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Gorman: Bell Centre provides a celebration of hockey

Kevin Gorman
| Friday, May 7, 2010

MONTREAL — I was in awe from the anthem.

The Montreal Canadiens fans that packed Bell Centre bellowed out every word of the national anthem, with an enthusiasm exceeded only by their passion for the playoff hockey that followed for the next 2 1/2 hours.

Not O Canada, mind you, but the Star-Spangled Banner .

Oh, I'll say what I saw on my first trip to the hockey capital: a celebration of sport that left me wide-eyed in wonder, surpassed in volume of sporting events I've covered only by the Super Bowl and Stanley Cup Final.

And this is the second round.

"They're awesome here. They're into it," said Canadiens defenseman and alternate captain Hal Gill, who spent the previous two seasons playing for the Penguins at Mellon Arena. "We had a good run in Pittsburgh and the fans were great, but you get here and it's a different level."

What you get here are knowledgeable fans that appreciate hockey on every level. They cheer the nuances of the game — from every check and chip to every shot and save — which can be both a blessing and a curse.

"I feel like there's a lot more hanging on every play because they focus on every play," Gill said. "It could be something as simple as, did it get out over the blue line or not• The crowd reacts to that. At Mellon Arena, they're into the game and yelling and screaming, but it's not as defined a moment."

The commotion created at Bell Centre can be both amusing and confusing for visitors. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, a childhood fan of the Canadiens, believes there is a distinguishable difference between the momentum of the game and the momentum created by the crowd.

"The hits always seem bigger and a shot from the point seems like it's a breakaway," Crosby said. "As long as you're aware of that and you're able to separate that, you're fine."

Winger Matt Cooke said Penguins players were talking after Tuesday's 2-0 victory in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series about how the boisterous behavior inside Bell Centre can border on the ridiculous.

"They get the puck in a 1-on-3 in the neutral zone and the crowd's going crazy," Cooke said. "Sometimes, it seems worse than it actually is."

That's part of the charm of the building.

But defenseman Kris Letang, one of a handful of French-Canadians on the Penguins roster who grew up rooting for Montreal, doesn't find it funny.

"You can't really laugh," Letang said. "When you're in the game, you feel a lot worse. You think they're attacking with three and you've only got one guy. You get nervous about that. That's what the building brings. They're really loud and they make us feel like we're in trouble all the time.

"The atmosphere in the building, it's just amazing."

The history isn't.

There are 24 Stanley Cup championship banners hanging in Bell Centre, including one from 1915-16, before the NHL existed. The Canadiens won 10 Cup titles between '65 and '79, but none since '93. That was three years before this building replaced the Forum as their home ice.

That's not all Montreal is missing.

Like Steelers Nation, the fans here have no perspective. Generations have been raised on the game, most with the expectation that the Canadiens will win it all. Anything short of a Stanley Cup championship is a disappointment, and any obstacle is voiced with deep displeasure.

"You know how you're playing when you're here," Gill said. "They turn on you."

Including a series-tying 3-2 win over the Penguins last night, the Canadiens have lost in five of their past seven home playoff games, dating to last year, and seven of their past nine. The other victory in that span came in Game 6 of their first-round series against Washington, when Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak made an incredible 53 saves. Halak is now a local hero, but one expected to play like a combination of Jacques Plante, Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy every night.

When he didn't in Game 3 of the first round, Halak was booed off the ice.

That makes this place as dangerous for the home team as it does the visitors.

Still, at this time of the year, it's something to behold.

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