The Montreal Canadiens celebrate after defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-2 in Game 7 of the NHL hockey Eastern Conference semifinals, in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, May 12, 2010. The Canadiens advanced to the conference finals. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
TORONTO - Tens of thousands of hockey fans in Montreal packed the Bell Centre and filled sports bars to overcapacity Wednesday night to watch the Canadiens finish off the Pittsburgh Penguins.
But for those who couldn't get in, there were other places to talk hockey and watch the game with a lively crowd, where the beer wasn't overpriced and sightlines were perfect.
At HFBoards.com, one of the most popular hockey websites, between 55,000 and 65,000 fans log on every day, operators say. Wednesday night's game between Montreal and Pittsburgh generated more than 5,100 posts which were viewed around 103,000 times.
The concept of going online to chat about hockey isn't new, but its popularity as an alternative to hitting a sports bar to watch a game with others is exploding.
"It almost acts like a support group, if a team's doing well everybody's feeling great but, if things aren't going well—like Pittsburgh Penguins fans are feeling today, I guess—they console one another, or complain, or figure out what needs to be done to make a team better," said Ken McKenna, managing editor of Hockey's Future, the sister site of HFBoards.com.
McKenna said online chatter during games really started to take off when wireless Internet became common in homes and users started sitting in front of their TVs with a laptop. Smartphones have made it even easier to talk about games online anywhere you are, he added.
Canada's most tweeted about topics early Thursday revolved around the Canadiens and the team's awe-inspiring victory. Among the hottest keywords on Twitter were Habs, MTL, Stanley Cup and Jaroslav Halak, Montreal's goalie and the star of the playoff campaign so far.
There were an estimated 130,000 streams of Wednesday's game off CBC.ca and about 6,000 to 20,000 users typically logged into live chats during games this season, said Scott Moore, executive director of CBC Sports.
"We like to think of CBC.ca as being the town hall of Canada," Moore said. "It's amazing how people want to get their opinion out there and be heard."
Some users have even managed to get their views read on air, which caused a minor outburst from Don Cherry during a recent broadcast. When some Habs fans posted complaints about one night's subpar play from Halak, Cherry teed off.
"We are being reduced to reading emails from some jerk like we're an Enquirer or something?" he ranted. "That is absolutely ridiculous to be reading emails from jerks on Hockey Night in Canada, I resent it."
Moore said Cherry should get used to it.
"I found that sort of funny because it was sort of ironic, considering not everyone agrees with what Don has to say," Moore said.
"Don is obviously a stalwart of our show but Don doesn't have an iPhone, doesn't have a BlackBerry—I'm not even sure he has an email address—I'm not sure he's as plugged into that demographic as we'd like our production to be."
But, for some, nothing can replace the buzz of actually being in the same room with other fans to watch a game and social networking likely won't result in the closure of many sports bars. In fact, they seem to coexist quite nicely.
"So many of our clientele are on their cellphones all the time," said Jill Clark, manager of the Loose Moose Bar&Grill, a popular downtown Toronto sports bar.
"We wouldn't go so far to know whether they're tweeting or Facebooking . . . but it definitely seems to be about 80 per cent of their focus on the game and about 20 per cent of their focus on the phone.
"Everybody's looking down at their thumbs."