Hockey Team’s Surprising Run Lifts the Mood in a Virus Hot Spot
(Bloomberg) -- Montreal endured some of the strictest Covid-19 measures in North America, including a nightly curfew for nearly five months. But spirits in Canada’s second-largest city have brightened dramatically -- thanks in some measure to a beloved sports franchise that has beaten the odds.
The Montreal Canadiens weren’t supposed to be in contention for a championship. Among National Hockey League’s 31 teams, they finished 18th on points in the regular season. Yet, improbably, they are in the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 28 years, and city officials are using the moment to break the shackles of pandemic restrictions.
Thousands of fans will gather at two official outdoor screenings for Friday’s third game of the series, while others will watch in bars that have reopened after months of being shut down. About 3,500 spectators will be inside the arena; health authorities denied the team’s request to allow more.
It’s a fraction of the 16,000 that attended each of the first two games in Tampa, Florida. But it’s still a remarkable turn of events in a city where, just six weeks ago, it was illegal to be outside of your home after 9:30 p.m.
“We are slowly recovering from a historic pandemic and the rallying moment that the Stanley Cup represents comes at the right time,” Mayor Valerie Plante said in a release announcing one of the outdoor screenings this week.
So the unexpected performance of the Canadiens, whose bond with locals runs deep, is more than a chance to celebrate a sports team. It also brings a sense of relief for a city that has suffered.
“This means more than just a Cup for the city. It’s about heritage, tradition,” said Melanie Ridley, a fan who’d scored two tickets to watch game No. 2 on a screen inside the Bell Centre arena on Wednesday. The event “brings together people who lived alone for 15 months or more. We can see people smile, we can see people happy. It’s good for the heart.”
Her team’s chances are getting slimmer. The Canadiens lost the first two games to Tampa, the defending champion. Having only 3,500 fans in an arena that can hold 21,000 may diminish Montreal’s home-ice advantage. Scarcity is showing up in the market: As of Friday morning, tickets ranged from about $800 to $19,000 for Friday’s game, according to Ticketsonsale.com.
“I got my two shots and I would have accepted to wear a hazmat suit, a mask, gloves and be doused in Purel the whole game to be part of a full Bell Centre for games 3 and 4!” one fan wrote on Twitter.
Fans have been spontaneously meeting outside the arena, often unmasked, peeking at games through the window of a restaurant but unable to hear the action. When Montreal beat Las Vegas in the semifinal on Quebec’s June 24 holiday, the streets were overflowing with revelers, and the evening ended with tear gas and some arrests.
This week, the atmosphere was more mellow, with a band playing tropical music and a crowd of a few hundred people outside the arena for the second game. Mathias Lachance, a 18-year-old fan who came with friends “for the ambiance,” has never seen his team make it this far. It’s emotional, he said. “I don’t know how to say it. We’re moved, and it’s fun.”
The club is one of the most successful in North American sports with 24 championships -- including 16 Stanley Cups over the 1950s, 60s and 70s when stars such as Maurice Richard and Jean Beliveau helped forge a lasting bond with Quebec’s French-speaking majority. But it’s been a long drought for a hockey-mad city and country. Montreal was the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup, in 1993.
The province of 8.5 million people has grown united behind the team’s effort to break that streak. Social media platforms are full of artists, celebrities and politicians -- including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau -- donning the team’s jersey. Local businesses are selling bagels and ice cream in the shape or colors of the team’s logo. Montreal news outlet La Presse even ran a support message from actor Viggo Mortensen.
“We know that 8 million adversaries are awaiting us,” Tampa Bay General Manager Julien BriseBois, a Quebecker himself, said before the finals.
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