After seventy-two years of play in The Forum, the Montreal Canadiens moved into a new building in March of 1996. The Bell Centre (or Le Centre Bell in French) does its' best to transfer the tradition and history of hockey's most famous and successful franchise, but there are a few things it falls short on.
In many respects, carefully applying all the finer touches of preserving the franchise's storied past is a daunting task. In so many ways, you take in these visual elements and think to yourself how the work was so well-done. In other ways, however, you wonder what the planners were thinking. Sadly, despite so many good things experienced at the game, I am left with a feeling of being cheated out of my visit to the Bell Centre. If you take away one thing from this review, take note of where not to sit at a Canadiens game.
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The Bell Centre carries the usual Canadian beer products at about $8 per 16-oz. cup. All of the typical standard eats are available. If you want something a little different, try the smoked beef sandwich, similar to a corned beef sandwich, served on rye. Add the mustard and you are set. The sandwich cost me $6.36. Ever since I saw a game at the Forum and did not get this sandwich, I regretted it. Redemption was tangy.
If you are looking for something a bit more elegant, try one of three restaurants. La Cage aux Sports is open to the general public and along with burgers and brews offers wall-to-wall Canadiens memorabilia and televisions to get ready for the game.
Although not open to the public, but to Club members and club ticket holders, La Mise au Jeu has some of the finest Chef creations one can find in a sophisticated environment catering to the high-end clientele. Restaurant 9-4-10, named after Richard, Beliveau and LaFleur, is another Club Level restaurant offering another elegant setting on the Desjardins level of the Bell Centre.
Having enjoyed a game at the old Forum in the spring of 1995, I was able to enjoy the first of a home-and-home series with the Quebec Nordiques. Perhaps that added to the excitement then, but still there are some things lacking in the new building.
For instance, as part of my routine at a new building, even if I do not hold a ticket for the lower bowl seating area, I still walk down and watch the pre-skate before heading up to my seat. I do this in every building and never have any trouble whatsoever. In fact, in October and November 2011, I have done this at games for the Rangers, Islanders, Sabres and Maple Leafs with no issues.
At the Bell Centre, the main concourse is separated from the seating area by two black curtains and two ushers securing each of these entrances. If you want in, you have to have a ticket down there no matter how early it is before the game. Even after questioning the policy, I was told it is done that way at all NHL arenas. Of course that was false, but this fellow was not budging. Well that helped to kill the thrill for me forty-five minutes before game time.
One thing that is apparent, though, is the team's long history, which is displayed in just about every open space that could be found. I spent the next forty five minutes absorbing it all while on my way to my eventually "perch". More on this later"¦
Large posters of players from the very early teams, photographs by year of the classic club are on the main concourse, great moments in club history dominate the open spaces, and displays of the classic uniforms are also prominently shown. It really is nicely overwhelming and reflective of a team whose place in hockey history has long been secured.
Given the franchise's role in the game's history and the long traditions, it surprises me that there was absolutely no organ music the entire game, instead replaced by rock and roll and other canned musical pieces. I sat there thinking something must have been wrong with the organ that night. I asked around and was told the canned music is what they play now. I almost cried.
Now to my seat, and pay close attention here. Having been to the original Forum, I remember the gondola that hung from the rafters holding media. As I scaled the building up to my level, I reached my seat. Section 419, row C is the second to last row in the arena. I can deal with that. What is horrible is the giant monstrosity of a press box which hangs from above to below you blocking out the bench almost entirely.
The back of this press box includes two giant video replay and scoreboards. So essentially, you are sitting in the building, but watching the game on television. I felt so removed from the atmosphere and cheated. I thought I had done all my homework. I should have known when the Stubhub ticket arrived and the face value was $49 after I paid $79. I do get deals when purchasing single tickets though. Not on this night. Sadly, I will have to return to experience a Canadiens game the right way, which is a pricey and challenging task to have to do again.
Here is the message on selecting your seats. Avoid sections 415 through 423 at all costs. I do advocate sitting on that side of the ice though, just not that high. On this side of the ice, I would recommend sitting in sections 317 through 321. From these sections and looking forward, the visiting team occupies the bench to your left while the Canadiens occupy the bench to your right. The Canadiens attack the goal to your left twice and visitors attack the goal to your right twice. This should be a nice balance between price and view.
The team is home to a building deep in the heart of Montreal accessed by busy and narrow streets, commuter train stations, light rail stations and pedestrian traffic from the active business crowd. There are restaurants everywhere within blocks of the arena. The Bell Centre also is home to many restaurants of its own.
Commuters from throughout the region can find their way to the Bell Centre on commuter trains or light rail dropping you within a few blocks of the arena. Wander through the plaza where the walkway from the train empties out and you will find an inviting public space complete with retired numbers honored alongside the building. Key icons Jean Beliveau, Maurice Richard, Howie Morenz and Guy LaFleur are cast in bronze and placed on a pedestal, as they should be. Near the one end of the far end of the plaza sits one giant slab of stone with a Canadiens logo atop and list on the pedestal of the names of each player who has worn the bleu, blanc & rouge uniform during the franchise's first one-hundred years is shown.
You would be hard-pressed to find any other fans who are more educated about the game or more devoted to their team. Eavesdropping on a conversation among fans at the Bell Centre, particularly among more seasoned and senior fans, will draw you in and entertain you like no other discussion.
In addition to their knowledge of the game and their team, fans cheer and express displeasure in a unison way, like a choreographed Broadway production. Their collective reactions are like nothing I have ever heard at a sporting event.
A tip to those fans attending a game at the Bell Centre, but not fluent in French. Learn at least a little bit of the language and demonstrate your respect for the culture by trying to engage someone in a little French. Addressing someone in Montreal with "Parlez-Vous Anglais?" will at least show you are trying. This is a key to your enjoyment as you immerse yourself in the culture of Montreal.
