MONTREAL — The Canadiens haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993, but this city’s love affair with the Habs keeps growing.
For the first time since acquiring the Canadiens’ French-language TV rights before the 2003-04 season, RDS is televising every preseason game this year.
“When we first did our first preseason game a few years back, it was like: ‘Why the hell are you doing preseason games?’ ” recalled Domenic Vannelli, the vice-president of production for RDS. “But we had gotten great numbers. Now, it’s become like an automatic … the fans can’t get enough of this team, so we’re happy with the numbers.”
More than half-a-million people tuned in to watch the Canadiens’ first two preseason games from the sold-out Bell Centre. Vannelli reported that 531,000 people watched the Canadiens lose 5-4 to the Buffalo Sabres in a shootout last Sunday and 504,000 tuned in the next night when the Habs lost 6-3 to the Boston Bruins. Vannelli says that’s a 20-per-cent increase from the Habs’ first two preseason games two years ago (there were no exhibition games last season because of the National Hockey League lockout).
To put those numbers in perspective, RDS is averaging 211,000 viewers this year for the Alouettes’ regular-season Canadian Football League games. RDS averaged 773,000 fans for Canadiens regular-season games last season.
The Canadiens played their third of seven preseason games Friday night in Quebec City against Carolina and will face the Hurricanes again Saturday at the Bell Centre (7 p.m., RDS). Five of the Canadiens’ seven preseason games will be at the Bell Centre, with fans paying regular-season prices for tickets. The top ticket price this season is $263 for a “regular” game in the Platinum section and $428 for an “optimum” game.
The Canadiens also sold out the 21,273-seat Bell Centre last Saturday for a Red vs. White scrimmage with tickets costing only $5 (including a hot dog, a bag of chips and a soft drink) and the money going to the Fonds Avenir Lac-Mégantic.
But not that long ago, the Bell Centre (then known as the Molson Centre) was being described as too big and a “white elephant.”
Six months after Molson Brewery put the Canadiens and the arena up for sale in 2000, L. Ian MacDonald reported in The Gazette that Molson’s stock price increased by 50 per cent with the markets, mainly analysts and fund managers, clearly approving the decision.
Wrote MacDonald: “Meanwhile, there are no takers at fair market value for the Canadiens, valued by Fortune Magazine at $175 million U.S., and the Molson Centre, opened in 1996 at a cost of $265 million. It seems that any carpetbagger can buy both assets for only $100 million.”
MacDonald added: “The Molson Centre was built to assure the profitability of the hockey club by adding 4,000 additional seats and 125 corporate boxes to the capacity of the Forum, where the Canadiens won 23 of their 24 Stanley Cups, making them the New York Yankees of hockey.
“Less than five years after its opening, the 21,273-seat Molson Centre has thousands of empty seats on many hockey nights and is dark on many potential concert nights, despite having one of the best sound systems in the business. The cash cow has become a white elephant.”
How times have changed.
George Gillett Jr. turned out to be the “carpetbagger,” buying the Canadiens and the arena in 2000 for $185 million U.S. In 2009, Gillett sold the team, the arena and an entertainment division to the CH Group LP, with the Molson family as principal investors, for an amount believed to be in excess of $500 million.
The Canadiens have sold out every game at the Bell Centre since Jan. 8, 2004, which just happens to be the same season RDS started televising every regular-season game.
In an interview with The Gazette’s Red Fisher last year, Hall of Fame defenceman and former Canadiens general manager Serge Savard said: “The Canadiens win the Stanley Cup every year in marketing, with lots of help from the media. Today, you can’t turn on a radio or a television set without non-stop coverage from the media, but I can remember a few years starting the playoffs with 2,000 empty seats. Now, you can’t find an empty seat at any of games. The money is pouring in.”
RDS has played a big role in the growing popularity of the Canadiens since replacing Radio-Canada as the team’s French-language broadcaster. Unlike the days when the only opportunity fans really had to watch the Canadiens on TV was Saturday nights on either Hockey Night in Canada or La Soirée du Hockey, now the Habs are a real-life reality TV show that runs for at least seven months.
“The real reality TV now is the 24CH (show), which is back again this year, but not produced by RDS (like it was last season),” Vannelli said. “It will be independently produced by another company, but still aired on RDS.”
And RDS will have yet another treat for hockey fans this season, broadcasting 15 Colorado Avalanche games.
“I wonder why?” Vannelli said with a chuckle. “Basically, this is the Pittsburgh Penguins scenario all over again, when Pittsburgh was the Montreal/Quebec version of the NHL when they had Max Talbot and (Marc-André) Fleury and (Kris) Letang and Pascal Dupuis and, oh, by the way, (Evgeni) Malkin and (Sidney) Crosby ... we loaded the schedule with Pens games. With Patrick (Roy) being there (as the new Avalanche head coach) that’s now must-see TV … it’s going to be Quebec’s second team, literally.”
Another fix for Montreal’s addicted hockey fans.
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