I don’t know what you think of when you think Montreal, but when you live with a hockey-obsessed individual, you inevitably come to associate the city with the Canadiens: Montreal’s uber-successful and long-standing hockey team.
So naturally, when we decided to visit last month, a game was one of the first activities we booked.
Not being a major sports fan, I was skeptical when my boyfriend, Alex suggested we spend Valentine’s Day at a hockey stadium among beer-soaked fans. But I decided to be a sport (no pun intended) and I can’t say I left disappointed.
To understand the significance of hockey in Montreal, you have to go back to the history of the game. Which is exactly what we did. At the Bell Center – home of the “Habs,” as they’re lovingly called by fans – ticket holders for that evening’s game can stop into the on-site hockey museum an hour and a half before the puck drops.
Once you get past the line, which on a big game day stretches endlessly through an old railway station that’s connected to the stadium, you’ll be greeted by years of hockey memorabilia from old wool jerseys to gargantuan ice skates worn by the game’s biggest players decades ago.
Founded in 1909, the Canadiens are the only remaining club that was started before the formation of the National Hockey League. And to top it off, they are the most decorated team in the NHL, having won 24 Stanley Cup championships, more than any other franchise in hockey history.
The weight of that lofty legacy was apparent in the stadium – gigantic and almost completely packed with red-and-blue-clad fans as the Habs faced off against their rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It was a crowd that had the easy confidence of fans who have tasted victory and know without a doubt that their team is great, but who’ve experienced the pain of watching years go by without a championship (they last took the Cup in 1993). Still, they’re a loyal bunch, and I got the sense that this was just a part of life in Montreal, the way watching the Macy’s Independence Day fireworks could be for someone growing up in New York.
It was cool to be part of this experience, watching with an anthropologist’s eye and reveling in the indulgent nature of it all – the ostentatious graphic displays on the ice, the dancing and the mascots, the over-hyped crowd and the trash-talking (in both French and English, and even in the presence of kids who looked like they’d heard it all before).
I was indeed an outsider, not truly a fan of either hockey or the Habs (I gave my heart to the Boston Bruins rather arbitrarily a year or two ago).
It made me reflective of my rather unexpected journey to that place and that time.
If you’d known me when I was younger, you’d have known that sports and I were mortal enemies. I can’t count on my hand the number of times I’ve embarrassed myself as a result of being in the vicinity of a sport being played. There was the time – no, times – that I’ve been hit on the head by an errant ball while minding my own business, or that time I tripped over my own feet in gym class while trying to spike a ball. Or all the times I’ve watched a ball, regardless of the size, slip through my overanxious grasp as I failed yet again to catch it.
Call it what you want: poor hand eye coordination, being a nerd… The fact is I just don’t do sports. Which is why I could never have predicted that I’d be in Montreal, arguably the birthplace of modern ice hockey, watching the Habs defeat the Maple Leafs and loving every moment of it.
On the most basic level, I guess hockey is my way of connecting with Alex. After dutifully showing up to game after game as he played in a local league, accompanying him to several NHL games and being the often reluctant spectator to playoff games from my living room couch, it’s kind of grown on me.
There’s something about hockey specifically that has allowed me to connect in a way that I haven’t with any other sport. Perhaps it’s the skill involved – watching a grown and rather heavy man skate at full speed down the ice while handling a puck with complete precision never gets old. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that the sport seems like an underdog, when basketball, football and sometimes even soccer often seem to get top billing in the U.S.
Maybe to be quite honest, it’s the fact that this is the first sport anyone has ever taken the time to teach me without judgement. The first time someone has been willing to hold my hand and show me what it’s all about. In that sense, hockey has welcomed me with open arms. And it turns out that’s exactly what I needed.