Parking is very difficult to come by, but it exists, albeit for a price that I would never be willing to pay. Many fans walk to the game after work leaving their cars parked where they are every day.
As always, I like to take light rail and you cannot go wrong with this in Montreal. I parked at the Angrignon stop, the westernmost stop of the green line that allowed me to park at this outlying station and board the light rail train. Parking here, which is by the hour, but at a maximum of $6 was reasonable compared to the parking rates near the arena.
I traveled on the green line train getting off at the Lionel-Groulx station, a journey that lasted just ten minutes over seven stops. I transferred to the orange line heading toward Montmorency and getting off at the Lucien-L'Allier stop. It lasted just three minutes over just two stops. The entire trip took fifteen minutes and cost me just $2.75.
Inside the Bell Centre, there were plenty of bathrooms that I never saw crowded enough to have lines form outside even between periods.
They know they can get it, so that's why they charge it. My ticket was $79 and the face value was half of that. I probably would have been good with it except for the horrible view. Food was on the high side, but something worth getting if you get that seasoned beef sandwich.
The Canadiens have a magnificent Hall of Fame at their lower level near the quadrangle area on the North side of the building near the main train station. You enter from this side and down some steps. Allow 45 minutes to see it all. You enter with a display of the franchise's finest players and personnel. Artifacts include the front concrete sign with crossed sticks from the historic Forum, the predecessor to the Bell Centre, various jerseys, sticks and pucks from important games, the ultimate hockey card display, and a replica train car like the team travelled on to games in the Original Six years.
On non-game days, it is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am-6pm, and Sunday from Noon-5pm. Mondays it is closed. It costs $17.50 per adult, $7.50 for seniors and youths 5 to 16 years of age and children 4 and under are free. A family price of $32 is available to those who have two adults and two youths in their party.
On game nights, however, there is a different story. If you have a game ticket, you can enter for just $5.50. The attraction closes at 5pm to prepare for the ticketholders to that night's game. It re-opens at 5:30pm, something that was not detailed on the club's website and caused me to delay my well-laid out evening plans by thirty minutes.
The Canadiens offer one official game program sold inside the arena and the merchandise boutique. The programs are bi-lingual and are loaded full of information, more so than what you might find from other teams. They also take a slightly larger than normal size 8.5" x 11" size. These are probably 9.5" x 12" and will not fit inside the standard program protectors.
It is the only NHL arena to make bilingual announcements. All penalties, goals, rulings and announcements are made in French first, then English. Very cool. By the end of the game, I had learned a little more French from when I first walked into the building.
Lastly, when Major League Baseball's Montreal Expos left town for Washington DC, the Canadiens embraced the team's mascot, Youppi, and he roams the arena in search of fun and excitement. Additionally, and this is very cool, up in the rafters with all of the Stanley Cup banners and retired numbers hangs a single, solitary banner honoring the pro baseball team that called Montreal home from 1969 through 2004.
Also on the banner are the names and uniform numbers of the four Hall of Famer ballplayers that called Montreal home, Gary Carter who wore uniform #8, Andre Dawson and Rusty Staub who both wore uniform #10 and Tim Raines who wore uniform #20.
While it did take some years, the Montreal Canadiens organization has managed the seemingly impossible feat of transporting the heart and soul of the Montreal Forum and implanting that aura into a modern day building. The Bell Centre in Montreal is an atmospheric hockey temple, replete with the excitement of the present day games as well as being enwrapped in the club's glorious past everywhere one looks. Visiting the Bell Centre for the first time becomes a day long experience, and there is an abundance to take in before game time.
Prior to entering the building, the history of the team necessitates a visit to the outdoor concourse, which features tributes to the team's iconic stars and glorious past. On the northwest corner of the lot, photo ops await in the form of statues of hockey greats Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Guy Lafleur and Howie Morenz.
There are also monuments to players whose numbers have been retired by the team as well as a seven foot square marble block listing every single player to don the Canadiens uniform in 100 seasons. The outdoor concourse is but a tease in terms of what awaits inside the building's wall. First time visitors are highly encouraged to plan a visit to the newly created Canadiens Hall Of Fame in the building's lower level as well as taking the Bell Centre tour, which brings fans high enough to have eye to eye views with Stanley Cups banners and retired numbers as well as going behind the scenes of arena, into the press and media rooms, past the team's dressing room and into the former Canadiens lounge.
Nearing game time, the building explodes to life, as fans donning the colors of each era in the team's history roam the halls gazing at the plentitude of memorabilia on its walls. Fans are encouraged to visit all levels of the building before puck drop, as each of the arena's four levels offer vivid glimpses into the team's 24 Stanley Cup championships. Canadiens history is alive and plastered everywhere one looks, and a visitor cannot help but be captivated by the sights.
A large part of the atmosphere inside the building involves the pre-game buildup. It is an incredible crescendo of sight and sound that must be felt to be truly experienced. Arriving at one's seat early is strongly advised. Between the team's pre-game warmup and the start of the game, video montages are played on the league's biggest overhead high definition screen as well as being splashed across the width of the ice surface. It is a riveting feeling, placing every first time visitor in a seventh game Stanley Cup final atmosphere, despite the consequence of the particular game at hand.
The lead-in to game time plays off a similar anticipation to that of a rock concert. Not to be missed are the starting lineup intros, the minor league players donning Habs colors and flags skating laps around the rink before the announcement of the Canadiens players follow, and the singing of the national anthems. In short, missing the pre-game buildup to a match at the Bell robs the overall experience of much of the emotional momentum.
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