Despite pandemic restrictions and a cap on the number of people allowed at Montreal’s Bell Centre, Habs fans are finding creative ways to gather to watch their team’s unexpected playoff run.
“It’s crazy,” said Stuart Saunders, who describes himself as a die-hard Montreal Canadiens fan. “I was at the last Stanley Cup parade in ’93, so it’s been a while.”
For the resident of Otterburn Park, a town about 40 kilometres east of Montreal, being able to watch the playoff run with fellow fans in the wake of pandemic isolation is critical.
While the entire province of Quebec is now under the green alert level, meaning looser restrictions, there are still limits on meeting indoors.
Viewing parties bring neighbours together
And with the playoff run stretching into summer and tickets limited and pricey, the potential for outdoor viewing is high.
That’s why Saunders took it upon himself to host viewing parties in his front yard, equipped with a 180-inch screen and large Bluetooth speakers for his neighbours’ enjoyment.
“Everybody’s been shut in for so long,” said Saunders. “Since the start of the pandemic, we haven’t seen anybody.”
Similar viewing parties can be spotted (and heard, when the home team scores) on lawns, balconies, rooftop patios and parks throughout the province.
Hockey on a baseball diamond
Patrick Béland and Omar Hafez began screening NHL games at the baseball diamond in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Park during the first round of the playoffs, when the Habs eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The crowd, sitting on picnic blankets and camping chairs, now fills much of the infield.
“We just wanted a way to watch the game with our friends, outside,” said Béland.
“Because of COVID, we didn’t want to make a huge party at somebody’s house and we just wanted to make the Habs games accessible to people in these difficult times.”
The organizers hang a white sheet measuring roughly 150 inches against the backstop as a makeshift screen, and a projector streams the game, with sounds of the broadcast coming from rented speakers.
“The best way to watch these games is together, under one screen basically. We’re really happy to see the turnout,” said Hafez, adding they enjoy watching the games in what they consider their neighbourhood backyard.
“I’m coming here till we bring the cup over here, that’s our goal.”
Canadiens ask for Bell Centre capacity increase
For now, the Bell Centre is limited to 3,500 spectators per game under rules set by the Quebec’s Health Ministry. The Montreal Canadiens organization has asked the government to allow the Bell Centre to admit 10,500 spectators, half its capacity.
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante said Monday that she is still trying to come up with ways to organize outdoor viewings but admitted public health guidelines make the task difficult.
Many businesses, though, have managed to adapt.
Vito Azzue, who runs Café Vito in Montreal’s Villeray neighbourhood, screens Euro Cup games during the day and Habs games at night.
“When we first initially started it was just for among friends and family, and then it grew into a real crowd,” he said. “And that’s why everyone comes here, because they became family with each other.”