As pandemic restrictions lift, Montreal comes alive for Habs' improbable playoff run

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Fans in Montreal are getting ready for Game 6 of the Habs, Las Vegas semifinal. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC - image credit)
Fans in Montreal are getting ready for Game 6 of the Habs, Las Vegas semifinal. (Jean-Claude Taliana/CBC - image credit)

After a long winter, much of it spent under strict public health rules, Montreal is in transformation: flowers are blooming, restaurants and bars are open again, and small gatherings are permitted.

And the Canadiens — in the midst of a playoff run not seen in decades — are at the centre of it all.

But the team's success this time around has taken on greater meaning, as the city emerges from the dark days of the pandemic.

Kristina Millett, who has been cheering for the Habs (despite protests from her family back home) since moving from Ontario in 2007, says the team has been a "lifeline for me and potentially a lot of people out there."

"It's been really tough for me, just as I know it's been tough for other people," Millet said of the past year. "Hockey has actually saved me from not spiralling into a super deep black hole."

With COVID-19 cases down and vaccination rates on the rise, Quebec Premier François Legault has, in recent weeks, lifted many of the restrictions that limited getting together to watch games.

Bar closing hours were pushed back to accommodate late game starts in Las Vegas, and the capacity at the Bell Centre in Montreal was increased slightly to 3,500.

Still, many people, including Millet, continue to enjoy the games from the comfort of home. Once a regular at a downtown pub, last year she installed an overhead projector at her place east of downtown.

Millet has watched many of the games with a close friend, re-creating a bar-like atmosphere with the help of carefully planned snacks and an 80-inch display.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press
Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Embracing underdog status

On Thursday, she plans to have over a few more people for a game against the Vegas Golden Knights that could put Montreal in the Stanley Cup final for the first time since 1993.

The Habs, who lead the seven-game series 3-2, have embraced their status as perpetual underdog.

They were pegged by the vast majority of pundits to be ousted by the Toronto Maple Leafs, then the Winnipeg Jets and now the Golden Knights.

Millett says the teamwork on display in the face of it all, and the performance of her favourite player, star goalie Carey Price, has been inspiring.

"It just keeps building. I trusted we could get here and it feels very surreal."

WATCH | 1993 Stanley Cup winner Stéphan Lebeau on this team's chances

A full moon and a script

Thursday night's game coincides with the Quebec's Fête nationale, celebrated every year on June 24, as well as the first day of summer holidays for many school-aged children. It's also a full moon.

"The stage is set. The script is made," said David Gow, a longtime Habs fan who lives in Saint-Lazare, west of Montreal.

"They have come so far. Even Habs fans didn't think they would make it this far."

Avi Goldberg, a sociologist at Vanier College in Montreal who teaches a course on the sociology of sports, said the confluence of events is impossible to ignore.

The Habs, often likened to a religion in Quebec, are surging just as the pandemic fog is lifting.

"It's kind of a feeling of social liberation, even though we're not totally there yet," Goldberg said. "Sports are powerful."

Montreal has a history of riots after playoff success, and Mayor Valérie Plante says police will have a heightened presence for game night.

Plante urged people to respect public health measures still in place to avoid a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Alex Leduc/CBC
Alex Leduc/CBC

The sale of Habs gear, not surprisingly, has spiked since the end of May, when the Habs upset the Leafs in Game 7.

Santana Enrique, the manager of a sports store in downtown Montreal, said flags, T-shirts and jerseys of the team's young stars, including Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki, have been especially popular.

"We are covering a lot of what we lost in the previous months," he said.

Ahead of the big game, Mark Bourgeois, another Habs fan, said the playoff run is "starting to percolate."

"What I'm hoping is that it ramps up it's going to help businesses, it's going to stimulate this thing."

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