Tuesday. May 28th. 14:12 minutes into the 2nd period, 21,273 go silent. It is the fifth game in the NHL Eastern Conference Final, and the Montréal Canadiens are up against the New York Rangers. In this 14th minute of the second period of the fifth game, the Rangers have tied the game (again), back from trailing 4-1. The Bell Centre is less than amused. And for a moment, the fear – that fear – is back. The fear that the Habs will not, after all, make it tonight. If the Rangers win, the Habs go home – or rather stay home.
But they didn’t.
I had never been to a Hockey game before, let alone a Playoff game. Hockey is actually a bit of a thing in Germany, but it had never been a thing for me. And though, like many people in Montréal, I gathered that I needed to “go to at least one game” during my time here, I had never gotten around to it. But when I got the chance to buy (the cheapest) playoff tickets a few days before Game 5, I – much like most of the rest of the city – had already become emotionally invested in the Habs’ playoff vagaries, so the time to go to a game seemed as good as any. And as it turned out, it was just that.
The Bell Centre is a pretty nice stadium once you’re inside, although my flatmate and myself were a little surprised to find ourselves seemingly seated on either side of a huge pillar. After the two graduate students that we are managed to read our tickets correctly, and we finally sat next to each other, we were again surprised – rather more pleasantly – with how good the view was, considering that we were sitting on the very last row in the highest-up section.
The Pre-Game show is pretty impressive (especially the “lighting of the fire”-part, which regulars will be acquainted with), as the ice transforms into a giant screen. Why they don’t screen movies here on the centre’s off-days remains a mystery. As the seats started to fill up, and music blasted out of the stadium speakers, the players came out to train a little (the Rangers looking considerably more organised than the Habs in doing so), before everything settled down for the National Anthems. And then the puck dropped.
The game itself was a rollercoaster ride – especially since Montréal had to win it to stay alive. 30 seconds in, and the Stadium erupted in an euphoric sigh of relief, as the Habs went up 1-0. The equalizer, which came in sometime later, was met with distinctly less enthusiasm. But as the Habs went back up to 2-1 and the first period ended, a sense of mild hope intermingled with the smell of expensive hotdogs floated through the stadium, although the prospect of 40 tense remaining minutes and $11-dollar beer (+ tax + tip) were rather… sobering.
What a second period it then was. Up 2-1 already, Montréal prolonged its advantage to 3-1; and when the 4-1 came in, the stadium faced its most serious structural challenge since it’s inception, whilst my flatmate’s chant evolved from the classic “Allezzz-Montréallll-ezzzz” to the confident “On va gagner, on va gagneeeeeeeer!!”. Which confidence, however, soon proved to be rather premature.
The Rangers changed their goalkeeper, and then decided to come back. 4-2 seems not so bad when you just scored trice. The 4-3 was, already, rather more worrying. And when the red light lit up for the 4-4 (scored under powerplay), it was the stadium’s architects’ turn to breath a collective sigh of relief. Only the subsequent 5-4 for Montréal ensured that the break at the end of the 2nd period was rather sweeter than the cream accompanying the ubiquitous nachos.
The 3rd period then saved the day. Already one up, the Canadiens extended their lead, in the face of repeated penalties for both sides, to 6-4, and later to 7-4 (then already facing an empty net). When the clock ultimately ran down, the outcome had been clear for some time, although that hardly prevented some solid celebration.
What is formidable in Montréal – especially for an impressionable international student – is the atmosphere that surrounds the games, and it is not hard to get caught up in it, even as a foreign, temporary by-stander. It is, of course, ultimately no coincidence that the Montréal Canadiens’ nickname is “the Habs”; since – to state the obvious – the Habs stands for les Habitants (the Inhabitants), and it is truly all (well, let’s say, most) of Montréal’s inhabitants who win and lose together with their team. And so they will again tonight (May 29th), when the Habitants go up, again, against the Rangers for Game 6, again, also, with their backs against the wall. Go Habs… Go!!!