‘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

This goose family went for a leisurely stroll down Vernon’s Main Street Saturday, April 25. (Dave Deshane photo)
Controversial Vernon goose cull won’t fly this year

Necessary permit procedures held up at a federal level

A fire deliberately set in a washroom facility in Vernon’s transit terminal could cost the city around $25,000 to repair. (City of Vernon)
Burned-out bathroom could cost Vernon $25K

Despite changes made by city, vandalism on the rise at transit loop loos

A storm watch has been issued for the Okanagan, Kootenays and Columbia regions of B.C. (Calvin Dickson photo)
Another severe thunderstorm watch issued for the Okanagan

Conditions are favourable for thunderstorms that may produce strong wind gusts, hail and heavy rain

A young child has been taken to hospital after being struck by a vehicle on 30th Avenue in Vernon Friday, June 11, 2021. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
Investigation ongoing after child struck by vehicle downtown Vernon

A young child was taken to hospital Friday with undetermined injuries

Trevor Tessmer, 41, of Saskatchewan is wanted by Vernon police. (RCMP)
Saskatchewan man wanted by Vernon police

Anyone with tips to contact Vernon detachment

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

FILE – Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry talks about B.C.’s plan to restart the province during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. officials watching U.K.’s Delta variant struggles, ‘may need to slow’ restart plan

Studies show that one dose of vaccine is only 33 per cent effective in preventing B.1.617.2 spread

RCMP Const. Shelby Patton is shown in this undated handout photo. RCMP say that Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over on Saturday morning in Wolseley, east of Regina. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, RCMP
Pair charged in Saskatchewan Mountie’s death make first court appearance

Const. Shelby Patton was hit by an allegedly stolen truck that he had pulled over Saturday morning

David and Collet Stephan leave for a break during an appeal hearing in Calgary on Thursday, March 9, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Todd Korol
Appeal Court rejects stay for Alberta couple facing third trial in son’s death

Pair accused in their earlier trials of not seeking medical attention for their son sooner

Jann Arden will embark on Canada-wide tour Spring 2022 with a stop in Penticton at the South Okanagan Events Centre on June 13. (Contributed)
Jann Arden schedules Okanagan stop on 2022 Canada-wide tour

The Jann Arden Live! tour has been rescheduled for 2022

Cody Bandsma practises kiting with his new paraglider wing at Blackburn Park in Salmon Arm on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (Lachlan Labere-Salmon Arm Observer)
VIDEO: Cody Bandsma reaching new heights over the Shuswap

Former 100 Mile resident discovers Salmon Arm by air with powered paraglider

Highway notices like this come down effective June 14. Public health restrictions on non-essential travel and commercial operation have hit local businesses in every corner of B.C. (B.C. government)
Province-wide travel back on in B.C.’s COVID-19 restart plan

Gathering changes include up to 50 people for outdoor events

David Larsen, left, and co-host Tony Peyton. (K96.3/Twitter)
Popular Kelowna radio host dies after battle with cancer

David Larsen was half of the longtime Kelowna morning-show duo David and Tony

Calgary Stampeders’ Jerome Messam leaps over a tackle during second half CFL western semifinal football action in Calgary, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
CFL football will be played this summer in Canada

Governors vote unanimously in favour to start the ‘21 campaign on Aug. 5

Most Read