The ‘Habs’ are the Montreal Canadiens. To be fair to the Habs, they are pretty much universally recognized as the lifeblood of ice hockey. Montreal is hockey mad, unlike any other city on Earth. And, Habs fans are acknowledged as being some of the most passionate and knowledgeable of all. And, just like British football fans, they can get a little feisty. It has been known for violence to erupt on the streets of Montreal after a big game from time to time.
Having experienced both big football occasions in the UK, and important hockey games in Canada, I am of the opinion that the level of intensity at football exceeds that of hockey by some way. And, (I say this with no particular pride) hockey ‘hooliganism’ is not at parity with even the much reduced British version of recent times.
I have an old school friend in England who has visited me on this side of the Atlantic on a few occasions.We’ll call him Adam, because, well, that’s his name. On his first visit, I sold him on going to a hockey game. I told him he would see a lot of goals, and a few fights. Exciting stuff. In those days the Bell Centre was called the Molson Centre. If you sat in the cheap seats, right at the back (where locating the puck is impossible), you would see a giant Habs shirt hanging from the scoreboard in front of your section. The shirt would be adorned with a player’s name and number. If your guy scored, everyone in the section got a free beer. I have no idea if they still do this, but it was the pitch that sealed the deal for Adam. We were off to watch the Habs play the Florida Panthers.
I haven’t seen enough hockey to be able to claim this with any authority, but it was possibly the dullest game of hockey ever played. Florida won 1-0. There was one half-hearted scuffle. It seemed to go on forever. Adam looked at me as if it was my fault.
A couple of years later, Adam returned. The Toronto Maple Leafs were in town. For the uneducated (Brits), this is like Liverpool vs Man. Utd. Probably the most significant rivalry in hockey. I suggested we take in the game. I got a look. We ended up in a bar instead.
The game was on the big screen. We ate, we drank, we chatted. The game was intense. All the things I said that hockey was: heated, passionate, fast, action packed. And we could see the puck. There were goals, lots of them (I think the Habs won 4-3, but don’t quote me on that). There were fights – blood was drawn. The patrons in the bar were obviously excited. It drew us in. Very enjoyable.
We left the bar a considerable time later, and walked along St. Catherine Street (the main thoroughfare in downtown Montreal). There were not many people around. It was late, it was March, it was cold. We ambled along behind a small group of young men draped in Habs shirts. Across the almost deserted street, a similar group of 4 or 5 came into focus. They were wearing blue and white. Leafs fans.
You could see the agitation, an increase in excitement, as each group spotted the other. Nudging and pointing ensued as the two groups slowly followed a trajectory that would see them pass.
Adam, being English, had experienced situations like this before. Rival supporters, after the big game, and no doubt a few alcoholic beverages, coming face to face in the city centre. It was bound to get ugly. At times like this adrenalin kicks in, your senses go into overdrive, the blood rushes through your veins. It’s the danger. Anything could happen, and you’re right there.
The two groups were now almost parallel to each other, on opposite sides of the street – separated only by a few yards of tarmac.
The Leafs fans started first: “You Suck!” was the cry – repeated several times by each of the individuals in blue and white as they pointed across the street. Well, you have to understand, that is quite the insult in Canada. The Habs fans had no choice. They volleyed back with “You Suck!” in an equally animated fashion.
The two groups passed and continued in opposite directions.
Adam stood in silence. He looked back over his shoulder at a disappearing rabble of blue and white as they walked down the street. And then back at the red group, who were likewise going on their way. “That’s it?”, my friend enquired. “Yup. That’s it”, I replied with a chuckle.