Montreal has many merits, but among my favorite is this: in March, while Washington typically thaws, Montreal remains in a deep freeze. In fact, Monday night Montreal was a scintillatingly shivering 6 degrees. I find myself scanning the world’s weather section of the newspaper every March morning, my envious eye always falling on the home of the Habs, where I know winter temps cling steadfastly into the lengthening days. Thaws up there generally come closer to May. The kids up there are still skating in frozen parks, and I’m jealous as hell.
I know all about the winter allure of Montreal’s frozen parks. A few years back, I went long-winter-weekending in Montreal in pursuit of a pretty girl. I took lodging in her apartment for the weekend. We were sipping coffee early on Saturday morning when I looked out her window and saw what looked to be a petroleum tanker pull up in the park near her apartment complex, and park near sturdy boards encasing a sizable oval for shinny. Seconds later the tanker driver fire-hosed hot water out onto the ice to form a perfect sheet. To this day I can vividly recall the white steam rising up from the ice as the scalding hot water worked its healing upon the preceding day’s skate scars. I remember how patiently and evenly the municipal employee spread the water out over the rink. It seemed a labor of true love. It speaks volumes about my bachelordom I think that I unpacked my gear bag after finishing coffee and went out on that sheet alone with a couple of pucks for hours instead of wooing the pretty Montrealer. It’s probably true: I used her for her neighborhood shinny sheet.
More winter-friendly charms: Montreal has never embraced basketball, and it’s rejected baseball. From this vantage, it strikes me as a hockey culture vastly superior to Toronto. But Montreal is also just plain colder than Toronto. Which is heart-warming to me.
Did you know that if you live in Montreal and purchase cable television that you cannot access ESPN? Boo-yaah! This is true of course all across Canada, but when Montreal native Ben Raby shared this tidbit with me a couple of weeks ago as we rode up to Hershey together for a Bears’ practice I felt an instant urge to immigrate North. It was during this recent Friday morning puck pilgrimage with Raby that I went Woodward and Bernstein on him about his hometown. I wanted him to regale me in all facets of his upbringing up North that spoke to hockey’s religious hold there. Which he did. This is what I learned:
- Just about every park has not one but two sheets of ice well maintained all winter long. One sheet is for shinny, the other for recreational skating. Well maintained.
- Here in Washington children at recess play basketball or soccer or toss around a football, but in Montreal, even the young girls will join in gymnasium floor hockey, or blacktop street hockey, and seldom do they allow Montreal’s frigid winter temps to keep them from facing off.
- No small number of teenagers make a habit of watching Habs’ games as ritual prelude to pursuing what we customarily expect teens to do in their evening leisure — take in movies, loiter at malls and shops, party together.
- Habs’ fashion is popular with young girls. They are the wearers of pink jerseys and traditional Habs’ colors. And teens are conspicuous today at Bell Centre, which has occasioned what Raby termed a genuine culture change in Montreal’s home rink. Old Montreal Forum was famous for its business suits and fedoras encircling the 100 level, and for being patronized by a distinctly mature adult fanbase. Over the past decade or so the replacement rink has become distinctly younger. Subsequently, more raucous.
- Saturdays in season on Sainte-Catherine Street are Mardi Gras for Montrealers before Habs’ home games.
From autumn through spring, beginning even before the formal start of training camp, the Habs are story number one, two, and three for Montreal’s sports media. I specifically posed to Raby this hypothetical: Imagine that the CFL Alouettes were victorious in the Grey Cup while on the same autumn Saturday night the Habs skated in a relatively meaningless regular season game against Columbus. (Not that one would ever posit a hockey game’s being “meaningless” out loud while within Montreal’s city limits.) What’s the section front of the Gazette or La Presse gonna look like on Sunday morning? Raby conceded that the CFLers would earn top billing above the fold, but he added, there’d be no bumping of the Habs off the section front.
Hockey town, hockey culture, hockey heaven. I miss it most in March.