MONTREAL - There was some added tension on the Bell Centre ice leading up to puck drop on Saturday night, and it wasn't between the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs.
In conjunction with the promotional tour leading up to UFC 217 on November 4 at Madison Square Garden, Georges St-Pierre and Michael Bisping, along with UFC president Dana White, made a stop in Montreal to attend the contest between the NHL's two greatest rivals.
St-Pierre is no stranger to the Bell Centre, of course, having headlined four UFC galas in the Canadiens' home rink over the years. Less than three weeks before returning to the octagon after a nearly four-year absence, he admits that standing at center ice provided a good preview of what he'll likely experience shortly in New York.
"It was emotional being back here. I always like coming back to the Bell Centre. It's fun to be home. It's a little bit like the feeling I have when I fight and you have the crowd behind you. I'm really looking forward to the fight. I'm suffering a bit right now because I'm in training camp and the workouts are tough, so I'm excited for them to finish up," said St-Pierre, who also had the chance to address Canadiens players in the dressing room before things got underway.
Video: Georges St-Pierre gives the Habs a pep talk
It wasn't surprising to see the Bell Centre faithful give St-Pierre a tremendous ovation - which let Bisping know exactly who'll they'll be supporting when the two finally square off. Nevertheless, the reigning middleweight champ admits that he expected a far less hospitable welcome.
"I thought the booing would be worse. I'm a little disappointed to be quite honest," cracked Bisping, who boasts a career record of 30-7 in the UFC ranks. "I'm having a bit of fun with Georges. He probably hates me by now, but I like Georges and I respect him. But, we are going to fight. Even when we were on the ice, we were talking a little smack."
While Bisping confided that he was supporting the Maple Leafs on Saturday night, he has always enjoyed fighting in front of Quebec crowds. Unbeaten in his two previous bouts at the Bell Centre, the 38-year-old Brit witnessed just how passionate sports fans in Montreal are with his own eyes - and not just during mixed martial arts galas.
"I remember when I fought here in 2008. Georges was fighting Matt Serra on the same card, two days after there was a huge riot in the city. It was crazy. There was a riot when you guys won a game. Imagine if you had lost," mentioned Bisping, referencing the events that transpired after the Canadiens eliminated the Boston Bruins from the playoffs on April 21, 2008.
"I would love to come back and fight here again," added Bisping. "I fought twice, won both times and they were great experiences. Why not do it a third time?"
To date, the record attendance at a Bell Centre event is 23,152, which was set established during UFC 124 in December 2010. Despite those numbers, UFC hasn't been back to Montreal since April 2015, and it's still unknown exactly when they plan to return. According to White, though, it could be sooner rather than later.
"We'll be back here in 2018, hopefully. I want to do one in Montreal and one in Toronto," declared White on Saturday. "Right when we walked into the arena, I said - "Man, I've missed this place. This is a great arena." This is one of the nicest arenas in the world."
While he'd most definitely like to ply his trade on home turf again, St-Pierre is focusing squarely on his upcoming tilt with Bisping right now. The Saint-Isidore native is hoping to recapture the belt that he successfully defended nine times and show UFC fans the world over that he's still at the top of his game at age 36.
"I'm expecting a really, really intense fight. Mixed martial arts fans are going to see it all: striking, grappling, takedowns. Bisping is a very complete fighter, but his specialty is striking. He's strong on his punches. The fight will have it all," concluded St-Pierre.