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Montreal's faithful anticipate All-Stars

by Frederic Serre
You had to feel a little sorry for the 20 brave souls who gathered inside a Université de Montréal classroom last Friday to debate the sanctity of hockey and the Montreal Canadiens. In case you've just joined us after a 100-year nap, we're talking about the legendary Habs -- long considered a sacred icon in Quebec.

Not only was their timing god-awful, but their findings were equally blasphemous.

The naysayers emerged from a full day of analyses to bravely declare that, despite all appearances, hockey in Montreal is not a religion. They did agree, however, that there are a few similarities.

"It has all the characteristics and functions of religion," said Tony Patoine, one of the workshop attendees. "You have the church service in the morning, with the reading of the newspapers and Internet sites, and then the theological discussions on the gods and their disciples. And then, at night, it's the big Mass."

While this small group of party-poopers packed up and went home, the rest of the city is busy gearing up for hockey's ultimate pilgrimage – the 57th National Hockey League All-Star Game at the Bell Centre on Jan. 25. There are a host of activities -- on and off the ice -- lined up for a weekend that will be high on talent and octane, featuring the biggest stars that the sport has ever seen.

Hockey fanatics in Montreal don't need university workshops to confirm the existence of hockey gods in this city. This is a place that goes hockey mad even in the dead of summer, when sports talk radio hosts are already debating who will make the team and who will not.

While the city and its population of 3.7 million is continually hockey crazed at the best and worst of times, 2009 is different for so many reasons.

The Canadiens are celebrating their centennial; the team is enjoying its best season since 1986, with 60 points (27-11-6 record) in the wake of Saturday's shootout win against Ottawa, placing the team in second place in the Eastern Conference. The times, they are good…

And to make matters even more uplifting, Montreal's passionate fan base afforded Mike Komisarek, Andrei Markov, Alex Kovalev and Carey Price more than 5.675 million votes combined in the XM/NHL All-Star Fan Balloting presented by 2K Sports. All four players will be Eastern Conference starters in Sunday's game.

Passionate Canadiens fans are everywhere in Montreal, and the faithful are known to gather in the city's infamous pubs known as brasseries. Less than two kilometers west of the Bell Centre and the old Forum is a cozy brasserie known as "hockey central." Resto-Pub St. Jacques is, like the Habs, 100 years old, making it one of the oldest pubs in the city.

"One of our clients was probably born in here," jokes owner Roger Boutin. "This place has been open forever."

What makes Resto-Pub a genuine bleu blanc et rouge watering hole is that one of the Habs' favorite sons practically lives here. Yvon Lambert, the rugged winger who played with the Canadiens between 1972 and 1981, and is best known for sending the Canadiens into the 1979 Stanley Cup Final against the Rangers after scoring a dramatic overtime goal against Boston, regularly holds court at the bar, surrounded by a gamut of hockey paraphernalia -- most of it from his glorious heyday with Les Glorieux.

It is not uncommon for patrons to shake his hand and thank him for his famous goal at the doorstep of Gilles Gilbert's crease, which sent the Bruins and coach Don Cherry packing.

"Yvon likes it here because it's quiet," says Boutin, adding that every Thursday is "Les Jeudis à Yvon" (Thursdays with Yvon) – a time when the regulars can hang out and watch hockey on the big screens, joined by the big guy himself.

Boutin says the pub will be teeming with the faithful when the NHL All-Star Game is shown on the big screens and the beer flows all day long.

"Everyone is gearing up for it, that's for sure. This place will be packed," he says.

Frederic Serre is a Montreal-based freelance writer, translator and cartoonist. When not sitting at his keyboard, Serre plays hockey in four different hockey leagues per week.

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