Bell Centre – Montreal Canadiens
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Hockey Means A Little More Up Here
A quick look up to the rafters inside the Bell Centre helps to paint a picture of what the Montreal Canadiens franchise means to the sport of hockey. From the 24 Stanley Cup banners to the crowded names of former hockey greats, stepping inside the arena means that you become part of Montreal’s most important entity. While it has been over 21 years since their last Cup, the Canadiens are back as a force in the NHL, and fans across the league have been able to see what a raucous place the Bell Centre becomes during the playoffs. Before moving in to the new arena in 1996, hockey was played in the Montreal Forum, a cathedral for many Quebecers. The Bell Centre has plenty of downfalls and is not one of the NHL’s top buildings; however, attending a game here is a must, thanks to the terrific location, great fans and wonderful displays of team history.
Food & Beverage 3
Overall food selection is disappointing, as concession after concession offers the same general assortment of standard items. Adding to the dissatisfaction are the menus, which list item prices without tax, so a $6.09 box of popcorn is really $7 with the 15% tax. Lots of hot dogs, french fries and snacks can be seen, while poutine (very popular in Canada) is nowhere to be found. Montreal is a great food city, but the only local item is the famous smoked meat sandwich. Though it is tasty, be prepared to feel empty-handed, as the small sandwich goes for $9. Just a few stands offer the smoked meat, and at those locations, a mystery wrap or panini can be ordered. Coca-Cola is the soda provider, as a regular drink is $5. Molson and Coors beer can be found all over, with prices ranging from a $7.50 small to a $15.50 large.
The restaurant La Cage Aux Sports is accessible both inside and outside the building, open for all ticket holders. Along with the food, there are plenty of TVs to catch other sports going on. The place does get quite packed before games.
Before we get to the awesome crowd-generated atmosphere, first the arena itself. The Bell Centre just sort of shows up in downtown Montreal, as it is a rather unattractive tall building that much more resembles a brick factory warehouse, as opposed to a sports facility. Before actually heading inside, it is worth the extra $6 to visit the Canadiens Hall of Fame (Temple de la Renommee). An excellent presentation of the team’s history with displays that are well done is a great way to get the visit started. More team history can be seen in the Centennial Plaza; however, this area that was introduced in 2008 needed to be temporarily removed due to nearby outside construction. Look for a new plaza full of statues and honours in the next few years. Back inside, additional team mementos continue, not just from the rafters, but also from the concourses where Centennial Club members are displayed wonderfully. The concourse themselves are a little tight, and each upper and lower level walkway has space issues, especially since games are always sold out.
Stepping inside the rink, the first impression is size. The massive bowl is the largest in the NHL, with over 21,000 seats. Many of those red seats are in the lower deck, and if you are sitting here, the experience is decent. After a level of club seating and luxury suites, the upper 300s and 400s are really the downfall of the building. Most can’t get into the highly expensive lower seats, and the general fan is stuck a mile high at the top of the building, where the ceiling obstructs the scoreboard view. It’s too bad, as the center board is really decent with high quality video, and it is not obtrusively big. Railings are needed between each row of this secluded and generally dark area.
The Canadiens have mastered the pregame ceremony, and the intros are really something to see live, especially during playoff contests. Once the game gets going, the Bell Centre is great for the vibe and noise generated. Loud and passionate fans keep the interest at a high level, and the periodic “Ole Ole” chants when nearing victory are unique to Montreal.
As one of the most beautiful cities in North America, Montreal is worth more than a night’s stay to see the sights and live the culture. Located along the St. Lawrence River in the southwestern part of Quebec, the cosmopolitan city embraces its European ancestry quite well, and that is no more apparent than in Old Montreal. This is about a 20-minute walk from the arena, and the tight cobblestone streets make one feel as though they have crossed the Atlantic. Dining is excellent in this section, too. Walking around and admiring the architecture is enjoyable, while a great place to stop is the Notre-Dame Basilica. Another must-see is Mont-Royal, the hill that rises just west of downtown. It includes an incredible promenade that offers sweeping views of the city. Be sure to bundle up, as most of the hockey season features snow on the ground and very cold temperatures.
