I'm taking a break from the usual post genre for today, that will return mid-next week. Today, I want to write about my (second) trip to Montreal, Quebec, which is in my opinion, the heart and soul of the hockey world. With all due respect to the city of Toronto, the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Maple Leafs organization, if 29 teams were planets, they would revolve around the Montreal Canadiens solar system. Here's a recap of my days in Montreal:
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 23RD: Arrived in Montreal around noon. I have a Devils sweatshirt on, so I am getting some interesting looks and occasional comments from the natives as I walk from my hotel to the Bell Centre. Nobody is being rude, everyone is classy and it's easy to spark a friendly conversation about hockey with. If I was in Philly, I might be dead by now.
I shop at the Canadiens' gift shop and buy myself a Habs cap. I have a very good reason for doing this, and it's not because I'm abandoning the Devils, it's because I have to buy any cap that fits me, because most do not.
I go to dinner at my favorite restaurant in Canada that I've found so far. It's called Guido and Angelino's and it's located at the corner of the Montreal Forum. To anyone who hasn't been to Montreal, they have kept the building from the Forum and turned it into a 22-plex Cinema, as well as created a small, 4-story mall. In the center of the building remains one section of the old Forum seats as well as a statue of a Habs fan and a statue of the great "Rocket Richard." Also accomplished at dinner: I sell my extra ticket to my waiter, as his son would like to experience his first game at Bell Centre as well.
After dinner, I go back to the bakery, still at the Forum, and enjoy some gelati (Italian ice cream). After returning to the hotel, I spent hours watching TSN and Rogers Sportsnet (and some RDS that I couldn't understand), and enjoyed rare hockey coverage on national TV, all heavily bias towards the Toronto Maple Leafs. In the U.S., you'll get limited coverage that is heavily bias towards the Pittsburgh Penguins.
THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 24TH: It's game day. Toronto Maple Leafs at Montreal Canadiens at 7:30. But that's hours away.
I find the address to Martin Brodeur's restaurant and arena in St. Leonard, which is twenty minutes out of downtown Montreal. This is the neighborhood that Brodeur, as well as Roberto Luongo grew up in.
Marty's restaurant is a modern Italian pizzeria, and he's got some memorabilia there as well. Upon walking in on the right wall, there are two framed All-Star jerseys from 2004 in Minnesota featuring Brodeur's All-Star jersey and co-owner (of the restaurant) Sheldon Souray. On the far left is a poster of pictures (all taken by Brodeur's father, Denis) from the game on March 17th, 2009, the day Brodeur passed Patrick Roy for the most wins in NHL history by a goaltender. There are 56 of these posters throughout Quebec, and this is the original. The other 55 are located at select sports bars. If you walk straight ahead upon walking in, there is a hallway filled with pictures from Brodeur and Souray's careers.
Everything about the restaurant (La Pizzeria Etc.) is phenomenal. The food, the people, the facility, it's all wonderful. I was able to make connections with the waiter who was there that day, since he and Brodeur are friends, but any hockey fan would enjoy the place. I took a leftover box home, and that's one of my souvenirs from the place. Next door to Marty's restaurant is "Prima Luna," an upscale restaurant with a ball room that also has a wall of pictures from Brodeur and Souray's careers.
It then took me half an hour to find "Arena Martin Brodeur," which is hardly five miles from the restaurant. The arena was dedicated to Brodeur after he won the Stanley Cup (I believe in 2000). Again, the people at the rink were extremely kind. Now, back to the issue of caps not relating to Ilya Kovalchuk, but baseball caps: I wanted an "MB30" cap, which is part of a line of clothes (t-shirts/caps, etc.) started on Brodeur's website (martinbrodeur30.com). I ended up buying the "MB30" t-shirt, which has his MB30 logo on the front with netting in the logo and a list of awards scattered on the back of the shirt, such as Calder, Vezina, Olympic Gold and Stanley Cup.
I didn't have enough time, but Roberto Luongo also has an arena dedicated to him, which is funny, because he hasn't won a Stanley Cup. Regardless, I'm assuming it's a must-see for Vancouver fans and Luongo fans.
GAMETIME: My hotel was three blocks from the Bell Centre, so I left for a 7:30 game at just past 6:00. Usually, when I'm leaving for a Devils game, I leave before 5:00 PM because of the uncertainty of New Jersey traffic. Fifteen minutes later, I'm through the gates of the arena.
Now, I've been to Bell Centre before on a tour of the arena, but not yet to a game, and I had a few thoughts about the place this time:
- Security is low. They won't let me into the Prudential Center without a pretty thorough bag check and with my cell phone on and out of my pocket. Obviously, location plays a big part in it...but at the Bell Centre, they scanned my ticket and I walked right in (don't get any ideas, please).
- Most fans appreciated that I made the trip to Montreal for the main purpose of experiencing the Bell Centre.
