Established in 1909, the Montreal Canadiens are the world’s oldest still-active hockey team, as well as its most successful, having won more Stanley Cups than any other. We arrived in Montreal at the tail end of the 2015-16 campaign, and snatched up tickets for one of the final matches of the year. How could we ever claim to “know” Montreal, if we hadn’t seen the Canadiens take the ice?
Le Club de Hockey Canadien, as the team is officially known, was one of the “Original Six” of the NHL, but actually predates the league’s formation by eight years. It was originally part of the National Hockey Association, a small league which operated in Quebec and Ontario.
The team was founded to represent Montreal’s French population, perhaps explaining the intensity of their support. The Canadiens are an integral aspect of the city’s identity, and even when they’re playing poorly, they sell out every game. For nearly eleven years, the Centre Bell sold-out 422 consecutive matches; the streak might have continued indefinitely, but the club broke it intentionally in December 2014, to honor the passing of Jean Beliveau, who had been one of their biggest stars.
Which brings us to the puzzle of their nickname. Throughout the match, the fans around us weren’t screaming for the “Canadiens,” but for the “Habs.” Try as we might, we couldn’t figure out what this meant. Haberdashers, because their threads are so sweet? Habaneros, because the team is so hot? We learned later that it stands for “les Habitants,” a term referring to the original French settlers of Quebec.
The weekday match we saw didn’t go well for the Habs, who went down in a humiliating 4-1 defeat to the first-place Florida Panthers. But despite their poor performance, we had a fun night at the arena, thanks largely to the enthusiasm of the fans. Consider: this was a meaningless Tuesday-night match at the end of another bad season, after the Habs had already been eliminated from playoff contention, and it was still sold out. Win or lose, the people of Montreal will support their club through seemingly anything.
The Centre Bell has been home to the Canadiens since 1996, and many old-school Montrealers blame it for the downturn in the team’s fortunes. We liked the stadium, though; it’s right downtown and has the atmosphere is incredible. Even from our seats in the very back row of the Molson Fan Zone, we were able to see all the action. And we were even able to spot Youppi, the team’s mascot… who looked immediately familiar to me. Turns out, Youppi had been the mascot of the Montreal Expos until they moved to DC. He apparently wanted to stay in Montreal, and so became the first major-league mascot to switch sports.
We had shown up well before game-time to get drinks and dinner at La Cage Aux Sports, a rollicking bar built into the Centre Bell, accessible from both inside and outside the arena. The place was packed to the gills, and we were nearly the only patrons not sporting Canadiens gear. If you want to go to La Cage, plan at least an hour to get in and eat. There’s no better way to warm up for the match than with a plate of poutine and a pitcher of Molson.