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A Zamboni clears the ice following a hockey game at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Sunday, January 6, 2013. (Graham Hughes/The Globe and Mail)
A Zamboni clears the ice following a hockey game at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Sunday, January 6, 2013. (Graham Hughes/The Globe and Mail)

Canada’s church of hockey ready for mass again Add to ...

It was in the eyes of the eight-year-old boy wearing an oversized NHL jersey, the teenager mopping the floor of the near-empty Montreal Bell Centre, the hockey dad counting the days until he could watch the Saturday night game with his kids.

In simplest terms, a labour conflict has ended and everyone was going back to work. But to those three Canadians and many more, what happened on Sunday morning in the dawning days of 2013 restored a piece of their lives that had gone missing, leaving something off-kilter.

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The two sides in the 113-day NHL lockout had reached a deal. Life in Canada in winter was about to be as it should be, with pucks, penalties and dreams of the Stanley Cup. “Hockey’s a religion here and it was like we couldn’t go to mass,” fan Pierre Charron said in the red seats of Montreal’s Bell Centre, where he’d turned up to watch the main hockey action around – a Peewee tournament.

A few hours earlier, as daylight was breaking, Mr. Charron gently shook his eight-year-old son, Alexis, awake at their home in Montreal. “It’s over!” he told his son. The boy started jumping on the bed. “We’ve been waiting for this for months,” Mr. Charron said. “Happiness has landed.”

To be sure, this return to Canadian normalcy won’t be all joy and merriment. Many fans responded to the resolution of the lockout with bitterness and more than a tinge of disillusionment over a conflict between very rich players and very, very rich team owners.

To win back Canadians’ hearts, observers say, the players will have to earn it by leaving it all on the ice.

“They’ll have to play every game like it’s a playoff game,” former Montreal Canadiens coach Jacques Demers, now a Conservative senator, said in an interview. “Fans are going to be demanding. They’re mad now. But hockey is our game. Let’s go out to play and get the fans back.”

It didn’t help that the feuding sides had left behind a wake of hard-working, wage-earning victims – parking-lot attendants, sports-bar servers, taxi drivers and others left idle by the lockout. But on Sunday, the collateral-damage sufferers were turning the page and looking ahead for the first puck to drop.

Jessie Provost was mopping the floor of the Bell Centre on Sunday beneath the gaze of Montreal Canadiens photos. During the nearly four-month lockout, the 19-year-old college student lost $3,750 in wages. Most of the other $15-and-$16-an-hour maintenance workers lost similar amounts. Hundreds of ushers, concession-stand workers and other employees at the hockey temple were hurt.

On Sunday morning, Ms. Provost got a phone call with the news she had been waiting for: “Hockey’s back,” Ms. Provost was told. “Get everyone ready.”

The news of the breakthrough crisscrossed the country and catapulted across frontiers, eliciting a passionate, if partisan, response from space. “With the lockout finally ending and a 50-game NHL season about to begin, I am ready to cheer from orbit,” Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted from the International Space Station. “Go Leafs!”

In Calgary, as Jim Kavanagh browsed the sales rack of Flames gear at a FanAttic store, he said he remains a fan but offered a reminder to the owners and players.

“They think we’re fans of the NHL,” the 55-year-old said. “We’re Canadian, we’re fans of hockey. Canadians love hockey.”

Nine-year-old Campbell Nixon, an Atom hockey player and aspiring NHLer, reflected on the news as he played shinny at an outdoor rink in Calgary with friends and family. “I’m glad they got over having the argument over money,” he said, “I think that was kind of stupid, but I’m glad they’re back.”

In Montreal, Olivier Bauer, a University of Montreal professor and author who has drawn parallels between hockey and religion in Quebec, noted that the agreement in principle fell on Epiphany and suggested that redemption was still at hand for long-suffering fans.

“This confirms [to the faithful] that they were right to believe, that the gods of hockey will always be stronger than Mammon, the demon of money,” Prof. Bauer said in an e-mail from Europe.

Still, the tentative agreement has to be ratified by both NHL team owners and players, in a final test of fans’ faith.

Follow on Twitter: @iperitz

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