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New York Rangers' NHL player Martin St. Louis (C) and his family leave the funeral service for his mother France in Laval, Quebec, May 18, 2014. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters)
New York Rangers' NHL player Martin St. Louis (C) and his family leave the funeral service for his mother France in Laval, Quebec, May 18, 2014. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/Reuters)

Kelly: In Quebec, a sobering respite from hockey Add to ...

From a distance, this looked like a stunt. A sort of ghoulish team-building field trip.

That’s not what it seemed like from close up. It looked like every proper send-off – banal in its generalities and gut wrenching in its particulars.

Hours later, after what remains of France St. Louis had been carried the hundred yards from her farewell gathering to her grave, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was still in danger of weeping while addressing the press.

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He said all the predictable things about the strength of Martin St. Louis and the grace of his dead mother and moving on. But he best expressed his emotions when he was goaded about the smoldering controversy involving Chris Kreider slamming into Montreal’s Carey Price in Game 1.

Vigneault sighed wearily, and said, “Today, I’m definitely not in the mood to pick a fight.”

It was Vigneault’s idea to bring the entire Rangers team to France St. Louis’s funeral. Done a little for St. Louis – still the new guy after two months – and a little for the others, but mostly to give a winning squad a larger cause. That’s what good coaches do – exploit disadvantages.

“A lot of us don’t really know him,” Ryan McDonagh said. “Just showing up is enough.”

“The timing of [Mme. St. Louis’ death] probably leads to a great story. And we want it to be a great story. We’re not trying to hide that,” Brad Richards said. “It made Marty get to know the guys and the group … a lot quicker than if that didn’t happen.”

Maybe that reads poorly, but it wasn’t said with any relish. Richards has it in him to call things by their proper names.

This must have been an odd journey, about 25 minutes from the splendour of one of the continent’s great cities into its shabby outskirts.

To get the Rangers buses in off Autoroute 13, they had to pass a pair of neon billboards blinking ‘GO. HABS. GO.’ A dozen cars parked in the Yves Legare funeral complex carried Canadiens flags. Curious locals wandered over wearing Habs caps and Habs shirts, and then stood around taking selfies.

Laval, a large, tatty suburb of the city, is about as deep in the woods as it gets in Canadiens territory.

St. Louis arrived with his family around 10 a.m. Dozens awaited him in the non-denominational hall. This was not the Hollywood backdrop that NHL players move in. This was actual Quebec – men in short-sleeves sneaking cigarettes out back and kids wearing dress shirts out of the box, still creased.

As he walked in, it got quiet. He hugged a few people shyly and headed into the reception room. It stayed quiet after that.

A few local notables ambled around – Rejean Houle and Guy Lafleur prime among them. St. Louis’s Tampa teammate Steven Stamkos showed up direct from the airport, schlepping his luggage into the chapel.

The Rangers arrived at noon. As they trooped off the buses looking dour, a pair of preteen girls could not contain their squeals. Their mother was over quickly to smack one in the head. An hour’s service, in English and French, then a short walk across the lot to the adjacent mausoleum.

St. Louis’s sister, Isabelle, led the way. She carried her mother in an ornate box. That’s when it hits you – a reminder that we will all eventually return to constituent elements. There were no tears or great display. They only looked stunned at their misfortune.

The Rangers brought up the rear uncomfortably. Most of them were intruding in this scene. You could read it in their body language. They hung back miserably, waiting for someone to shoo them toward the crypt.

Some fool ran up to begin reaming off pictures on his cellphone at close proximity. Nobody bothered to hit him.

One of the gawkers found poetry in it: “This is so beautiful that they all came to the mass. They’re so human.”

It reminded me of something Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin had said a day earlier. Like St. Louis, Bergevin came up working class in Montreal. Reflecting on exactly how far, he said, “I grew up a mile away from [the Bell Centre]. From my office, I can see the church.”

Not his house. Or his school. Or the rink where he learned to play. He can see his church.

For Quebecers of a certain vintage, that’s still where the really important moments in life (and death) take place.

This whole idea – a way to make a very profitable entertainment concern operate more effectively – was cynical in its conception.

But not all things done cynically are wrong. When grappling with the existential and the unknowable, you’re probably best off trying to do the right thing. And then just showing up.

Follow on Twitter: @cathalkelly

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