Lockout hits too close to home


Stephen Ermgodts, left  from Detroit and Jacques Lirette from Moncton having dinner in a very quiet Cage aux Sports restaurant at Bell Centre on October 11, 2012.

Stephen Ermgodts, left from Detroit and Jacques Lirette from Moncton having dinner in a very quiet Cage aux Sports restaurant at Bell Centre on October 11, 2012.

Photograph by: Marie-France Coallier, The Gazette

MONTREAL — On this night, the Montreal Canadiens are supposed to be hosting the Ottawa Senators in the season opener right now — but St. Antoine St. outside the Bell Centre is as empty as a politician's promise.

My friend the scalper (who usually offers a high-five with one hand while he sells tickets with the other) is not at his usual post at the foot of the steps. The little fellow who has the hazardous job of directing traffic in and out of the parking garage is also missing. Ditto the security guard who usually has a couple of zingers for me.

The sign above the parking garage promises "Stationnement, $10." Yes, well — good luck with that when the Canadiens are actually playing. But there are no cars lined up tonight and this street, usually a scene of horn-honking chaos on game nights, is three o'clock in the morning clear.

The story is the same at Mountain St. and Ave. des Canadiens. Il n'y a pas un chat, part from an occasional pedestrian trying to cling to a windblown umbrella or with a hood pulled up against the rain, hurrying on by. Against this backdrop, the great quartet of statues seem almost forlorn, bowing to the weather: Howie Morenz, the Rocket, le Gros Bill, the Flower.

In truth, they are perhaps bowing to the winds of commerce: Heroes and legends all, the statues (along with the commemorative bricks purchased by fans to mark the team's 100th anniversary in 2009) will be moved into storage to make way for a 48-story condominium tower and moved elsewhere once the construction is complete.

This is when the National Hockey League lockout, which will have lasted a month come Monday, hits home. Dark arenas, empty streets. This is NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's legacy, the third lockout of his tenure and the second in the past seven years. The NHL has already lost more games to labour disruptions than the three other major North American sports leagues (the National Football League, National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball) combined and with negotiations moving at glacial speed, there is no end in sight.

At this hour on game night, the scalpers should be working Ave. des Canadiens in force, bellowing "tickets!" in defiance of the Tongue Troopers at everyone who passes — even those with media credentials strung around their necks.

The crowd total would be known and written into stories in advance, because it never varies: 21,273. Even for a Tuesday night game against the New York Islanders when there might be two thousand no-shows, the official total doesn't change because the Canadiens, since the last lockout, have always played to sellout crowds.

This is Montreal, after all, where the Canadiens are woven into the warp and weft of our culture like no other hockey team in any other city. They can move the statues of Morenz, Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau and Guy Lafleur, perhaps, but they can't uproot the singular passion for the game that is so much a part of life here.

Montrealers aren't the only Canadians to suffer from the lockout. In Vancouver, Canucks defenceman Kevin Bieksa had to chide online scalpers who were reselling some of the 5,000 tickets for the charity game he organized between a team of locked-out NHL players (including the Sedin twins) and the UBC Thunderbirds. The tickets originally went for $20 apiece and some of the offers were taken down after Bieksa said "that's not how I was raised."

(Raking in profits off a charity game? Maybe the scalpers were just channelling their inner NHL owner.)

Canadiens players have scattered to the four winds. Tomas Plekanec and Tomas Kaberle are playing for Jaromir Jagr's Kladno team in the Czech Republic. Max Pacioretty, Yannick Weber and Raphael Diaz are in Switzerland, Pacioretty with Ambri-Piotta, Diaz with EV Zug. Alex Emelin is back in Russia with Ak-Bars Kazan, Andrei Markov is with Vityaz Chekhov. Several players are still here, waiting, hoping, playing charity games, goaltender Carey Price doing interviews while wearing a San Diego Padres cap.

But when fans here are anxious to see how the new regime with Marc Bergevin as general manager and Michel Therrien behind the bench will fare, when they're waiting for their first look at players like Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong — and a new/old player in Francis Bouillon — a goalie in a baseball cap is not what we want to see. Shut down the team and the game and it's almost as if you've shut down the beating heart of the city.

Yes, Vancouver can throw a pretty good riot when its team loses a Stanley Cup final, and fans in Toronto spill into the streets with their foil Cup replicas if the team wins two games in a row in October, and no hockey fans feel more deprived this autumn than those in Winnipeg, where the team came back for one tantalizing season before Bettman locked out the players on Sep. 15.

But nowhere else, even in Canada, is the team a part of the culture the way it is in Montreal, where the Canadiens have won 24 Stanley Cups (counting one from the pre-NHL days) — the same number as the next two clubs, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Detroit Red Wings, combined. As far back as Mordecai Richler's richly chronicled youth, the sporting parameters of the city were baseball at Delorimier Downs to the east and hockey at the Forum to the west. The Montreal Royals may be long gone and the Forum now best known for its movie theatres, but the CH was firmly stamped on this city long before some marketing professor came up with the concept of "branding."

Mention The Sweater here and you don't have to offer a long-winded explanation. For dyed-in-the-pure-laine Montrealers, it conjures instantly the wonderful Roch Carrier story of the young boy who gets stuck with a Leafs jersey shipped from "Mr. Eaton" — horror of horrors for a kid who wanted nothing but Maurice Richard's No. 9 on his back.

