of Canadians only to have their heroes replaced by sterile foreigners, some of whom get pronounced over the public address system as if they grew up in Rosemaire. This is, I assume, the appeal of Andrei Kostitsyn.

*(political-correctness controversy!)

Tourist fans are shunted into the direction of a relatively large section of the stadium dedicated to every former Canadien who made it to the Hall of Fame, and the arena disc jockey revels in the holiness of U2, playing Vertigo at any opportunity and I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For in the opening sequence. It's a match made in heaven, between the Montreal Canadiens and U2. U2, as good as they are, are the insufferable band that cleaned up rock music for radio and department stores while claiming to have descended in spirit from the rockers of the 60s and 70s. It's just as you can't get in a hockey argument with a Montreal fan who won't bring up the 24 Stanley Cups, the majority of which were won before they were born.

Every tourist fan who has had too many beers to hold a camera straight has indubitably taken a shitty picture like this one


There's a statue pavillion outside, but other than that and the Hall of Fame section, the arena brass truly attempts to keep each fans' focus on the present. Large posters around the concourse depict current Habs players, and I even got to see one with the caption "Je Suis Wisniewsky" wherein a life-size Wiz, the newest member of the team was staring back at me and other fans. The opening sequence, sterility of the music aside, is a touching introduction of minor hockey players across Québec, each saying in turn "je serais Canadien" with the flair and charisma of somebody who probably doesn't have a future in hockey. Maybe it's odd to me, as a Canucks fan, because management of that team sells retro-gear and vintage-gear to any insufferable idiot with a wallet who walks by, but even the Habs merchandise booths are about the present. The fans in the rink with jerseys mostly wear 'Cammalleri' 'Price' 'Subban' and 'Gionta' with a few remaining 'Halak' and the very rare 'Roy' or name-less jersey with a number synonymous with a Hall of Famer. For the past that the team has, and what it's fans really want to remind you of at any opportunity, they sure do focus on the task at hand at the Bell Centre.

But while the new buildings have sucked the life out of hockey and replaced loud, passionnate fans with the Blackberry base on the lower levels, Montreal remains loud. Always a historically strong defensive team, the current team doesn't seem to want to capitalize on what could be the most passionnate fanbase at their home games. When you get to your seat and watch the speed and flow of the game as you wouldn't be able to at home, you can really appreciate how much Habs coach Jacques Martin hates hockey. I bet he makes his team skate laps when more than two guys cross centre-ice at 5-on-5, but the fans remain faithful. They make noise when their favourite player touches the puck. They start chants in the quiet moments of the game to establish a pace (knowing Martin's coaching style, that explains why the building is so loud) and go to piss or buy beers strictly in the intermission.

We went to a bar next to the stadium prior to the Saturday night game. 'Ye Olde Orchard', an English pub right across the street, happened to have a number of Bruins fans pre-game. In modern, the old rivalries don't matter so much to the players, but they do to the fans, and while I picture drunk Montreal hockey fans and drunk Bostonian anythings on a game-day, it usually involves flying fists. The atmosphere of that bar was amazing and like nothing I'd ever seen before. This is a real rivalry, but the patrons seemed to understand it was just a game. The Montreal fans yelled their "Olés" while the Boston fans started a "Lets Go Bruins" while I was trying to watch the Seahawks playoff game, and I missed a touchdown when this happened:

What happens when you fill up a large stadium with good concessions, beautiful facades and comfy seats with fans like that? Goodness. Boston was up 2-0 late, but the Montreal fans hung around and were rewarded, when le Club Hockey tied it up 2-2 with two goals in the final three minutes, and won on a Max Pacioretty shot in overtime. In the Thursday game against Pittsburgh we saw, the Montreal third line grinded out a second period goal by Benoit Pouliot, and he scored in the shootout for the skills contest's only goal with a Forsberg post stamp move. The games were very good, despite Martin's desire to not play Favourite of the Factor PK Subban more on the powerplay, going a full 1:39 5-on-3 without Primetime seeing the ice.

If the building has a negative, it's a poor selection of beer, despite being in an area where every bar has a terrific selection of pale and amber ales to choose from. All you can get in the building is a Molson Export.

Cliffs notes:

-Current Habs players aren't as good as old Habs players
-I don't like U2
-Montreal fans were fun
-Rival fans were fun
-Hockey is a good game
-PK! PK! PK!

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