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Montreal Canadiens fans watch Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final on a big screen outside of the Bell Centre, in Montreal, on July 7, 2021.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

As the Tampa Bay Lightning hoisted their second consecutive Stanley Cup, and the clock struck midnight for the Montreal Canadiens, Habs fans walked home in despair from downtown viewing parties late Wednesday night. By the thousands, they eroded the red, white and blue paint on Montreal’s Stanley Street crosswalks, which faded along with Le Bleu, Blanc et Rouge’s championship dreams.

Ross Colton’s goal in the second period propelled the Lightning to a 1-0 victory and a 4-1 series win over the underdog Canadiens. The Bolts paraded hockey’s greatest trophy around Amalie Arena in front of 16,300 fans, as the Habs watched from their bench, battered and teary-eyed.

In Montreal, thousands of supporters wearing red and white packed Avenue des Canadiens-de-Montreal, the street in front of the Bell Centre. They cheered for the team that defied odds all season, and which revived a series considered just a few days ago to be more defunct than the ghosts of the old Montreal Forum.

The Canadiens were the last team to make the playoffs, and proceeded to eliminate the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Winnipeg Jets and the Vegas Golden Knights to make their first Stanley Cup final appearance since 1993, and gained supporters from across the country in the process.

“The Habs are Canada’s team. If you weren’t cheering for them at this point, you’re silly,” said Jada Nahas, a fan who drove to Montreal from her home in Halifax for Game 3, and then decided to stay for the remainder of the series.

“Some people still don’t like the Habs … but I think they deserved all our support this year.”

Before their Cinderella Cup run, the Canadiens had divided observers into supporters and opponents for most of their history. From the Richard Riot of 1955 to their decades-long rivalry with the Quebec Nordiques in the seventies, to the recent chapters of their endless strife with the Leafs, the Canadiens had forced onlookers to pick a side. They are the Matrix series, the Johnny Depp, the black jelly bean of the hockey world: you either love them or hate them.

During this playoff run, even their own fan base was divided in two camps: the younger crowd that does not remember the last time the Habs won a Stanley Cup, and the old-timers who remember the days when the Canadiens seemingly won a title every three years.

Opinions about the Habs, however, rarely came up in casual conversation until they started winning playoff games. With each win they stole from higher-ranked teams, they strengthened their bid to become known as Canada’s team. Still, that honorary title was met with hesitancy – the hashtag of #OuiLeNord, a French spin on “WeTheNorth” (the slogan of the Toronto Raptors’ 2019 campaign) poked its head on Twitter at times, but failed to trend.

By the time the Canadiens made the Stanley Cup final, they had gained fans from across the country. Donald George could not believe how many people texted him to tell him their allegiances were now with the Habs. The resident of Bellegarde, Sask., a French-speaking hamlet of fewer than 100 people, said friends teased him for years for flying a Canadiens flag in his front yard. Lately, he said, many of the teasers had jumped on the bandwagon.

“Now these people text me to tell me that they’re cheering for the Habs? They’ve always hated them!” he said with a chuckle.

In a rare moment in front of the Bell Centre on Wednesday, public opinions about the Canadiens merged. Those newly won over blended with lifelong fans to form a sea of red too mesmerized by the big screens to roughhouse or riot. One fan wore a Toronto jersey with a printed photo of a Canadiens logo duct-taped on top of the Leafs crest. Another waved a 12-foot-high Canada flag with stripes of blue duct tape flanking the Maple Leaf.

“We had such a great series, you can’t be sad about it. It’s promising for the future,” said William Daviau, a 19-year-old fan who waited since 5 p.m. to secure a spot where he could get a glimpse of the game through the windows of La Cage, a nearby sports bar.

“More fans means more friends,” he said, while brandishing the Canadiens emblem of his Cole Caufield jersey. “It’s not a French and English thing. … I think this year, these guys were the country’s team. … I’ll never forget this.”