Eastern Conference all-star Alex Kovalev of the Montreal Canadiens walks off the ice after winning the MVP trophy at the 2009 NHL All-Star Game. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
There is really only one way to sum up my weekend in Montreal for the All-Star Game and that's to set a little scene for you that is near and dear to my heart. Or, more accurately, my coronary arteries.
Every time I go to Montreal, there are certain rituals I go through and most of them involve food (the other two are reading the Mirror and nearly freezing to death). Now there are many fine expensive restaurants in the city, but these are not for me – I crave the true Montreal experience and that's why at least once a trip, I find myself at La Belle Province or Lafleur's.
This time around it was La Belle Province, purveyors of that wonderful combination of steamed hot dogs, fries and Pepsi. Now just to get it clear, the third item is very important to the sprit of Montreal in the winter and, specifically, the mania that was all-star weekend. Montreal is petrifyingly cold and wind-swept, so anytime you walk outside, you do so swiftly. Plus, there is always a thin veneer of slush on the sidewalks, so you must step heavily, lest your feet give out from under you. This makes the blood pump quite fast. Quebec is the only place in North America where Pepsi dominates the market over Coke and seems about 20 percent sweeter and more sugary, hence more glucose coursing through that elevated blood flow. I drink a lot of pop, so what I'm saying is, in walking to La Belle Province, eating two hot dogs, fries and a Pepsi then walking back, you can actually burn more calories than you consume, but the experience will bring on a temporary hyperactive malaria – a perfect metaphor for the rabid fervor the city has for the Montreal Canadiens.
So I've got my dogs and I've got my copy of the Mirror and I'm sitting in a booth at LBP. And this is Habs Country. The fine fellows behind the counter are rocking Canadiens T-shirts naturally, but the names on the back belong to center Steve Begin and blueliner Francis Bouillon – the stalwarts of the club; the hard-working lunchpail crew.
Out in the booths, teems of hockey fans congregate. There are a couple Evgeni Malkin jerseys, but mostly it's Habs faithful. Fathers grab a quick lunch with their 12-year-old sons and thanks to the shaggy retro hairstyles of the day, the boys look like Marty Brodeur at the same age in that famous photo his father snapped of him flashing the leather during a street hockey game. I pause from my meal and wonder if the next Patrick Roy just walked in wearing a skull-covered hoodie.
Signs of the Habs and their grip on the town are everywhere. In fact, a banner listing all the team's Stanley Cup victory years hangs off the wall nearby. Someone – perhaps one of the boys behind the counter, perhaps an inebriated late-night customer – had scrawled “2008” in black magic marker, next to the last official win; 1993. Of course, 2008 has come and gone, done in by another Quebec native, Flyers goaltender Martin Biron. But this – 2009 – is the real year, right? The centennial anniversary, the pageantry, the All-Star Game. One look at the city and you would be assured the Heroes of Hockey's Past had congregated to make it so, to give their decree from on high: Willie O'Ree is holding court in the hotel lobby, while Gordie Howe is taking pictures and throwing good-natured elbows at a swarm of well-wishers at the Bell Centre. Frank Mahovlich, now a member of the Canadian senate, also swings by the hotel lobby, listening patiently as a very terse little old lady commands all his attention for a mid-afternoon chat.
So many little moments shoot through my mind as I sit in that booth – Steven Stamkos and Luke Schenn hanging out and cracking each other up after the YoungStars game, Milan Hedjuk breaking up a pack of blonde five-year-olds terrorizing the Western Conference dressing room and beating each other with water bottles – hockey is one big family and this is the reunion.
A plume of steam escapes towards the ceiling as the dude manning the hot dog station opens the steamer tray. It's a scene I know will be repeated when my warm body meets the cold air outside the door. I look down at my bowl of fries, half-eaten and glazed with ketchup and grease. I cannot finish them. I should not finish them. I take my tray to the garbage and walk back into a town where Alex Kovalev could run for mayor and win right now: No. 27 on the back of his sweater, No. 1 in their hearts. I imagine what it would be like here this summer if he's still playing hockey in late May.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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