Habs’ playoff run shows signs of better days ahead

The drive for 25 is alive and, at last, the city of Montreal is too

This cup run has not only invigorated the entire city but given hope in one of the city’s toughest years ever Graphic Brie Shimansky

The Canadiens have long been the heartbeat of Montreal, so after 15 months of catastrophic lows, it’s only fitting that they find themselves at the cornerstone of the city’s post-pandemic renaissance.

On May 20, the Habs took to the ice in Toronto against the Maple Leafs in what many predicted would be the beginning of yet another short playoff run for the lower-seeded Canadiens. A series win over their arch-rivals inevitably felt like a pipe dream for Habs fans; but now, over one month later, the dream lives on. 

Montreal’s 2021 playoff run is turning out to be one of those forever spoken about Cinderella stories. For the Canadiens and their fans, however, the beginning of the script dates back to well before the beginning of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

For Quebecers––and Montrealers in particular––the COVID-19 pandemic hit especially hard. Quebec’s provincial government imposed some severe and lengthy public health measures: a five-month-long curfew, closures of bars and restaurants for over half a year, and the banning of private gatherings for an extended period of time––each of which remained in place when the playoffs began.

Optimism was seldom found throughout the city, and the so-called ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ seemed, well, nonexistent. Time and time again, Montrealers were met with hardship: the surge and resurgence of COVID-19 cases, the implementation of increasingly stricter constraints and then, month after month, the extension of them. 

There was just never any good news—ever. It felt endless; it was tiring and deceiving. But Quebec’s vaccination rollout started to excel and things began to change. 

Montreal’s red zone turned to orange, and orange turned to yellow; 21,000 empty seats in the Bell Centre turned to 2,500 full, then 2,500 turned to 3,500––a feat that was unimaginable just weeks prior. 

Suddenly there was life again and the energy created by the Habs and their fans inside of the Bell Centre was contagious throughout the city. Finally, Montreal was starting to feel like its electric, exciting, exhilarating self again.  

That’s the power the Montreal Canadiens have in their hometown. They’re more than just a hockey team. The franchise’s storied success has been engraved in the city’s culture and has helped characterize Montreal’s identity.

In a sense, it’s like putting a bandaid on a bullet hole, but if nothing else, it’s a start to the healing process.

Because of the pandemic’s current health measures, there are no public screenings on game nights this year. But don’t tell Habs fans that. When it comes to a playoff game in Montreal, if there is a will, there is a way—and they’ve found their way. 

Just ask Kevin Beaudry, the manager of La Cage sports bar and restaurant inside the Bell Centre. Business “has been 10 times what he expected—thanks to the success of the Canadiens,” he told CTV News. Thousands of fans have flooded onto the grounds outside the restaurant for each game to catch a glimpse of the action through the bar’s windows. 

Chants of “Ole! Ole! Ole!” and “Go Habs Go!” have replaced the sounds of silence that rained down on those very same grounds past the 9:30 p.m. curfew that was in place less than a month ago. 

The Quebec government has not turned a blind eye to the Habs’ winning ways either. In response to the Canadiens’ success, health minister Christian Dubé announced on June 14 via Twitter that bars and restaurants would be allowed to serve alcohol until 12 a.m. and stay open until 2 a.m., in order to avoid people gathering inside private homes. 

Generally, a team’s success is attributed to the wins and losses, but this season––and these 2021 playoffs––have been about so much more than that. 

They’ve been about giving the fans a sense of hope. They’ve been about a feeling of normality. They’ve been about an escape from the darkness that settled overhead in the 15 months prior. They’ve been about bringing life back into the city of Montreal––and they’ve done exactly that. 

There’s no denying the fact that the emotional and mental damage the pandemic has caused outweighs the recent successes that Habs have enjoyed. In a sense it’s like putting a bandaid on a bullet hole, but if nothing else, it’s a start to the healing process.

With a 3-2 series lead, the Habs have a chance to numb the pain just a little bit more with a ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals on the line on June 24 which, coincidentally, so happens to be Quebec’s Fête Nationale (formerly known as Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day), a statutory holiday in Quebec.

So, when the lights shine down on hockey’s cathedral on Thursday night, the National Hockey League’s oldest and most storied franchise will be channeling their own version of baptism when they welcome one of the league’s newest teams, the Vegas Golden Knights to town looking to put a stamp on the semi-final series.