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Chez nous: there's no place like home

Reflecting on the emotion and excitement of Bell Centre games as the Habs prepare for their home opener against the Boston Bruins.

Richard Wolowicz

Sometimes I take the Bell Centre for granted.

It's just an arena, after all. It might be a very large, very nice arena, but it's just an arena that's home to the Montreal Canadiens Hockey Club and an inordinate number of Bon Jovi concerts. Since they started building condominiums around the Bell Centre, it's not even all that much to look at from the outside anymore, sadly ("here's the greatest place to see a hockey game, right behind that scaffolding and those port-a-potties!").

"You have to come here to know. You have to go to a game."

Sometimes I go to Canadiens games without my jersey on, without butterflies in my stomach, without my hands shaking from the excitement. Sometimes I just show up, watch a hockey game, and go home with no real feelings about it. Given how hard it is for average people like me to get tickets, it's a little ungrateful on my part not to appreciate every second of every game I go to, and yet I've been taking it for granted.

If you live in Montreal, hockey is a part of your life, whether you like it or not. You could have no idea what's going on in the world or even in your own backyard, but you will know how the Habs are doing. You don't even have to hear about it on the radio or from people you know (you will). You just feel it. This is who we are, for better or worse. It's hard to describe or explain to people that haven't lived it, or even experienced it briefly. You have to come here to know. You have to go to a game.

People like to wax poetic about how special this building is-how it always sells out and how the fans are really passionate, which is really just a nice way of saying they're scared of us. Deserved or not, Montreal has a reputation around the league for being an intimidating place to play. If you've ever sat low enough in the lower bowl and heard 21,273 voices boo because a penalty was called on the Habs, you'll know what I'm talking about. It feels like disapproval is raining down on you. It's beautiful.

When things are going well, people wax poetic about the cheering. The cheering can get so loud that it feels like the building is shaking and the roof is rattling. Thousands of people who have nothing in common, some of whom would probably absolutely hate each other if they interacted socially, screaming together at the top of their lungs every time the Habs score a goal. It's almost painful, how loud it gets.

Any building where the home team is doing well is loud. There are plenty of nice arenas in the league-newer, cleaner, prettier, more green. Some arenas have better anthem singers (not Boston, don't even start with me, Rancourt superfans). Almost all arenas have better beer pricing (but you'll never convince me a single one of them has better hot dogs). A lot of arenas even have better hockey teams in them.

Only the Bell Centre is in Montreal. And until you experience it for yourself, you just don't really know.

So how could I ever take all of this for granted? I sometimes forget that there was a time that the Habs could not sell out. When I was a student I could walk down to the Molson Centre and buy tickets on a game night. On my measly student's budget, no less. I talk about the consecutive sell-outs and forget that they weren't a given prior to the 2004-2005 lockout and that in the late 90s there were even relocation rumours. Yes. In Montreal. We're very lucky to have what we have now.

When the Canadiens retired Patrick Roy's number in 2008, he touched on the way things ended between him and the club in his speech. He concluded by saying, "Ce soir, je rentre chez nous." ("Tonight, I'm coming home.")

I always think of that on the day of the home opener. The Habs leave us for a while on whatever terms, and then they sort of come back, in that they're playing hockey in other people's rinks, and then, finally, they come home to this insane family.

As of tomorrow night, the Habs are home. This is home. We're all so lucky to call it that. We should never take it for granted.