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Into the lion's den: My night at the Bell Centre

Staff writer Alex Ackerman was spontaneously invited on a trip to see the Tampa Bay Lightning play the Montreal Canadiens in game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. This is her story of the night she spent in the lion's den.

My view of the many, many, many Habs fans this past Saturday at the Bell Centre
My view of the many, many, many Habs fans this past Saturday at the Bell Centre
Alexandra Ackerman

As an American hockey fan with a deep-seated passion for the sport, I felt pretty much at home among stressed out Habs fans Saturday night when I saw the Tampa Bay Lightning play the Montreal Canadiens in game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. I recognized a lot of what I saw in the fans that watched their Canadiens win the game 2-1. After all, I myself just sat through an elimination game (at another level) not that long ago, and know all about the feelings that come with such a situation.

As frustrating as that game was from my point of view as a fan of the Lightning organization, I have to say that my experience at the Bell Centre was very positive. I was invited to the game by my best friend, who felt we needed a Rite of Passage road trip for our thirtieth birthdays. After the Canadiens forced a game five Thursday night, I got a series of mysterious texts about a weekend adventure that would require a passport. It didn't take much time before I realized the plan, and my enthusiastic response set the tone.

Montreal is about four hours away from where we live in Central New York. The deepest I've ever been into Canada is Niagara Falls, so this was definitely new territory for me. The gentleman at the border - I believe his name was Hector - was friendly and efficient. The drive was pleasant, and after a coffee and food break in Ontario (coffee first, as always; those who remember my adventures in Tampa last year know all about my coffee affliction), we headed to Quebec.

My best friend knows some conversational French, but I know none at all, so a little culture shock was definitely present. For those who have never made this crossing before, Ontario has traffic signs and any other important information in both English and French. Quebec, however, does not. Although I think the GPS struggled more with it than we did, really, it was a bit odd to see everything in another language. As stated before, I just haven't traveled much out of the United States (yet, anyway, it's on my list of things to do), so it was an educational trip, too.

We got into town about an hour and a half before the Bell Centre's doors opened at 5:30, so we decided to eat at a place across the street called Madisons New York Grill & Bar. This was a really good choice. The menu was in both French and English, the prices were reasonable, and the service, at least on this game night, was ridiculously quick: our dinner salads arrived before my glass of wine.

The place was filled with fans in Habs jerseys, which, from an entirely objective point of view, was pretty spectacular to see. Syracuse supports its hockey team, but not like this. I've been to Tully's in Syracuse on a game night, and there always is a handful of people wearing jerseys while eating dinner there before heading to the game. I'm sure the same could be said of other places like Ale N' Angus. But in Madisons, people not wearing jerseys were the exception, not the rule, and this place was not a small bar and grill. The fan support for their team was just out of this world. I knew it would be, of course - after all, we were in Montreal - but to experience it was pretty cool.

I will admit, we stayed pretty low-key while we were downtown. Neither of us had on Tampa Bay or Syracuse merchandise, more because we really just wanted to be left alone. Now, my pride requires me to say that it usually goes against my grain as a fan to go incognito. I wore my Crunch jersey in Grand Rapids during the Calder Cup finals two years ago, and willingly took the abuse that went with that because it was the finals and no one was going to intimidate me into not wearing my heart in the open. It's just the way I work.

(Well, it's the way I work unless I'm in Binghamton. Long story there.)

But, since we were in a different situation in Montreal, we really figured it wasn't worth any hassle that might have happened. Bell Centre is rather intimidating when it's filled with fans in red who all speak a different language than you do. We watched warm ups from behind the Lightning bench, and I took some pictures, but when we got back to our seats we just kind of golf clapped for most of the game. It was pretty clear if anyone was paying attention who we were rooting for - especially when Steven Stamkos scored late in the third - but we mostly kept to ourselves and we were left alone in turn.

As an away fan, I was impressed with the experience, to be honest. The fans were respectful during the American national anthem. It was pretty amazing hearing both anthems in such a huge arena before that kind of contest, and the singers the team hired to sing them were spectacular. Fans who did wear Lightning gear were left alone that I saw. The ushers we spoke to knew both languages and were really helpful. The food stands took both Canadian money and American money, which was really convenient. Our seats were comfortable, and the people around us clearly just wanted to enjoy the game.

In fact, things went so well that my least favorite part of the night (other than the obvious) was trying to leave the game. Downtown Montreal is not exactly set up to handle that many people and that many vehicles all jockeying for place on narrow streets. It was made more difficult by a precarious parking situation that I have been forbidden to talk about in full, but we eventually figured it out with only one "Sacreblue!" (Which Adding to the chaos was a bunch of construction that currently going on, and certain streets were closed - including the one we needed to get back on the highway - so trying to get out of there was a nightmare. Thanks to my phone - I can't wait to see my data plan bill this month - we figured it out, but, woof, it took a while.

However, all in all, it was a fun trip that I am completely glad I was able to go on. I would go back for sure. I just don't want to go back anytime soon, and I'm sure a certain group of people feel the exact same way. So, Lightning...figure it out, okay?