21,273 free banners came raining down on the ice, and the game had to be halted. It was late in the second period, and Sean Avery had just tempted Mike Komisarek into another undisciplined penalty. It didn't matter that the Canadiens were in first place in the Eastern Conference; on that night, the only thing of consequence was the score, and until that point, it hadn't been in the home team's favor. My being at the game was a fluke. A classmate I didn't know all that well had an extra ticket, his friend had been sick, and as the chance to see the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge in person was rare, I jumped at the opportunity. I remember in remarkable detail eating Subway for dinner, taking the bus and metro, and finally entering the temple itself with low expectations for the fun I could have with a relative stranger. It was far from the first time I had seen the Tricolore live, but this was the game I will always remember. Over the next three hours, the other 21,272 in attendance and I became linked in witnessing the largest comeback in the history of the organization. It was the greatest night of my life.
Hockey was never of particular interest to my family; I had to discover it on my own. My mother grew up in England and moved to Montreal as a young adult where she met my father, who had escaped the Holocaust as an infant and had spent much of his early life in the United States. My mom played tennis; my dad was a casual Yankees fan. As far as sports went, that was pretty much it. I was brought up playing tennis and soccer, both of which I loved. Therefore, my early sports heros were Pete Sampras and David Beckham, rather than Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. Somehow, in the early 2000s, I came to like the Colorado Avalanche. I don't remember ever watching a game, but I remember the thrill of their 2001 Stanley Cup victory, and the heartbreak of Patrick Roy retiring, before I was old enough to truly appreciate him as the legend that he was.
I began consistently following the sport during the 2004 playoffs. For my grade six graduation video, three of my friends and I participated in a panel in which we gave our predictions as to who would win out of that year's Stanley Cup Finalists. Despite having bandwagoned the Flames hard, I was the only one to select Tampa Bay for the title, and went on to correctly predict the winner of seven of the next eight Stanley Cup finals - the Bruins' victory still baffles me - my debut as a hockey know-it-all, annoying friends and strangers alike with facts and numbers for years to come.
At some point between the Canadiens' 2004 comeback against the Bruins and the resumption of NHL play in 2005, I became a real hockey fan; more importantly, my allegiance shifted permanently to the hometown Canadiens. Every Saturday night, a group of my friends would come over. My mom would make a giant pot of pasta with tomato sauce, and we'd watch the hockey game - or at least we'd try. Invariably, we'd end up playing mini-stick floor hockey in my kitchen, competing in varieties of 2 v. 2 and 3 v. the goalie. We'd all pretend to not realize that intermission was over so we could keep playing, but eventually somebody would sneak a peek at the TV, and would yell to come quick, that Koivu - or Kovalev, or Zednick, or Higgins, or Latendresse - had scored. I still consider those nights some of the best of my life. From that point on, I've rarely missed a game.
Growing to understand the history behind the team - watching Roy Dupuis' "The Rocket" dozens of times, reading Patrick Roy's and Ken Dryden's biographies, and making an effort to know the stories behind each of the players forever enshrined in the rafters of the Bell Centre - has turned the team for me from a passion into an obsession. The Canadiens, whether in season, out of season, or locked out, are my life. Having never witnessed a Stanley Cup victory - I was one year old in 1993 - I often imagine the euphoria that will come with that next Cup win, and I can't even put into words how I will/would react. I can say, however, that if February 19, 2008 was any indication, it will be something special, something beyond words.