Saturday, October 12, 2013

Canada Summer 2013: Bell Centre, Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame and Old Forum

August 9-10, 2013 -- When I was a teenager I visited the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto and it left a lasting impression on me. For the first time in my young life, I understood how hockey is not just another sport in Canada, but is actually deeply ingrained into the fabric of Canadian society, so much so that there is a mystical or religious quality regarding the reverence for hockey here that is hard to explain. For example, the Hockey Hall of Fame is housed in a former Bank of Montreal branch building, but with the stained glass windows you feel like you are in church. When you spend time in the Great White North, you realize why people say that hockey is a religion in Canada.

Having visited the ultimate shrine to hockey in Toronto, I always wanted to visit the home of the most storied hockey franchise in history. The team that has won a record 24 Stanley Cups. Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge. Les Habitants. Le Club de hockey Canadien. The Montreal Canadiens.

So on the very first full day in Montreal, my hockey radar guided me directly to the Bell Centre -- the home arena of the Canadiens in downtown Montreal. My timing was perfect because the next and final daily tour of the arena and Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame was set to begin soon after I arrived.

I arrived to Bell Centre via the Lucien L'Allier Metro station, which is connected by an enclosed walkway to the arena. Bell Centre is easily reached by public transit. In addition to Lucien L'Allier, the Bonaventure Metro station is very close. There is also a commuter rail station connected to the arena called Lucien L'Allier as well that is the terminus for AMT Vaudreuil-Hudson, Saint-Jérôme, and Candiac commuter rail lines. Bell Centre is also connected to Montreal's underground city and Central Station where VIA Rail Canada and Amtrak trains arrive and depart.

Of course I had to buy some mementos for the family back in the States, so I got a dog jersey, golfing set and other Canadiens-themed gifts at the team store.

There is construction going on all around the arena as two new condominium skyscrapers are rising from the ground -- L'Avenue Condos and Tour des Canadiens.

Kevin started the tour at Builders Row, or Allee des Batisseurs in French. Here is where Canadiens legends such as Howie Morenz, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau and Jacque Plante are honored.

On a side note, the Canadiens' green initiative is called The Goal is Green!, or Vert le But! in French. There are easily identifiable recycling canisters located around the arena to make it easy for fans to do the right thing and reduce landfill waste by recycling.

Next we took the elevator up to the rafters where uniquely the press gallery is located on a catwalk high above ice level. It is an interesting vantage point being so high up all the action. When we were there, the arena staff was setting up for a concert. The panoramic views of the arena interior are impressive. Bell Centre's hockey seating capacity is 21,273, making it the largest arena in the NHL.

We left the press gallery and headed down to the alumni lounge, where Habs greats can serve up a mixed drink, relax in the leather couches and take a trip down memory lane or watch the current Canadiens play on TV.

Our tour group got to take pictures in the press room before getting to see the Canadiens home locker room, where P.K. Subban, Carey Price and new Hab Danny Briere suit up before taking on their 2013-14 Atlantic Division rivals.

Next up was a glimpse of where the 1 percenters watch the game as we got to see a luxury box and walk around the suite level concourse.

After the tour ended, I visited the Canadiens Hall of Fame, which houses memorabilia and interactive exhibits from the history of this storied franchise. I particularly enjoyed the Bound for Glory (Sur les Rails de la Glore) exhibit about how the Original Six franchises traveled via rail to away games. The exhibit features a replica rail car and interesting tidbits about each destination city, team and arena. Sometime rivals like the Habs and Toronto Maple Leafs would even ride on the same train during a home-and-home series, in different rail cars of course, which made for quite the interesting train ride!

That evening and the next day I walked around the old Montreal Forum at Atwater and Ste-Catherine West, which was once called "the most storied building in hockey history" by Sporting News. That's one reason why it is so jarring to see a big AMC multiplex cinema right where center ice used to be. Yes, the place where 24 Stanley Cup championships were celebrated since its opening in 1929 is now where the latest Hollywood blockbusters entertain audiences, where comedy shows take place, where Montrealers eat at fast food restaurants, drink at the bar and do their banking.

Thankfully there are many reminders of the storied history of the building, with Canadiens logos, framed pictures of the Forum in its heyday, and team pictures of past Stanley Cup winners.

In 1997, the building was declared a National Historic Site of Canada, because "it was arguably the country's most famous sporting venue... it also serves as an icon for the role of hockey in Canada's national culture... the Forum is the oldest of Canada's large-scale arenas and has, throughout its history, been the country's leading site for major indoor cultural, political and religious events."

Here are more photos from the Bell Centre, Canadiens Hall of Fame and old Forum:

And here is video from the Bell Centre tour:

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