MONTREAL - Less than 24 hours removed from a dominant win over the division-leading Ottawa Senators, the Canadiens kept their mojo working before a near-capacity crowd at their annual Open Practice.
Although the practice itself began Sunday morning officially at 10:00, lines began forming for the general-admission event outside the Bell Centre as early as 7:30. When the doors opened at 9:00, thousands of fans young and old alike - the majority among the former demographic - rushed to get the best seats available. All told, more than 19,000 fans attended the event.
The morning began with a focus on what may well be the future Canadiens a decade or so down the line, as a quartet of minor hockey teams first scrimmaged and then enjoyed a clinic under the direction of Gaston Gingras, the former Montreal defenseman now working closely with the team's LRF Program. Current Canadiens defensemen Mathieu Dandenault and Mark Streit, as well as forward Chris Higgins, took part in the demonstration, leading their young charges in a series of exercises that included an exchange of penalty shots.
Up next was the introduction of the rest of the Canadiens roster, a group who received a lasting ovation as they took to the ice and broke off into four separate groups to work on a variety of skills.
Jose Theodore and Cristobal Huet worked with Jonathan Ferland and Mike Ribeiro at one end to demonstrate a way to warm up goaltenders, while at the other end Michael Ryder, Sheldon Souray, Mike Komisarek, Pierre Dagenais, and Craig Rivet flexed their muscle as they rifled a series of shots at a goalie target between the pipes.
Near center ice, the two remaining groups - one led by Saku Koivu, the other by Alex Kovalev - showed how to win a faceoff and how to improve puckhandling ability.
"I'll do what I can here, but I know I don't have much of a chance to win a faceoff against Steve," Koivu joked in reference to Steve Begin, who flashed his trademark grin as he lined up across from the captain to await the puck drop. Joining Koivu and Begin in the drill were Garth Murray, Jan Bulis, and Radek Bonk.
Kovalev's group, which consisted of Andrei Markov, Andrei Kostitsyn, Niklas Sundstrom, and Richard Zednik, had a hard time keeping up with the master. Kovalev appeared ready for a post-hockey career in broadcasting, commandeering the microphone from the on-ice MC and proceeding to explain his techniques directly to the delight of the crowd.
"This is what I do in the morning to get myself going, to get myself ready," revealed Kovalev before sweeping in-and-out of an impossibly tight area defined by pucks and water bottles, maneuvering the puck in looping, swooping circles. "Sometimes if I do that too quickly, I make myself dizzy."
Following the drills, a special promotion was held in which contest winners were paired with players who tried to squeeze the puck through a thin slot in the goal mouth from the blue line. Though only Begin and Zednik managed to score, Metro supermarkets, the title sponsor of the event, provided $200 gift certificates for all the contest winners anyway.
The final hour of the practice consisted of, in many ways, the main event: an actual Canadiens practice narrated by Claude Julien and some of the players, followed by a mini 3-on-3 tournament made up of four teams of five. In the end, the Whites (with Kovalev, Souray, Begin, Streit, and Sundstrom) upended the Reds (with Koivu, Bulis, Markov, Dandenault, and Ferland), 5-2, in a five-minute running-time final.
"We always love this event because it gives us the chance to show our fans what we do day-to-day, and because it provides a lot of people the opportunity to come out to the Bell Centre and see us who might not otherwise have the chance," said Begin.
With smiles still lingering across many of their faces, the players concluded the morning by tossing tuques, pucks, and other souvenirs into the stands, pausing to wave and acknowledge the continuing support of the faithful.
The 2006 edition of the team's Open Practice was presented by Metro, in collaboration with its Irresistible line of products and La Cage aux Sports. Metro distributed thousands of tickets to the event through a contest held at their supermarkets, while the club's media partners, RDS, CKAC, CJAD, Le Journal de Montreal, and the Gazette, also helped ensure the Bell Centre was filled with an enthusiastic, vocal, and appreciative crowd.
J.S. Trzcienski is the Site Manager for canadiens.com.