The Rocket's eyes, Lafleur's hair, Patrick Roy's wink, Ken Dryden's slouch on his stick, Béliveau's humility, the tragic death of Morenz — it's all part of Montreal lore, like the cross on Mount Royal, the Oratory, the great river that bends to the northeast as it swoops around the city.

"All of Maurice," said the Archbishop of Montreal at Richard's funeral, "was in his eyes." Everyone who attended Richard's funeral would know precisely what the archbishop, Jean-Claude Cardinal Turcotte, was talking about.

So when you shut down the hockey, when the Bell Centre is silent, you affect more than commerce, although that's part of it, too. You close one of the taps from which flows the lifeblood of this city. There may be tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people here who simply don't care for hockey, or new Canadians who grew up with soccer, rugby, cricket, bocce or hurling and find this strange game on ice little more than a curiosity.

But I can look across the street almost any night during the winter, and see that my Syrian-born neighbour is watching the same hockey game I'm watching, and know that while he may not recall the démon blond or the Miracle Cup of 1971, he is as caught up in this game as the gent down the street who passed me the tattered copy of Frank J. Selke's biography.

This lockout hurts a lot of people. Not the players so much, and certainly not the owners, who are so well-heeled they are insulated against pretty much everything. But downtown restaurants and bars lay off staff, the scalpers don't sell tickets, the people who work the luxury lounges and sweep up after games lose a part of their income, the parking lot attendants who bully drivers into their spaces are out of a job — even the panhandlers are hurting.

On what is supposed to be the night of the season opener, Peel St. should be awash in Canadiens jerseys, with fans going to the game or headed to a watering hole to watch on television. It's a good place to gauge the relative popularity of players like Price, Pacioretty, P.K. Subban — and Michael Cammalleri, who had the 14-year-old girl demographic all sewn up before he was traded to Calgary.

On this evening, there isn't a Habs jersey in sight, until I spot one poor soul, huddled in a doorway on Peel St., wearing a Canadiens sweater under a tattered jean jacket. He asks me for a looney. I don't have one, so I give him a toonie and ask how the lockout is treating him.

He responds with a string of franglais curses, giving equal weight to bodily orifices and sacred artifacts of the Roman Catholic Church. "That $&*#*@ Bettman," he says, "that $*&(@$%* is gonna kill the NHL. Look at this. There's no people."

Around the corner, Ste. Catherine St. is bustling for a rainy, windy Thursday evening, because shopping never dies. The pubs (which are usually Standing Room Only on game nights) appear to be at least half full, drinkers occasionally glancing up at the baseball game while they talk about other things. Put the Canadiens up there and you can tell how things are going simply by listening to the crowd.

At the Kojax on Ste. Catherine St., where hockey fans have been stopping for a bite before and after games for 35 years, my old friend Jimmy Andrianopoulos said the lockout won't affect his business all that much.

"We're doing good," he said, "but the hockey crowd, that isn't really a big part of our business anymore. People come in, they park, they go to the games, then they come out and get in their cars and go home. After they get fleeced down there with the ten-dollar beers and the four-hundred dollar jerseys, they've got nothing left to spend. Doesn't matter — life goes on."

It does. It may be pretty much the same in Tampa and Phoenix, Columbus and Long Island — but in Montreal, it just isn't the same without the Canadiens. It figures that Scary Pete, the character in the hilarious Shut the Puck Up! video bouncing around the Web, would be a Quebecer and (judging from the jersey he wears) a Canadiens fan. There are slicker lockout videos out there but none quite as pithy or pungent as this. And, as befits Montreal, Scary Pete's video is available in French and English:

This isn't how it's supposed to be
A winter without hockey
Is like a beer fridge without any beer
It's just so empty and cold
Because our season was stolen
For reasons that are not very clear
So shut the puck up!
Bring back our game!
All you owners and players do is whine and complain!
If you can't make ends meet on all the money you earn
Then you should get out of hockey and give someone else a turn!


Stephen Ermgodts, left  from Detroit and Jacques Lirette from Moncton having dinner in a very quiet Cage aux Sports restaurant at Bell Centre on October 11, 2012.

Stephen Ermgodts, left from Detroit and Jacques Lirette from Moncton having dinner in a very quiet Cage aux Sports restaurant at Bell Centre on October 11, 2012.

Photograph by: Marie-France Coallier, The Gazette

Stephen Ermgodts, left  from Detroit and Jacques Lirette from Moncton having dinner in a very quiet Cage aux Sports restaurant at Bell Centre on October 11, 2012.
Shoppers walking on Ste-Catherine street on Thursday evening on October 11, 2012.
Shoppers walking on Ste-Catherine street on Thursday night on October 11, 2012.
A street view of Avenue des Canadiens by the Centre Bell where the first match of the season was suppose to take place on Ocotber 11, 2012.
A view of the empty Avenue des Canadiens next to Bell Center on October 11, 2012.
A street view of Avenue des Canadiens by the Centre Bell on October 11, 2012.
A nearly empty dining room at Cage aux Sports at Bell Centre on October 11,2012.
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