Restaurants are excellent throughout Montreal and some specialty food unique to the area that is worth trying includes the smoked meat, bagels, split-pea soup and hot chicken sandwiches. With the location of the Bell Centre being downtown, there are plenty of places to stop and eat within walking distance, and nearby Saint Catherine Street (Rue Sainte-Catherine) is always hopping.
The Canadiens have sold every seat in the Bell Centre for over a decade, and no-shows are very limited on game nights. Just take a walk around the city and you will see that famous logo practically anywhere you go, as often the team is referred to as a religion. With undeniable support and passion, that leads to a great hockey experience in the Bell Centre. At times, the fandom is a little too much, and it has boiled over on occasion (see the 1955 Richard Riot, the occasional booing of the US anthem and the 2010 post-Game 7 trouble). The team’s popularity can be spotted on the road, as many of the arenas in the NHL’s Eastern Conference will feature plenty of red when the Canadiens come to town.
For anyone unfamiliar, Quebec is a French-speaking province, and the dominant language across Montreal is French. Pretty much all signs and annoucements in the building will be in that language, while most fans prefer French. Admirably, much of the city is bilingual, and English-speaking fans have no problem communicating with natives in the building. It is polite to make the effort and ask “Parlez-vous anglais?” before starting a conversation, while at the concession stand starting right out in English helps the line move faster.
Driving around Montreal’s congested city can be a chore, and frequent construction also makes for some headaches. The A-720 is the main route into downtown, and with the Bell Centre located in the middle of the city, there is no dedicated parking. Drivers have to shell out a pretty penny for parking lots and garages that quickly get full closer to the arena. Definitely do some homework as to which lot to use and how to get there. A good suggestion if you do not mind the cold is to find an all-day garage and stay there while touring the city before the game in the evening. Public Transit is a decent way to go as well, with plenty of options to the Bell Centre, thanks to multiple lines and stations. There is a connection with the Lucien-L’allier Metro Station on the orange line that goes right inside the arena, meaning that fans do not even have to step outside. Fares are cheap, and the metro system in Montreal is pretty good with decent access. English-only speaking visitors may still want to drive, as it can be troublesome navigating the French signs and maps in the Metro.
The inside of the Bell Centre gets crowded quickly, and the intermission is a lesson in swimming with a sea of people. If not quick enough, reaching the washroom is a challenge, and a line is inevitable between periods.
Return on Investment 3
While individual ticket prices are not as insane as nearby rival Toronto, they are still at the higher end of the league spectrum. The main issue is that they disappear as soon as they go on sale during a public lottery, and most fans are forced to go the secondary ticket route. From there, things get crazy, as the worst seats in the house often start over $60, and the better ones in the upper deck still reach triple digits. Tickets in the lower bowl (a much better viewing experience) are often over $200. It’s a shame it costs a small fortune just for a sporting event. Parking and concessions are high, too. The return at least is a great experience, and even if the Canadiens are playing a weeknight weak opponent, you can still expect a fun atmosphere.
When the Montreal Expos left for Washington, the Canadiens did a great job picking up the sad void. The team adopted Youppi as a mascot, and it has been a resounding success. In addition, an Expos banner was added to the rafters in 2008. This is very classy, and it shows the organization cares about the city.
The torch is the defining symbol of the Canadiens, and inside the locker room is the line “To you from falling hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high” from the poem “In Flanders Fields.” The torch can be seen in many aspects of the team, and it is most goosebump-inducing during pregame ceremonies.
Further display of the incredible attachment Montreal has with its team can be seen during the closing ceremony of the Montreal Forum, where icon Maurice Richard received an emotional, 7-8 minute standing ovation.
Finally, all of the historical touches are worthy of another point. Not many sports stadiums have their own team museum, and that almost warrants a special visit alone.
Ignoring the usually awful winter weather, Montreal is a destination that is well worth a multi-day visit. What unites the city is the Canadiens, and the fan passion always make for an enjoyable experience at the Bell Centre. While the huge arena has several downfalls, the attention to history and overall atmosphere lead to a must trip for any hockey fan.
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