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Playing pick-up on the Habs’ home ice

Ever wondered what it is like to play hockey at the Bell Centre? A former regular of the city’s most unique weekly game shares his stories.

Francois Laplante/FreestylePhoto

Paying the price

Though working for the Habs carried its share of perks, undoubtedly the coolest one of them all was an invitation to play in a bi-weekly hockey league comprised of people working for the Canadiens’ marketing department, Evenko employees, and various guests. It doesn’t get much better than playing hockey, for free, in an NHL building.

The only downside to the whole deal was that the games were scheduled at 6:30AM on weekdays. In my case, it meant packing breakfast and lunch the night before, setting my alarm for 5AM on game day, cabbing it to the Media entrance of the Bell Centre by 6AM (as an aside, getting asked on a weekly basis whether I played for the Habs by the driver was kind of cool), and sustaining myself on a steady dose of Diet Coke for the remainder of the day in order to stay awake. If the Habs had a home game on the same day and I had to write a post-game piece for canadiens.com, I’d be in the building from 6AM to 1AM the next morning.

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At ice level

On the morning of, we would be set up in one of the visiting locker rooms. The room was not remotely as well appointed as the Habs’ recently-remodeled dressing room, but was more or less the same size and had a TV hooked up to the wall. Usually we would tune into Sportscentre and catch up on the previous night’s highlights while putting our gear on.

Ever since minor hockey, I’ve tried to be one of the first guys on the ice, here was no exception. There was a bucket full of pucks at our disposal, so I’d grab that, walk along the carpeted path to the Zamboni entrance, skate out to the far side goal, and try to pick corners until everybody else got ready.

Because of how cavernous the rink was, the acoustics were far more muffled than in a regular arena, which kind of threw your senses out of whack. Until you get used to it, it almost felt like your shot is weaker and your skating stride, slower.

Quirk of the building

Having sat on the rightmost side of the home bench (the side closest to the tunnel leading to the Habs’ locker room) most of the year, I found it strange that the bench was sawed off in a way to accommodate the inward-opening bench door. If you open that door more than about 60 degrees on a quick line change, it would actually get stuck under the wooden bench. Whenever that happens, you and your linemates would have to stand up and push back on the bench to get it out of the way before being able to close the door again.

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Morning glory

None of the Habs’ front-office staff ever came to skate with us, but the pace of the games were generally good. Players ran the gamut from from former Major Junior skaters in their late-twenties, to middle-aged beer leaguer, to the occasional beginner. We had a ref to call icings, but eschewed two-minute minors for penalty shots. The games were inevitably high-scoring, especially as the clock approached 8AM and most guys stopped backchecking.

One of the more interesting players to show up on a semi-regular basis was celebrity chef (and my occasional right-winger) Chuck Hughes. On the ice, he was a meat-and-potatoes type of power forward. Not the best possession player, but he could finish off a net-front play like Erik Cole on a good day.