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Habs fans habbing a great time (Dario Ayala / Montreal Gazette)

From the Cheap Seats: NHL Hockey is just as sweet in the pre-season

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I was reminded of the unobtrusive beauty of NHL pre-season hockey when my roommate, Martlet hockey goaltender Brittany Smrke, sent me a text reading: “Hey Nic, super spontaneous, but do you want to go see the Habs vs. Capitals game tonight?”

On a limited budget, we figured pre-season NHL action was the best chance to see a live Habs game. The lower prices make the game accessible to hockey obsessives who can’t afford expensive in-season games, let alone the exorbitant playoffs. A small group of us headed to the Bell Centre—myself, Brittany, Emily (a Martlet hockey defenceman), and two of our Management friends who had just fuelled up at 4 à 7. As the two Ontarians, Brittany and I were teased mercilessly by our Quebecois friends for sporting tricolour and Habs hats.

We arrived at the Bell Centre and quickly learned of the ban on backpacks. A stream of rejects passed us, shaking their heads at Emily, who had her backpack slung nonchalantly over her shoulder. I panicked, worried we would be turned away, and stuffed her backpack into my oversized purse. Inevitably at security, a quizzical guard asked me what was in my bag. Without blinking, I told him it was my sweater. Fortunately, the guard laughed when he pulled out the backpack and let us in with a smile and a fist-bump.

We grabbed our seats in the nosebleeds, took the requisite amount of selfies, and appreciated the full view of the ice surface. I was wedged between the two Martlet players, and we were soon analyzing the game through all three zones—Britt and Emily had the back end covered, noting the Habs’ nice zone and smooth breakouts. I pulled on my experience as a former Martlet forward to appreciate the offence—especially a Capital’s tic-tac-toe play, culminating in captain Alexander Ovechkin sniping top corner.

Our Management friends covered the fan support side. They enjoyed the group cheers and the wave up in the cheap seats. Their joy of being at a Habs game was a heartwarming reminder that hockey is thrilling beyond the X’s and O’s.

Everyone could appreciate star players like P.K. Subban and Ovechkin single-handedly creating scoring opportunities. And though some tactical systems faltered—teams are rusty as they acclimatize to new formations—the breakdowns created odd-man rushes, to the appreciation of the crowd’s seasoned sports fans.

As much as I loved the  tactical aspect, I still found myself caught up in the atmosphere. I was exhilarated by a T.J. Oshie breakaway and the fight between Michael McCarron and Chris Brown. I chuckled at the cute tri-coloured kid dancing on the jumbotron screen. The pre-season matchup was about more than the hockey—it was about feeling in complete unity with cheering Habs fans and feeding off the energy in the stands; enjoying ‘the wave’ was just as important as a perfect Habs tape-to-tape pass.

Apparently the hockey gods wanted to give us more sport: The game extended into three-on-three overtime and then a shootout. Brittany and Emily relished the creativity encouraged by three-on-three format. I agreed, but was more empathetic towards the tiring forwards than the two Martlets. The format requires every player, even attackers, to forecheck and backcheck equally hard—and on the back-check it was obvious that the forwards were increasingly fatigued. 

Unfortunately for us Habs fans, the Capitals prevailed 4-3 on a T.J. Oshie shootout goal. Despite the loss, I embraced the hockey for its richness and variety. And all it took were pre-season ticket prices and a spontaneous text from my roommate.

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