The fascination with the Montreal Canadiens – all that history, all that pageantry – never wanes here.
In the early, early days of the Calgary Flames franchise, when the team played in the tiny Stampede Corral, the Canadiens would pass through town and fans would cheer “Guy, Guy, Guy” whenever Guy Lafleur had the puck on his stick, just as they did in the old Montreal Forum.
It was always a bit of a shock to the visitors – how the partisanship they’d grown accustomed to as professional athletes was never really in evidence whenever they came west. So many of the hometown fans had grown up as Montreal supporters and their loyalty was in evidence – Habs sweaters filled the building, their goals cheered whenever they were announced.
Brendan Gallagher, a second-year Habs forward, saw that first hand. He grew up in Edmonton and remembers watching warm-ups at Rexall Place, where the Oilers play their home games.
“There was always a sea of red jerseys around the glass,” Gallagher said. “Playing for the Montreal Canadiens, I think every hockey player should get that opportunity. It’s so cool to go into different arenas in the different cities and see the pride that comes with the tradition and how the fans travel, so you don’t want to treat it lightly.
“This whole road trip, there’ll be a lot of family and friends there, a lot of people you want to play well in front of. I’m looking forward to it. Hopefully, we can have a strong road trip and make it a fun one.”
Calgary and Montreal have a little bit of shared history dating back to the 1980s, when they played in two memorable Stanley Cup finals – 1986 and 1989 – each winning once.
Markets change and markets mature, but the presence of the Canadiens on the early-season NHL schedule still resonates in Alberta.
It will matter to Flames head coach Bob Hartley, who was in talks to take over the Habs before Michel Therrien got the job. It will matter to the Flames forward Michael Cammalleri, who will have to watch from the sidelines recovering from his broken hand. (Cammalleri was the Habs’ offensive catalyst the last time they ventured deep into the playoffs – the spring of 2010, when he scored 19 points in 19 games, including a playoff-leading 13 goals – as Montreal knocked off the Pittsburgh Penguins.)
The current edition of the Canadiens has a distinct western flavour. Half-a-dozen players played their junior hockey out here and several – including forwards Brandon Prust and Rene Bourque – previously played with the Flames.
“Each time you come out here, you’re reminded of [how the Canadiens matter], because you kinda forget,” said defenceman Josh Gorges of Kelowna, B.C. “Then, you step out on the ice and you think: ‘Out west, we’ve got this many Montreal Canadiens fans?’ There’s no other team like it. We come out here, it’s amazing the support we get.”
For all the love the Canadiens feel, they generally haven’t had a lot of success in Calgary. According to Gorges, it was good to get in a day early to get accustomed to the time change and the altitude.
“This is not an easy building to play in,” he said. “It’s an electric building. It’s different breathing here. In the past, sometimes, you come in not in the right mindset. We’ve got to make sure we’re ready to play. This is going to be a hard game – and we’ve got to be at our best.”
No one understands the Montreal effect better than Daniel Brière, who grew up a Habs fan and now gets to play for them. Brière turned 36 last Sunday, and has the same baby-face appearance as when he came into the league 15 years ago.
“I get that here and there,” he said with a laugh. “One thing I can tell you is, I probably feel more like a kid now than I have in the past two or three years – having a chance to play for the Canadiens.
“Walking around town in Montreal, it feels like the mood of the city goes with the way the Canadiens are playing. As a player, it’s a pretty cool feeling to see how people care about what you do so much.”