- There are a LOT of Toronto Maple Leaf fans in Canada, and they travel very well.
- Although Leafs/Habs is one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports, there was little, if any, fan violence. Even at Devils/Rangers games at either arena, there will be some fighting in the seats and several fans that won't make it through three periods, but I honestly didn't see a single fan get ejected from the arena. They're classy fans most of the time.
- I'm sure this is true in all six Canadian arenas, but everyone sings the national anthem. In many American arenas, fans will wait for the right time to shout something or start a chant. It's not that we aren't proud to be American, it's just that sometimes, fans have their own agendas at games.
- Despite ticket prices, every fan cares about the game. Most fans are wearing jerseys, either red or blue, and there are few seats used for purely business. The fans are obviously among the league's loudest and most passionate, but they don't miss anything. Every time ex-Hab Mike Komisarek touched the puck, the crowd was all over him. In New Jersey, Scott Gomez and Sean Avery get booed mercilessly, but not to the extent that Habs fans booed Komisarek. Later in the first period, the fans amused themselves by booing Dion Phaneuf every time he touched the puck, and did that for the rest of the game. Kessel? That's automatic...
It was truly a unique experience, and something that few, if any, other fanbases can provide. Again, nothing against Toronto fans, but as a whole, Habs fans are always involved in the game. I can't say that Habs fans are more passionate because I have yet to visit the Air Canada Centre.
As for the game itself, the crowd got into it early as Jeff Halpern deflected a Roman Hamrlik wrister in, but Alex Auld got toasted, allowing a pair of power play goals to Phil Kessel and a third goal to Brett Lebda, his first of the season, before getting pulled. In the second period, Cammalleri and Wisniewski got the Habs tied up at 3 with power play goals 20 seconds apart, but Tyler Bozak scored one in the second and another in the third to give Toronto a 5-3 lead. Max Pacioretty scored with less than two minutes to play, but Toronto pinned Montreal in the Habs' own end for most of the remaining 90 seconds and won, 5-4. The concourse was nearly silent following the game, at least by the home fans. The many Leaf fans who made the trip celebrated, but not in a rude manner.
Again, the walk back to the hotel was painless. In Newark, it would have taken 15 minutes just to get in the car, another 15 to get out of Newark, and then the ride home, but here, it was barely a 15-minute walk back to the hotel. Once I got back, I watched TSN's recap and then watched extended highlights on RDS in French.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 25TH: I was supposed to leave Montreal that Friday, but New York state was getting slammed with a blizzard that kept me stranded for another day. So, naturally, when you're given an extra day in Montreal, you take advantage of it. I found my favorite bakery from two years ago, and then returned to Marty Brodeur's restaurant.
Now, Canadians have to appreciate something for a moment: in the U.S., it is absolutely impossible to find any hockey coverage whatsoever, unless you have Sirius radio, where you'll be able to find some hockey coverage, but nothing Earth-shattering. From noon to 2, you can get NHL Live on the NHL Network, and from 4 to 6, you can get NHL Power Play on NHL Network, but other than that, there is nothing you can watch or listen to, so I'll appreciate anything I can get.
Canadians complain about TSN, and you know what? I get it. It's bias and they focus on what they want to. Some of the analysts are annoying, but it's coverage that you can't find across the border. This is why I spent part of Friday afternoon watching the simulcast of The Fan 590's afternoon radio show, "Prime Time Sports," with the always entertaining, Bob McCown. I laughed hard when they discussed the Maple Leafs' playoff odds. It seemed that the Leafs were 30 points up on 9th and that there's no way they couldn't make the playoffs. They basically said that is Phil Kessel could have a point in 2 out of every 3 games the Leafs played, they would be in and Ron Wilson should win the Adams Trophy.
Through all of this ridiculous talk, they did call Gary Bettman an "irrational businessman" who was making decisions to save his image (what's left of it, anyway??) and to boost his ego. The decisions they were referring to is the situation in Phoenix. It's been nothing short of a drama, with the league's constant refusal to relocate, the failed bond sales and the fact that other teams are paying for a team to play in Glendale, Arizona and take a financial loss every year in Phoenix. That's not bias, it's rational. If I lived in Canada, I'd listen to those guys every day. Those three hours were more entertaining than three weeks of coverage in the U.S.
That night, I returned to (where else) the Forum to eat at Guido and Angelino's again, topped off with more gelati.
I made my return to Twitter mid-day yesterday after waking at 4:00 AM to leave Montreal at 5 AM to arrive back at noon to meet Zach Parise at a signing in New Jersey.
Montreal is an awesome city. It almost has a European-feel to it. The people are great, there's great food, and they're all crazy about the Canadiens. It's a different world during hockey season than it is in the summer. I still can't believe that it's all over now. Well, there's always next time... Au revoir, Montreal.