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An NHL playoff hockey love story: There's no place like Montreal, no team like the Canadiens

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MONTREAL, QC - OCTOBER 1: Brendan Gallagher #11 of the Montreal Canadiens is introduced to fans during pre-game ceremonies prior to the NHL game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Bell Centre on October 1, 2013 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)

MONTREAL — In Vancouver, Dale Weise was invisible. He played for almost three seasons in that hardcore Canadian hockey market, and he walked the streets downtown without being recognized. After games, he would stand in the elevator in his apartment building, crammed next to fans in Canucks sweaters, and they would have no idea who he was.

In Montreal, Dale Weise stops traffic. He has been here for only three months, and he is still a fourth-line forward. But he is a fourth-line forward for the Canadiens. He was a block from his apartment Sunday evening, walking with his fiancee, Lauren, and their 7-month-old son, Hunter. He wasn’t wearing Habs gear. He was pushing a stroller. Still, a driver spotted him on the right and stopped dead at a green light. The guy reached across the passenger seat and banged on the window as he frantically tried to roll it down, yelling at Weise in French.

“It was pretty outrageous,” Weise said. “He couldn’t speak English, so I didn’t understand what he was saying. But he had the thumbs-up.”

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They say there is no place like Montreal and no better place to play when you’re winning, and this is why. They love the Habs here. They love that they love the Habs here. Most of all, they love when their love is rewarded and returned. Weise grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in a family of Habs fans, the way a kid in Omaha, Nebraska, might grow up in a family of Yankees fans. Now he has scored two game-winners as the Habs have started 6-1 in the playoffs. At least three times Wednesday, reporters asked him if he was living a dream, and when he told them it was a “dream come true,” it was hard to tell who enjoyed it more.

The Canadiens boast a century of history and 24 Stanley Cups, far more than any other NHL franchise. They cannot compete with their past. They haven’t won the Cup since 1993, when the Forum was still their home and hadn’t been converted into a retail and entertainment center. In modern times, no community can connect to pro athletes quite the same way because of the paychecks, and no team can dominate nearly the same way because of the salary cap.

But the Canadiens sell nostalgia, the players and the fans revel in it and everyone hopes to make new memories – and that makes times like this only more special. If you can’t expect a parade on the “usual route,” you don’t take it for granted when you sweep the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round and hold a 2-1 series lead over the archrival Boston Bruins in Round 2. The Habs still bring together a place so often divided by language and politics and socioeconomics.

“It’s fun to see the electricity in the city, how fired up the fans and the residents are,” said Canadiens center Daniel Briere. “I try to soak it all in.”

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You have to be here to understand. You have to pass through customs, where greeters wear Canadiens sweaters with “INFORMATION” instead of a player’s name and a question mark instead of a number. You have to stroll through Old Montreal and notice the bleu, blanc et rouge face paint on the statues, or down Rue Ste-Catherine and watch a fire truck rush past with a Habs flag flying from the back, or anywhere, really, and see the Habs flags on the buildings or car windows. You have to sit in the Taverne Monkland in Notre-Dame-de-Grace, a neighborhood in west end. It was once Doug Harvey’s haunt. It is now a yuppie bistro, with today’s specials written on a huge chalkboard on the wall, along with “Go Habs Go!”

You have to come to the Bell Centre. As the great Michael Farber once wrote, the only two organizations in western civilization that truly “get” ceremony are the House of Windsor and the Montreal Canadiens. In the Habs’ dressing room is a passage from the John McCrae poem “In Flanders Fields.” To you from failing hands we throw the torch … be yours to hold it high. You have to see a youngster skate out into the darkness with a torch, kneel at center ice and ignite a virtual flame that envelops the entire arena. You have to hear to Ginette Reno, whom canadiens.com said, in all seriousness, “accepted the invitation to belt out the national anthem before the home games of Quebec’s other great cultural icon.” She knew Maurice Richard. She sang at the Rocket’s funeral. The Habs are 3-0 when she sings in these playoffs. Before Game 4 in the first round, she touched Briere, and he scored that night.

Travis Moen thought he knew what he was getting into when he signed with the Canadiens in 2009. He had played six seasons in the NHL by that point and won a Cup with the Anaheim Ducks. But it wasn’t until he got off the plane to check out the city that it hit him. Right away, right there in the airport, in the middle of summer, a fan recognized the new winger. “He just said, ‘Congratulations. Welcome to the Montreal Canadiens,’ ” Moen said with a laugh.

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Marriage proposals? “I had one yesterday, actually,” said 22-year-old heartthrob Brendan Gallagher, as if he were a member of a boy band and this happens all the time. He had one the last three games, actually. The same girl, maybe about 12, standing next to her father, has held a sign against the glass with a little cutout for her face. On Tuesday night, her sign said: “I’m still waiting for my ring.”

“I always notice it and laugh,” Gallagher said.

Every player has stories. Multiple stories. Weise went to the grocery store and tried to get on an elevator, but a fan was so excited to see him that he grabbed his shoulder and wouldn’t let him on. A buddy told the fan to relax. Once Weise got on, the fan kept apologizing and apologizing as the doors closed. “I think that’s awesome,” Weise said, smiling. “Everybody knows their team here. They know every single player.”

Once upon a time, fans would wait outside the players’ exit at the Forum. The players had to face them. That was accountability. Now, the players park inside the Bell Centre and roll out in luxury cars and SUVs with tinted windows, but fans still wait. They follow the players from one stop light to the next, knocking on windows. “It’s pretty nuts,” Gallagher said. “They go at least two or three blocks, and they just sprint and chase the car.”

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It isn’t for every player, and it can go too far. Montreal has a history of rioting over hockey – from the Richard suspension in 1955 to victories and losses since – and police are on guard now. A business traveler could be overheard in a hotel lobby coffee shop Wednesday morning talking about the firecrackers on Ste-Catherine late Tuesday night after the Habs’ 4-2 victory over the Bruins. He sounded half wary, half in wonder.

If you can handle the passion and the pressure, though, the experience is something to savor. Briere grew up in Gatineau, Quebec, rooting for the Canadiens. He played for the Phoenix Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers, then chose to sign with the Habs. He chose to live in a downtown home for the first time in his life. He chooses to walk to games, even now in the playoffs. He puts on his headphones and doesn’t stop for fans, because if he did, he’d never get to the Bell Centre. At 36, nearing the end of his career, he doesn’t want it to stop.

“For me, it’s a dream come true,” Briere said, moments after Weise said the same thing. “To have the chance to live in the city and to feel the beat of the city go with the Canadiens, that’s just amazing. … Just feeling the vibe, people fired up, the flags out everywhere, the people wearing their jerseys and their hats. That’s a really cool thing to be part of, when you know you’re part of that team that everybody at this moment almost lives for.”

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