MONTREAL — From his seat inside the visitors dressing quarters at the raucous Bell Centre, Tomas Kaberle knows it is coming.
It is the same each and every time he is here. A familiar chant. One that gets louder and louder.
“Go Leafs go ... Go Leafs Go ...”
“It’s my favourite road building in the league,” Kaberle said. “It’s amazing. We will be sitting in our room before warmup and we already can hear our fans.”
For several seconds, anyway.
Then the Montreal Canadien supporters drown out the visiting spectators with boos.
The battle lines have been set. And the pre-game skate hasn’t even started yet. Welcome to the Leafs-Habs in Montreal.
As Kaberle points out, there is something special in the crisp Montreal air whenever the Leafs come to town. It is a rivalry that dates back almost a century, with Meeting No. 704 primed to take place here Saturday.
These are the real blue collar Leafs fans. The ones that make noise. The ones who paint their faces. The ones who make the trip here because they can’t get any tickets at the ACC, where stockbrokers and bankers spend games sitting on their hands and gorging sushi.
But, this weekend, the number of Torontonians making the pilgrimage to Lower Canada for a Leafs weekend in Montreal will balloon. On Sunday, after all, another Upper Canada team will invade the city when the Argonauts meet the Alouettes in front of 50,000-plus fans at Olympic Stadium.
Know this: Montrealers would like nothing better than to send these visiting fans back to T.O. crying in their poutines.
It should be spicy.
It always has been. Just consider some of the tales that have taken place here when Toronto teams have come to town — the good, the bad and the bizarre.
AH, THE SIGHTS
Remember the night in 1978 when Harold Ballard, having fired coach Roger Neilson, rehired him under the caveat that he walk to the Montreal Forum visitors bench with a bag over his head? Neilson refused. He didn’t like the fashion statement.
Here’s one we did like.
A few years ago, yours truly, sitting in the nosebleeds of the Bell Centre for a Montreal-Toronto tilt with buddy Jim Surgeoner and his lovely wife Kim, began chatting with some Canadiens fans in front of us. Suddenly, during the play, one of them, a lovely young lass, turned around and quickly lifted her jersey, exposing her, ah, Habs.
Go Habs go.
CHIEF LEAF IN TOWN
A favourite dining spot for Maple Leafs management here has been Gibby’s, a picturesque steakhouse in old Montreal where celebrities and athletes often congregate. Of all the famous people who have been here over the years, Sylvain, the manager, said two men, more than any others, have had the strongest presence/aura the moment they entered the establishment — Dennis Rodman and Pat Quinn. Imagine. The Worm and The Ornery Irishman. Maybe Quinn, the ex-Leaf GM/coach, should dye his hair yellow too.
BOO WHO, PART 1
During the 2009 draft at the Bell Centre, Nazem Kadri, a lifelong Habs fan, was jeered after being selected seventh overall by the Leafs. Welcome to the rivalry, kid.
“Obviously you can’t do much about (the jeers) but I usually thrive off the booing. So no worries,” Kadri said.
We’ll see. Kadri gets his first on-ice taste of Leafs-Habs in Montreal on Saturday.
BOO WHO, PART 2
On Halloween Night 2009, the costume-clad Bell Centre throng started booing 40 minutes before puck drop when former Hab Mike Komisarek’s name was announced. With Komisarek playing in Montreal for the first time since signing with the Leafs, they jeered each time he touched the puck.
The coup de grace?
The fan dressed in a Komisarek bloodstained Habs jersey — and no head. Instead, in his hand, was a stick with No. 8’s head pierced on top of it. Outstanding.
With his Atlanta Thrashers having played in Ottawa that afternoon, then-coach John Anderson was in a Bell Centre private box for that Halloween ’09 Leafs-Habs clash. With the Habs up 4-2 with five minutes left, the fans began chanting, “Hey hey hey, goodbye.”
“It kind of bugged me — I just thought it was premature,” Anderson said afterward.
Sure enough, the Leafs scored two late goals to tie the game. Once a Leaf, always a Leaf, eh John?
SCENE AND HEARD
One night up in the balcony, we spotted fans sitting together wearing the jerseys of, in order, Rocket Richard, Guy Lafleur, Jean Beliveau, Darryl Sittler and Doug Gilmour. It doesn’t get any better than that ... On the other hand, do we refer to the eight women donning “Wade Belak Fan Club” T-shirts as the Hall of Shame row? ... And consider the lady who one night held up a sign that said: “Tie - Do Me!.”
Enjoy Montreal, all ye incoming Torontonians.
And the ballet, too.