There's something changing in the atmosphere in Montreal.
This city is always wild about hockey. The Bell Complexe Sportif is always packed for summer development camp in July, but this year was especially so. There was a line around the glass-enclosed rink an hour before the open scrimmage began on Friday morning at 9:30am just to get into the stands, and when all was said and done, about half or more of the people who showed up couldn't fit in, and had to watch from outside.
There's a buzz in the city that hasn't been here as long as I've lived in Montreal (since 2005), that the team is on the cusp of something special. The run in 2010 was fun, but no one came out of that thinking it was repeatable, and the quick trade of Jaroslav Halak dampened the mood, even if it was obviously the right choice to anyone paying attention.
The run to the conference finals is surely a big part of the reason why people were so excited, but the big draw at development camp was the Habs' first round pick in this year's draft; Nikita Scherbak.
I had the pleasure of being part of Scherbak's first press scrum, and you could tell instantly that he has a personality that would endear him to the Canadiens faithful. As he looked at the scrum and exclaimed "Oh my got(god, but pronounced got)!" to laughter, he launched into explaining that he was very nervous and had "fireworks in the head". He instantly had everyone on his side, and although I'm sure media guys won't appreciate me putting it this way, he made them all fans.
Marc Bergevin mentioned his character, but more accurately called him a character. The Canadiens usually shelter their new prospects from the media as much as they can, even when they break onto the team, but they haven't with Scherbak.
Scherbak has answered fan questions live on youtube, he's talked to the media essentially every day, and he's been front and centre for the Habs' online content since he was drafted. It's been Scherbakmania.
What's most shocking about this summer is that Scherbak was a very low pick. He's pretty clearly better than the spot where he was taken, but two years ago the Canadiens had a lottery pick in Alex Galchenyuk, and there was nowhere close to this much coverage surrounding him.
Part of the reason for that could be the impending lockout dominating the news, but if anything the Canadiens constantly downplayed Galchenyuk, pushing the idea that he would return to junior for another year instead of play in the NHL. He did some interviews, but it wasn't until 24CH debuted that we got to see a bit of his personality.
Galchenyuk is clearly the better player of the two, a young kid who has the potential to be an elite centre, but Scherbak has grabbed the ever elusive fanfare of the Montreal faithful much quicker. At development camp, Scherbak was cheered whenever he came on the ice, and whenever he touched the puck. Watching this take place, it reminded me of the recently retired Alex Kovalev. Kovalev wasn't always the best player on the team when he was with the Canadiens, it could easily be argued that Saku Koivu was more important, but Kovalev had a connection with the crowd that was undeniable.
It's extremely unfair and far too lofty to foist those expectations on young Nikita Scherbak, but the potential to be a fan favourite akin to P.K. Subban or Kovalev is obvious. He may not play a game for the Canadiens for the next two years, but he seems to already be the favourite player of many.
Hopefully when everything becomes real for him, he can handle the expectations that come with such instantaneous adoration.