There's nothing like hockey in Montreal in May

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National Post online, Thursday, April 24, 2008

The city with the CH engraved on its heart has experienced far too many anxious moments during the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The Boston Bruins were supposed to go quietly into the night, not hang around to force a game six, and then a game seven, in which anything could have happened, from a bad penalty call to a bad roll of the puck. The number one seeded Canadiens faced the humiliating prospect of elimination by the eighth seeded Bruins. The Bruins had the momentum, and all the pressure was on the Habs. Many of us had a bad feeling.

The city had been in shock since last Thursday, when the Canadiens were supposed to close out the Bruins in game five, but then forgot to show up for the last two periods as Boston filled the net in a 5-1 victory. At a black tie ball for his chamber music ensemble at the Ritz that night, conductor Dennis Brott had announced the Canadiens’ opening score to cheers and applause. By the third period, when he stopped updating the score, the audience knew something was very wrong. Quick BlackBerry checks confirmed their worst fears.

Surely, then, the Habs would finish the job back in Boston on Saturday. But in a furious exchange of third period goals, the Bruins came from behind again to beat the Canadiens 5-4 and force game seven back in Montreal on Monday. The lack of honking horns in Montreal on Saturday night told the story. A sort of dog that didn’t bark.

A friend invited me to game seven, and I declined on the grounds that being there would be too hard on the heart. I couldn’t even bear to watch it on television. But on an evening walk through deserted streets, recurring cheers resonating through open windows confirmed the Canadiens were putting the puck in the net at one end, while it turned out that Carey Price was stoning them at the other end in a 5-0 shutout.

Still only 20 years old, he is one very cool customer. While it is clear that he has been endowed with unusual talent, it has not yet been established that he has a pulse. At the Bell Centre, his name is shouted to the rafters, where 24 Stanley Cup banners hang. In the quest for a 25th, he is bidding to play the same role as Ken Dryden in 1971 and Patrick Roy in 1986.

Thus, to the immense relief of the city, and the entire province of Quebec, les glorieux will play on into the month of May. And there is nothing, anywhere in the world, like hockey in Montreal in May.

Such was the palpable sense of relief in Montreal Monday night, that there were more people coming into the city on the Ville Marie Expressway after the game than there were people getting on the up ramps from the Bell Centre. This time, there was a cacophony of horn-tooting across the entire city.

Unhappily, the celebration got badly out of hand when a small group of goons trashed 16 cop cars, torching six of them, smashed shop windows and looted stores on Ste. Catherine Street. The incendiary images played all day Tuesday on CNN, and were uploaded to YouTube. “Where were the police?” a La Presse banner headline demanded yesterday. “Throw the book at playoff hooligans” urged the lead editorial in The Gazette. Among other things, this devalued the coinage of a Stanley Cup riot, which normally occurs only after the Habs have actually won the Cup, not after the first of four rounds.

So it is on to Round Two, beginning tonight against Philadelphia. There is at least one Montrealer who must be grateful the Canadiens aren’t playing New York. That would be Michael Fortier, the public works minister in the Harper government, who picked the Rangers to win the cup, and has been mercilessly panned in the local media.

It isn’t difficult to imagine a cutaway shot of Fortier, or the colour commentary, of him attending a Canadiens-Rangers game. Now safely in the Senate, he is running for a Commons seat in the next election, and the Conservatives may have to send him back to candidate school, where the first rule is always pick the home team. Stéphane Dion was at the game Monday night, with Dryden as his bodyguard. There was booing in Dion’s vicinity, but it was said to be directed at fans in Bruins jerseys.

The Canadiens play on into May. Olay, olay.

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