Seasalt, an upscale seafood bistro in downtown Montreal, is a strange place to watch a hockey game.
The beach-themed restaurant’s main indoor TV is juxtaposed with a pink “C’est La Vie” neon sign perched high on the wall, and marimba-heavy club music drowns out the sound of the play-by-play analysts. There is no hockey memorabilia in sight; the restaurant’s only commonality with a proper sports pub is the array of rum bottles displayed around its island bar.
Yet, the closer the Montreal Canadiens inch toward the Stanley Cup, the faster the eatery runs out of seats on its massive terrace on Rue de la Commune street, as hockey fans gather to watch the game, drink cocktails and eat oyster platters.
“We’re not a sports bar,” said manager Mike Zaki, “we’re a chill bar where business people come for lunch, and where friends come for a chill night out. But we’ve adapted to what people want.”
Shortly after the Stanley Cup playoffs started on May 15, Zaki noticed that showing the Canadiens’ games attracted a new clientele to his restaurant – one that is likely to spend more, and to occasionally buy rounds of shots when the Habs score a goal. While dedicating all of the beachy bar’s TVs to hockey might be slightly off-brand, it’s great for business.
Seasalt is one of several restaurants across Montreal that is seeing an uptick in sales brought forth by the Habs’ longer-than-expected playoff run, which coincides with Quebec’s gradual lifting of pandemic restrictions. Patios are now permitted, as is dining-in at a limited capacity.
In mid-June, just as the Canadiens prepared for Game 1 of the Stanley Cup semi-final series against the Vegas Golden Knights, the province allowed bars to serve alcohol until midnight and stay open until 2 a.m. to accommodate hockey fans. Since then, Montreal restaurants of all kinds have tapped into Quebeckers’ love of hockey to boost sales and make up for the business they lost in the pandemic year.
Business is expected to be brisk again Friday for Game 3 in Montreal, as the Habs try to get back in the series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
La Grocerie, a neighbourhood café known for its brunch and pastries, installed three giant-screen TVs on its terrace and added more bar-friendly finger foods to its menu last week. The café transformed its look just hours before the Canadiens eliminated the Golden Knights to move on to the Stanley Cup final. The establishment set a one-day selling record on that day, said main chef Maxime Descôteaux, and has since maxed out its 60-person capacity on every game night.
“Cross your fingers and knock on wood that this series lasts as long as it can,” Descôteaux said. “[The playoffs] have been so beneficial for us – it’s ending too soon.”
The Canadiens, who are making their first Stanley Cup final appearance since winning the trophy in 1993, trail the defending champion Lightning 2-0 in the best-of-seven series.
The playoffs could end as quickly as Monday if the Habs lose both home games, or finish as late as July 11, if the series goes to seven games.
For established sports bars, the Canadiens’ Cinderella season is also an opportunity to accelerate the return back to normal. La Cage, a hockey-themed pub with 36 locations across Quebec, is etched in provincial lore as the next best place to watch the Canadiens after the Bell Centre. For more than a decade, they offered eight free wings to each table on any night the Habs scored five goals or more.
During this Cup run, La Cage is selling more spirits than in the past, said vice-president of communications Marc Pelletier.
“People are starting their dinner before the game, and when the Canadiens score a goal they order a round of shots or Champagne,” Pelletier said. “We were expecting more spending because of the pent-up demand due to the pandemic, but with the Canadiens making it this far in the playoffs, that’s multiplied by two.”
Pelletier said all his locations get fully booked as soon as new playoff games are added to the Canadiens’ schedule, and that reservations on their patio have become such a commodity that some patrons resell them on Facebook Marketplace.
La Cage’s locations are still only opened at 30-per-cent to 60-per-cent capacity, and turn many people down on game nights. Before the pandemic, that would have felt like a missed business opportunity, but since the sports bar developed its own online takeout system to keep sales up through 2020, Pelletier said they miss out on fewer sales. Currently, people are ordering takeout from La Cage at the same rate as they did during the pandemic.
Pelletier, a lifelong Canadiens fan who remembers their 1993 Stanley Cup victory, said he expects the bar’s reservation lists to be impenetrable for as long as the playoffs continue.
“Obviously I wanted for the Habs to win in four,” he said, “but putting the business hat on, we’re hoping for seven games.”