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MONTREAL (AP) — One of hockey’s most iconic shrines still stands at the corner of Atwater and Rue Ste-Catherine, overlooking Cabot Square and amid the Shaughnessy Village’s Victorian grey-stone row houses and Parisian-styled apartment blocks in downtown Montreal.
Aside from a few identifying banners on its black, painted-over walls, there are few remaining hints of the rich history of the Montreal Forum. The building where the Stanley Cup was awarded 15 times — including 12 to the hometown Canadiens — is now home to a multiplex theater.
Tucked inside is Robert Girard's sports memorabilia shop. The Canadiens are back in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 28 years yet Girard can't help but wonder whether memories of the Forum are beginning to fade.
“It’s going to be lost somewhere, for sure,” said Girard, whose shop features signed plaques, photos and jerseys. “The old generation will still remember. But the new generation, unfortunately, they won’t be related to the Forum.”
Girard closed his store, switching to online sales once the coronavirus pandemic began. He would have likely done so anyway given how few people visit the Forum.
“Business the way it is, they have to make more money, and that’s why they built the other place,” Girard added. “But it’s never going to be the same.”
The “other place” is Bell Centre that opened in the heart of downtown in 1996 and features all the modern age bells and whistles. Thousands gathered in the arena’s plaza for viewing parties as the Canadiens advanced past Toronto, Winnipeg and Vegas to face defending champion Tampa Bay in the final. The Lightning have a 2-0 lead with Game 3 coming up in Montreal on Friday night.
The Canadiens’ unlikely run — they had the worst record of the 16 playoff qualifiers — has the city on tilt over the possibility of claiming a 25th championship and first since 1993. Montreal remains the last Canada-based team to win the title, that same year, and is first from that group to reach the final since 2011.
Canada’s Stanley Cup drought has gone on for so long the Winnipeg Jets have left and returned. Of Canada’s seven franchises only the Calgary Flames still play home games at the same arena, the Saddledome.
Before 1993, Canadian teams combined to win 50 of the 75 championships awarded since the NHL was formed in 1917. Since 1994, 14 U.S. teams, including all four of the Original Six, have won at least once.
If there is a heightened urgency for any Canadian team to win, there is also a sharp focus on Les Habitants reclaiming their place in hockey's lore.
“I don’t think it’s a pressure, but I think there’s a pride,” said Canadiens assistant coach Luke Richardson. “It becomes expectations. And I think that’s what you want to create in Montreal again.”
Brendan Gallagher has grown to appreciate the past in his nine seasons with the Canadiens. A portrait of Gallagher priced at $299 is on display at Girard's shop.
“We’re well aware of the history of what it means to be a Montreal Canadien,” Gallagher said. “You don’t need any more inspiration than just looking up and seeing the championship banners.”
While Montreal is abuzz, much of the rest of Canada is focused on working its way out of a pandemic that closed the nation's borders and even restricted cross-provincial travel.
“Nearly everyone I know here in British Columbia has been so locked down due to COVID, now that the restrictions are being lifted, they’re headed to the great outdoors, as if they’ve just been released from prison,” retired Simon Fraser University communications professor Rick Gruneau wrote in an email. “Nobody I know seems that interested in the Stanley Cup. But, then, I’m not in Montreal. If it were the Canucks, things might be a little different.”
With seven teams spread across the country, there are likely just as many hockey fans rooting against the Canadiens as there are cheering for them.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper is from British Columbia but appreciates the history of watching the Canadiens every Saturday on “Hockey Night in Canada.” Though he won't be behind the bench at the Forum, he still gets chills at Bell Centre.
“It's like a pinch-yourself moment that you have an opportunity to coach in that building and be a part of that environment,” Cooper said. “I know the people in there won't be cheering for us, but I'm sure excited to be a part of it.”
Ottawa University professor Eric MacIntosh, who has written on sports and organizational culture, said Canadians' rooting interests have changed with NHL expansion dividing loyalties. It’s much different with Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays or the NBA's Raptors in how Canadians can rally around the nation’s single-sport franchises.
“I really couldn’t care less if they win,” MacIntosh said of the Canadiens. “I’d be happy for my friends who are Montreal Canadiens fans, but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it if they get knocked out.”
And yet, there remains large pockets of Canadiens fans across the country.
Vancouver bar owner Ashi Minhas became a lifelong fan through his parents while growing up in the remote town of New Hazelton, British Columbia, where there was but one TV channel available: CBC.
Now 51, he was part of the crowd of 3,500 to witness the Canadiens’ 3-2 overtime win over Vegas in Game 3 of the semifinals. He planned to fly back to Montreal to attend Game 4 of the Cup Final on Monday night.
“I’ve got season tickets for the Canucks, and we go to a couple of games a year,” said Minhas. “But in Montreal, it’s a religious experience. I’m like, 'Ah, these are my people.’”
Minhas attended the final game at the Forum and has seen the Canadiens play in every NHL arena. The one thing he hasn’t witnessed in person: the Canadiens winning the Cup.
“Oh my goodness. It would be everything. It would be almost an out-of-body experience,” he said, noting he would travel to Tampa should there be a Game 7.
Minhas remains realistic in noting the defending champion Lightning are a strong opponent. Win or lose, he can lean on one consolation in how Montreal rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to eliminate Toronto in the first round.
“I think most Canadiens fans will agree with this: Beating those good-for-nothing Toronto Maple Leafs is the Stanley Cup,” Minhas said. “Everything else is gravy.”
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