For the first time since March 2020, a Canadian NHL team has allowed paying fans into an arena.
The doors opened at 6:30 p.m., with the puck drop happening about an hour and 15 minutes later.
At 7:41 p.m., led by goaltender Carey Price, the Montreal Canadiens took to the ice before the energized gathering. There were a handful of Toronto Maple Leafs fans at Bell Centre, but they were easily drowned out by the Habs faithful, who have been waiting months and months to cheer on their team – in person.
And in a fitting way to welcome fans back, there was no anthem singer, instead, the crowd took care of it, using their own voices to sing O’Canada.
“It’s a been a long time since we’ve heard the roar of a live crowd, and we’re excited to have you hear tonight,” said the team’s long-time PA announcer, Michel Lacroix.
After Quebec loosened COVID-19 restrictions, the Montreal Canadiens were given permission to have 2,500 fans in the 21,273-seat Bell Centre for Game 6 of their first-round playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
While it is a first for a Canadian NHL team, American rinks have had bigger crowds throughout the playoffs.
“Having some people back in the building is a sign of progress for our country,” Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe said after his club’s morning skate. “We’ve seen down in the U.S. the emotion and how that can change an environment.
“I think in this case here … it’s less about the game and our sport and the playoffs and all of that, but more just about some progress being made in the country. I think that’s a really good sign for everybody.”
The Canadiens say they gave priority to season-ticket holders, luxury-suite holders, and corporate partners to purchase tickets in pods of two or four.
Ticket buyers are allowed to resell tickets. Prices were high yesterday with the cheapest seats selling for just under $1,500 on Ticketmaster.
All fans must socially distance from those outside their pod and those aged five and up must wear a mask except when eating or drinking. Only bottled water will be sold at concessions. The first 12 rows also will remain empty.
Quebec’s curfew — in place since Jan. 9 — was lifted last night. Restaurant patios across the province were also permitted to reopen yesterday after being closed in some parts of the province, including Montreal, since Oct. 1.
The new measures come as COVID-19 hospitalizations in Quebec have declined to their lowest level in more than six months.
“The pandemic’s hit the people here as hard as anywhere in our country, and the people deserve this,” Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher said. “They were disciplined, they listened to what was being asked of them.
“And these are the rewards that were earned.”
The then-Montreal Impact (now CF Montreal) of Major League Soccer had the first crowd in Canada at a pro sporting event during the pandemic when they were permitted to allow 250 fans to a game at their outdoor stadium last summer.
Some junior hockey teams also have been allowed to have limited crowds. The Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League had a maximum attendance of 1,900 for games this season, the biggest crowds among the six Maritime teams in that circuit.
–with files from Alessia Maratta, Global News