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Canadiens benefit from fanatical support of 'newbies'

by James Murphy

Saku Koivu underwent treatment from cancer and returned to the team in 2002. With him in the lineup, the Habs made a heroic playoff run, which reinvigorated their fans. Saku Koivu highlights
It appears that "Habs Nation" has gone modern.

Long gone are the days of suits and ties being donned by mostly reserved fans in the storied Montreal Forum. Today, the modern, high-tech Bell Centre -- and any other arenas within driving distance for Montreal supporters -- has become a vocal sea of red-white-and-blue Canadiens jerseys.

"This is a completely different group of fans we're seeing here now," said Marc DeFoy, longtime Canadiens beat writer for the Journal de Montreal. "You don't see those suits and ties behind the bench or that reserved, quiet crowd anymore.

"This is a much younger crowd now, and you look out at the stands from the press box both in the Bell Centre and on the road in this series and you see tons of fans in their Canadiens hockey jerseys."

Yes, the Canadiens faithful is traveling en mass to see their beloved team play in Boston, home of the rival Bruins.

For much of the past week, the HighGate Springs border crossing -- which separates Vermont from Philipsburg, Quebec -- has resembled a festive tailgate as legions of fans have been trekking back and forth to support the playoff cause

The willingness to travel to support the team is just one aspect of this new breed of Montreal supporter, a following that is still rooted in the team's past accomplishments, but is also hoping to be part of a new day in the sun.

DeFoy has little doubt that this new generation of fans appreciates the rich history of one of the most-storied franchises in professional sports, but he also believes it is more focused on the present. The fact that Montreal is once again a legitimate threat to hoist the Stanley Cup has added excitement and synergy to this emerging fan base, he believes.
"As much as they know and appreciate the tradition, many of these fans probably never saw Guy LaFleur, Jean Beliveau or Maurice Richard play," DeFoy says. "I don't know the average age exactly, but let's say it's 20. That means they were only five years old the last time the Canadiens won the Cup. They've never really had a winning team or a legit Stanley Cup contender to cheer for, so this is their team now and they've embraced that."

The Canadiens won all of their 24 Stanley Cups during their time in the Montreal Forum, but they have not hoisted Lord Stanley since moving to the Bell Centre, which was known as the Molson Centre from its inception in 1996 to 2003.

The days after the move from the Forum were not easy. Until the Canadiens shocked the world in 2002 with some playoff heroics, the new building struggled to become the same type of intimidating, home-ice advantage for which the Forum was so famous.

In the spring of 2002, Saku Koivu made a miraculous return to hockey after undergoing treatment for cancer and helped the Canadiens, the No. 8 seed, knock off the top-seeded Bruins in the first round of the playoffs.

Suddenly, the 21,273-seat building was alive again.

Momentum was added in 2004, when the Canadiens again upset the Bruins, coming back from a three-games-to-one deficit. Instantly, the new generation of fans started to make its presence felt. Or as DeFoy puts it; "In 2002 and 2004 we learned that this building has a heart."

"We learned that it actually could be loud. But now it's been like this for every game since. The team alumni, guys who've won numerous Stanley Cups, tell me they've never experienced anything so loud."

The fan base has changed in other, more subtle ways as well. It is no longer as xenophobic as it once was. For decades, players not from Quebec found it difficult to play in this French-Canadian city. There was a tangible favoritism toward the native sons of Montreal and Quebec that dominated the Canadiens rosters and led to the team being known as the "Flying Frenchmen."

But during the last decade, Montreal has become more culturally diverse as a city. The influence of those many different cultures is evident in the way the fans view and cheer for the team.

A game today at the Bell Centre could easily be mistaken for a European or South American soccer game if you close your eyes. The famous "Ole, Ole-Ole-Ole" chant is now a staple for the fans, who sing and wave flags throughout the game.
"People don't care that this team only has five or six French-Canadian players," DeFoy said. "They've embraced the diversity on the team just as they've embraced the diversity in the city. The team is good and that's all they care about now. The soccer chants you hear are probably a result of the different cultures here and most of them are huge soccer fans."

The Bell Centre hasn't been the only business benefiting off the Canadiens' success and the team's boisterous new generation of fans. Pubs and restaurants near the Bell Centre are packed to capacity on game nights. The streets are jammed with fans after every win.

George Bajoras is a manager at Brutopia, a brewpub on Crescent Street in downtown Montreal. He has seen first-hand the changes and is impressed.

"Besides maybe 2002 and 2004, I haven't seen it like this since 1993 and 1986," he said. "I remember being in the middle of that bedlam after the Cups in '86 and '93. There were horns tooting, the streets were jammed and it was just nuts. Now you see this every night and we're not even in the finals yet. The bar has been packed and this has been great. I can't imagine what it would be like if they won it all!"

And there is no doubt that this enthusiasm will only help the Canadiens down the road. Both Bajoras and DeFoy believe that the winning culture created by General Manager Bob Gainey, along with the renewed passion from the fans, has created an environment that will lure free agents to the team.

"How can you not want to play here?" Bajoras asked. "I mean you can only make so much money, but do you want to be a winner in a great hockey city or a rich loser?"

This has been unbelievable. I mean, it's so crazy at home, and then to hear all these fans on the road and the 'Go Habs Go!' chants in Boston was just amazing. We really have fed off the fans and appreciate their support. - Carey Price
The noise in the Bell Centre and the support on the road played a huge role in the Canadiens jumping to a 2-0 lead in their current quarterfinal series with the Bruins, and also their ability to bounce back from a 2-1 overtime loss in Game 3 with a 1-0 victory in Game 4 on Tuesday.

"This has been unbelievable," rookie goaltender Carey Price said following his first career playoff shutout Tuesday night. "I mean, it's so crazy at home, and then to hear all these fans on the road and the 'Go Habs Go!' chants in Boston was just amazing. We really have fed off the fans and appreciate their support."

Boston assured there would be another road trip to Boston for the Montreal faithful by winning Thursday's Game 5. Game 6 is Saturday night in Boston.

Keif Orsini and Simon Danis-Pepin, a pair of University of Maine hockey players, drove from their Orono campus for the first games in Boston. Both are Canadiens fans originally from Quebec, and the atmosphere in Boston was like a taste of home cooking.

"It makes you miss home and I can't wait to get back to Montreal and experience this," said Danis-Pepin, a junior defenseman and 2006 second-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks. "It's always been religion to cheer for the Canadiens growing up there, but the only memories we have are '02 and '04. Everything else you hear about from your parents. I remember 1993, but I was only 4 years old then."

Orsini, a freshman center for the Black Bears, agreed.

"All we have is the Habs up there and we haven't had much to cheer for in our lifetime, so this is great," he said. "Now we have some bragging rights with our parents. This is our team."

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