Playing in Montreal is difficult for any opponent.
Well, except for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It should be no different on Tuesday when the Penguins play in Montreal for the first time this season.
In fact, the Bell Centre will be more like the Bell Circus.
That’s because the Penguins have many ties to Montreal and the French-speaking province of Quebec. Of the 14 Penguins who hail from Canada – six of them come from Quebec: Mario Lemieux, Michel Ouellet, Andre Roy, Jocelyn Thibault, Maxime Talbot and Marc-Andre Fleury.
“I think the Penguins [are Quebec’s] second club. Before, it was the Colorado Avalanche because they were the Quebec Nordiques,” said Renaud Lavoie, a reporter for RDS, a Canadian French-language sports channel based in Montreal. “Now, [the Penguins are] the second club for a lot of reasons.”
Move over bleu, blanc et rouge, make room for some Penguins black and gold.
“At RDS we put maybe 5-10 Penguins games on the air per year,” Lavoie said. “There’s a reason for it. It’s a popular team. The other team we’re covering is Ottawa because maybe it’s a little more natural [in proximity]. But there’s not a French culture in Ottawa with the team. There’s maybe one French player. Here, every time there is a player on the ice, it seems to me like he speaks French. I am pretty sure that the ratings will be good because of it.”
The Penguins have always been popular in Quebec – especially Montreal – since they drafted Lemieux, a Montreal native, in 1984.
“Fans in Quebec really love Mario,” Lavoie said. “They think he’s the best player to ever play in the NHL and he deserves to have that statement.”
That’s not all.
Sidney Crosby played his junior hockey in Quebec at Rimouski. Even though he was born in Nova Scotia, residents of Quebec embraced the 18-year-old star not only for his skill, but because he learned to speak French during his two seasons with the Oceanic. He was hugely popular throughout Canada already, but his ability to learn and speak French helped people throughout Quebec identify with him even more.
“To see [that] Sidney can speak French, too, I think that’s a big thing in Quebec,” Lavoie said. “It’s normal, if you have a French culture to want to see someone speak French; it’s great.”
Goaltender Fleury is widely popular in Quebec. The Sorel native was the first-overall pick in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft. Many consider him the next great French-Canadian goaltender, following in the footsteps of Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur.
“Marc-Andre – it’s unbelievable what that kid is all about right now,” Lavoie said. “You see that he is going to be the best goaltender in the NHL. He’s the next Martin Brodeur, the next Patrick Roy. You see that he has a talent to do it and now it’s just making sure that he’s going to be able to perform like he wants.”
The Pittsburgh-Montreal connection intensified when the Penguins promoted Michel Therrien to head coach on Dec. 15. Therrien, who was born in Montreal, spent six years as a coach in the Canadiens organization – including parts of three seasons as the head coach. Tuesday’s game marks his first return trip to his native city behind an opposing NHL bench.
“I was saying to my partners in Montreal that the game [Tuesday] in Montreal is going to be a circus,” Lavoie said. “It really is going to be that way. Michel wants to win every game and, believe me, that game – he knows exactly when it is. He’ll do everything to beat the Canadiens.”
Talbot and Ouellet are two more young players who are helping to create more Penguins fans in Quebec.
“Some people in Quebec don’t know about Michel now, but they will in the next few years,” Lavoie said. “Maxime Talbot, too.”
In addition, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Baby Penguins players Sebastien Caron, Dany Sabourin, Guillaume Lefebvre and Alain Nasreddine were all born in Quebec.
“We’re going to see a lot of these young guys in the next few years,” Lavoie said. “I wish that one day those two teams would meet in the playoffs. It’s going to be great.”