It’s just felt different.
To hear 2,500 people singing “O Canada” in both official languages after 14 months of silence was to stir something deep in your soul. See the umpires audibly guess and Carey Price celebrated with chants of “Carey!” Carey! and even having a tense wave of silence over the early parts of a one-sided extra period was to see our sport come to life.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi brought back joy by extending the season for the Montreal Canadiens and even that came with a strange realization: it is almost inconceivable that Game 7 of this series against the Toronto Maple Leafs could produce a scene that eclipses what happened inside the Bell Center on Saturday night.
It was more than a hockey game – and it ended up being one hell of a hockey game. It was a tangible reminder that we are getting closer and closer to some of the things we have missed most as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the country to a standstill.
Brendan Gallagher saw it as a reward for Quebecers who endured an evening curfew that lasted from early January to Friday evening, lifted only after the number of cases was brought under control. People can now visit a patio, get together in small groups and cheer on Canadians in person.
“I think the pandemic has hit people here as hard as anyone in our country and the people deserve it,” said Gallagher, a longtime Canadian from Vancouver. “I think they were disciplined, they listened to what was asked of them. “
This is how this public health crisis has been handled in virtually every corner of the country. It was a chore. While the Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets are both eager to follow Montreal’s lead and reopen their doors, they understand the need to be patient.
It will be authorities in Ontario and Toronto who will signal when it is safe to start socially distancing inside the Scotiabank Arena, with the Leafs organization ready to pivot quickly if and when it gets the green light. .
So far, they don’t hear much on this front.
The Jets have prepared a plan to return to the site and eventually hope to determine how many fans may be allowed into Bell MTS Place as part of discussions with the Manitoba government. However, that province extended its stay-at-home orders for another two weeks on Thursday, which means the hockey team may have to make it into the third round before those conversations take place.
Canadians were able to operate at approximately 10% of their capacity after formulating a comprehensive health and safety plan. Fans used 10 different entry and exit points on Saturday and their movement was restricted in the lobby. You also couldn’t buy a beer and a hot dog.
And yet, despite the spaced sections and the no-frills experience, they get their money’s worth. Even those who set their monthly budget on fire and spent thousands of tickets on the resale market.
There was an atmosphere before we walked through the doors. Fans chanted on the Avenue des Canadiens-de-Montreal three hours before the puck fell and those brave enough to walk around in Leafs jerseys were playfully heckled.
A young man held up a sign that read, “Sorry Mom, I sold my little brother to be here. “
As the puck approached, the heart rate accelerated.
The Northern Division teams have done a wonderful job over the past few months, cruising a 56-game regular season in empty arenas – especially watching highlights from more lively games south of the border each night – but we Reminded you of how good the sanitized product was as soon as the buzz returned.
There was a “Go Habs Go! Chant before the warm-ups started and a good series of boos when the Leafs first hit the ice. It gave way to a roar as Price led the Canadiens aside.
“We could hear them before the game and go out for the warm-ups. I still had chills, ”said Montreal captain Shea Weber. “Honestly, it was amazing. It was like a lot more than 2,500 people, it was amazing. I can’t imagine what 20,000 people would look like right now because it was electric for that amount.
Even the Leafs, fresh off a loss that was to spark a 48-hour home fire storm, left in awe. Jack Campbell said “they got the best of 2,500 people”. Auston Matthews said, “We haven’t seen any fans in over a year so it definitely brings a different dynamic. “
It was hard to tell if Kotkaniemi was more excited about his overtime winner or the environment that produced him. He confused the two in a gleeful post-game interview
“We’ve all been waiting all this year and we’re finally here,” Kotkaniemi said.
The pandemic has affected people differently, but we’ve all received a bunch of additional perspectives. In March 2020, could you imagine a coach like Sheldon Keefe saying that bringing fans back into the arena was even more important than a game where his team had the chance to win a playoff series for the first time in 17 years?
“It’s actually something I thought about,” Keefe said. “It’s less about the game and our sport and the playoffs and all that, but more just about the progress being made in the country. “
Years ago, fellow hockey coach Andy Murray summed up our dedication to the sport by saying that Canadians have a deeper emotional well-being when it comes to hockey than any other country in the world.
We’ve all dug deep here.
And on Saturday night in this hockey cathedral, we collectively returned to the well. It was wonderful.