Now you see 'em

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:33 AM ET

Seventy members of the Sheldon Souray Fan Club from the Fishing Lake Metis settlement will be in the stands tonight.

They won't be here next year. They won't be here the following year.

There will be 64 members of the Western Canada Montreal Canadiens Fan Club, most of them driving from Manitoba and Saskatchewan. They won't be here next year or the following season.

There will be the hundreds of fans, as always, from St. Paul, Bonnyville, Falher, Mallaig, St. Isidore, McLennan, Riviere-Qui-Barre and other Alberta locales where the French language culture is part of the community.

Somehow, some way, they manage to get their hands on tickets for this game to make the trip to town. They won't be back next year. They won't be here the year after that. The Montreal Canadiens won't be back next year or the year after that.

"This is devastating," said Jim Taman, president of the W.C.M.C.F.C which, since 1988, has registered over 10,000 members, taken trips to Montreal and even skated on the ice of the old Montreal Forum and held hockey games involving their membership and legendary Canadiens players.

"It's tough enough to get into these games in Edmonton and Calgary when the Canadiens come to town. They are so sold out.

"I'm not sure what the NHL is thinking. The idea is to bring the game back to the fans. We all love the new rules. But no one I know thinks the NHL is bringing the game to the fans when they're taking away the Canadiens from fans in Western Canada."

BEST IN HOCKEY

The Edmonton-Calgary rivalry is arguably the best in hockey. But did anybody ask either franchise if they'd rather have two extra games against each other at the expense of seeing the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs two out of every three years?

That's the deal. One visit by five teams from one division in the East a year. One visit by five teams from another division the next year. One visit by the five teams from the other division the year after that.

The idea is to add "rivalry games." So far, the effect in these parts has been to dilute rivalry games and make fans feel too many degrees of separation from the East to bother watching games on television anymore.

Remember when the Toronto Maple Leafs moved from the West to the East? Whatever happened to Gary Bettman's guarantee that the Leafs would still play here every year?

WHERE'S THE BENEFIT?

Today Bettman would probably find an argument in the Canadian attendance totals. There has yet to be an unpurchased seat for a game in any of the six Canadian cities.

But where's the benefit?

Regional rivalries in the U.S. cities? Attendance totals for some of those games have become such incredible works of fiction that some sports editors are considering whacking the last line off the hockey summaries.

So the Rangers, Islanders and Devils now play eight "away games" each in the New York area? Tell those kids coming in to watch Sheldon Souray tonight that's why they won't be able to watch Souray play again here for over 1,000 days.

The last time you watched the Canadiens here was at the Heritage Classic. Fans filled Commonwealth Stadium and sat for seven hours in -20C temperatures. Try that anywhere else.

The previously mentioned Western Canada Montreal Canadiens Fan Club had a virtual convention here, played a game at West Edmonton Mall and raised $7,000 for underprivileged kids to go to Oiler games.

It's been a while since the New York Rangers played here. Maybe next year. But this isn't about next year, although it would be nice to have the Rangers here, if for no other reason than to hang Mark Messier's banner.

This isn't just about the Canadiens, Leafs or Rangers. This is about the Heartland of Hockey. This is where the players come from. This is where their families and friends live. This is about all the Sheldon Sourays from all the teams in the NHL East.

Once every three years? Criminal.


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