Despite COVID-19 and un-Canadian temperatures, Habs fans are legion in Las Vegas

·4 min read

LAS VEGAS — Joe Fruchter is smiling — and sweating.

Flanked by his children, Rachel and Bradley, the New York City lawyer is grinning ear to ear, about to watch a hockey game in person for the first time in more than a year — a Stanley Cup semifinal matchup, no less, featuring the team he has loved since the 1970s.

The perspiration? Not pre-game nerves, but a sweltering combination of blistering 43 C heat and a classic Montreal Canadiens jersey.

"If this is not the definition of a true Habs fan, I don't know what else to say about it," Fruchter says with a chuckle and a glance at his kids, both resplendent in their own matching Canadiens garb.

"I mean, this is textbook, diehard fandom."

Nothing can be said to be certain, Ben Franklin once wrote, except death and taxes. A modern-day hockey aficionado might also mention the enduring loyalty inspired by the Canadiens, whose fans have long been a fixture at away games all over the continent.

Not even the COVID-19 pandemic, which kept Canada's teams off U.S. soil throughout the 2020-21 season, could keep Canadiens devotees from turning out in force Monday to watch the opening game of their series against the Vegas Golden Knights.

"We travel all over — we go to Florida, Boston — Habs fans are everywhere," said Fruchter, who caught the bug as a boy when distant Canadian relatives took him to a game at the old Montreal Forum to watch legends like Bob Gainey, Ken Dryden and Larry Robinson.

Ask him to explain the broad appeal, however, and Fruchter can't find the words.

"That's a great question," he shrugged. "It's just — it's in your DNA. Go Habs go."

As it turned out, Monday's 4-1 loss to the top-seeded and heavily favoured Golden Knights gave their fans little to cheer about. The two teams meet again Wednesday before the best-of-seven series shifts to Montreal.

There was no shortage of born-and-bred Canadians among the 17,884 fans at Monday's game, most of them expatriates already living in the U.S., given the pandemic restrictions on discretionary travel that persist at the northern border.

Where COVID-19 is concerned, Vegas offers another head-spinning study in contrasts.

At the casinos along storied Las Vegas Boulevard, fully vaccinated gamblers are free to doff their face masks. Crowds of tourists elbow their way across the neon-splashed gaming floors, past solitary figures slouched at the slot machines, queueing up for air-conditioned stage shows and steak dinners, physical distancing little more than a bad memory.

Make no mistake, though: all along the Strip, glitzy Golden Knights garb vastly outnumbers the familiar red, white and blue of the Canadiens.

David Spielman, who travelled from New Jersey with his son Peter, knows a thing or two about hostile hockey environments: he was born in Toronto — surrounded by fans of another Original Six team, the Maple Leafs — but picked up a lifelong love affair with the Canadiens from his Montreal-born father.

"It was tough growing up in Markham, Ont.," Spielman laughed as he waved off the good-natured ribbing of a group of passing Golden Knights supporters and urged Canadian hockey fans — especially in his hometown — to get behind the Habs.

"It's like asking the United States, 'Is the Yankees America's team,'" he said. "We're Canada's team. What are you going to do? Toronto might want to fight me."

Longtime friends and Vegas residents Stéfane Krief and Daniel Corsatea, both born in Montreal, are devoted Habs fans who never imagined having to choose between their original and adopted homes — under normal circumstances, the Western Conference and Eastern Conference teams would never have met in the playoffs unless they both made the final.

But because the divisions were reconfigured this year to allow Canadian teams to play each other without having to cross the border, fate has brought together the two teams they choose to support.

Both Krief and Corsatea plan to attend every game — especially considering the Golden Knights have no fewer than 21 Canadian-born players, including Game 1 star goaltender Marc-André Fleury.

"It's absolutely a win-win — but more of a win if it's Montreal," said Krief. "Make no mistake about it: we're 100 per cent devoted to Montreal."

For Corsatea, Canada and the Canadiens are synonymous with hockey, so he's at a loss to understand why anyone from north of the border wouldn't be behind the only Canadian team to make it to the semifinals.

"If the Leafs were in it, would I have rooted for the Leafs against the Bruins? Yes," he said. "We're a hockey country, so it's easy to say the Canadiens are Canada's team."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 15, 2021.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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