MONTREAL - Hockey pilgrims from near and far cannot find a better shrine at which to worship Canada's national game than Montreal.
It's a city famed for its emotional ties to the ebb and flow of the game, a 100-year-old devotion to the bleu-blanc-rouge and a love affair, in a place credited as the cradle of hockey.
"Hockey's embedded in the landscape of Montreal," says author D'Arcy Jenish, who penned the national bestseller "The Montreal Canadiens: 100 Years of Glory," to mark their centennial this year.
"When you sink yourself into that hockey history, you realize how much of the sport is right there in the streets."
You can walk the blocks where fans rioted after Maurice (Rocket) Richard was hit with his famous suspension, skate the ice where the sport's bygone legends laced up their blades or cheer its current heroes rinkside.
The old Forum is hockey's madeleine. Home to the Canadiens from 1926 to 1996, it's the site where the most magic moments of the club's storied history unfolded.
A mise en scene: It was there the Soviets shocked an entire country by winning (7-3 on Sept. 3, 1972) game one of the famed Summit Series; where Richard achieved his numerous exploits, including an eight-point game that still stands as a team record; where the Canadiens won numerous Stanley Cups, including their last in 1993.
It was where the Beatles played their third Canadian concert in 1964 and where the Rolling Stones played their first in 1965 and, while it's now a megaplex movie theatre, moviegoers can still enjoy a slice of the old Forum experience.
Before picking up their tickets and popcorn, they can sit back in a section of old red seats that have been preserved from the original building and look down at a replica of the Forum ice.
Jenish says the famed arena was more modest than the Habs' current home, which they moved into in 1996.
"The Forum didn't have all that razzle-dazzle and the electronics and the jumbotron. They had the organ and that was about it."
Nonetheless, packed to the rafters with Forum faithful, the building had an electric atmosphere and literally rumbled during the applause after each Habs goal.
Visitors can stroll east along Ste-Catherine Street, where fans rioted following Richard's suspension in 1955 for decking a linesman during a bloody scrap on the ice, and wander by the site of the Victoria Skating Rink, where the game as we know it was shaped.
The venue, demolished in the early 1900s, was housed between Stanley and Drummond streets above Rene Levesque Boulevard. It's hailed as the birthplace of indoor hockey. The first match was played there in 1875 and it was the site of the first Stanley Cup playoff in 1894.
It's only blocks from hockey's new landmark, the Bell Centre, in the heart of modern Montreal.
"It's the ultimate hockey shrine now," says Jenish.
"They've really turned the Bell Centre into a hockey version of Mecca or Rome. If you want to go to the source of things, the fountainhead, you go to the Bell Centre to see a rink that's as much a museum today as it is a sporting facility."
Kevin van Steendelaar, a North Bay native who twice made the pilgrimage to Montreal, says the franchise has honoured its history. A tour of the arena will take you everywhere except the locker rooms.
"I marvelled at what the Canadiens put into their history. They really look back on their history and look back on their past."
Fans can gape at Montreal's 24 Stanley Cup banners, pose next to statues of some of the game's most celebrated players, eyeball the memorabilia, reminiscence about the club's proud tradition and shed a tear over the 16 years since it won a Stanley Cup.
On game night, the streets overflow with scalpers, youth hockey league kids jangling change buckets to raise money for away games and floods of jersey-sporting Habs fans, pulled downtown to join the Bell Centre's 21,000-strong chorus.
Van Steendelaar says watching a game in Montreal is second to none.
"The fans are into it, even before the puck is dropped. The atmosphere just builds and builds and builds."
If you can't get rinkside, you can still absorb the ambience in some of the city's best sports bars.
"When you're downtown on game night, the bars are full, there's chatter, there's a buzz in the air," Jenish says.
He recalls one night watching the game at Ziggy's Pub - a basement watering hole once haunted by some of Montreal's most famous denizens.
"I'm sitting there thinking: 'God. This is where Mordecai Richler drank and Nick Auf der Maur drank and I'm here watching the Montreal Canadiens and they're winning and there may be a semi-final involving the Leafs," he recalls, laughing.
"Afterwards, I went out on the streets and the people are coming up against me and I'm wading through this crowd of hockey fans coming up from the Bell Centre. It was a really special evening. All the pieces, all the ghosts of Montreal seemed to be in the right place at the right time."
The pubs, sports bars and restaurants that mushroomed around the Bell Centre aren't the only place to go for the full game-watching experience. One rowdy watering hole has made a name for itself among the city's hockey buffs.
Chez Serge, in Montreal's trendy Mile End district, is part traditional brasserie and part ultimate game-watching experience. And, with so many party-loving hockey fans in town, the place is sometimes more crowded than the hallways of the actual Bell Centre.
Massive plasma screens line the walls. Owner Paulo Branco had two more installed on the ceiling of the men's washroom. Now, no play need go unwatched even in the most dire emergencies.
Besides, time between periods is best spent oggling the sex-kitten waitresses who dance on the bar during the lull. A DJ pumps out tunes between faceoffs.
There's also a nod to old-style Quebec bar kitsch, with bras hanging from the antlers of a moose head, staff uniforms that comprise biker vests, and menus on 'Je Me Souviens'-sloganned Quebec licence plates.
Visitors can recover from the raucous evening by zipping past the site of the Mount Royal Arena, home to the Canadiens between 1919 and 1926. A brightly-lit Provigo supermarket now stands at the corner of Mont-Royal Avenue and St. Urbain Street, but the surrounding blocks are worth a stroll to immerse yourself in Montreal's culture of cafes, bistros and boutiques.
Sadly, like the Mount Royal Arena, much of hockey's history has vanished from Montreal's topography.
"A city changes and all that history gets erased," mourns Jenish.
But Montreal's park culture, which lent a hand in nurturing some of the most enduring legends of the game, lives on.
Residents still lace their skates for pick-up games on the city's outdoor rinks.
"These neighbourhoods gave us these great players," says Jenish. "So many of the great names sprang up like trees growing in the neighbourhood."
Canadiens' captain Emile Bouchard skated in Parc Lafontaine, among the city's largest urban parks. Sprawled across the Plateau neighbourhood's eastern border, it's got an outdoor hockey rink in winter.
There, visitors can strap on rented skates and create their own cherished memories of Canada's national winter sport.
If you go . . .
- The Pepsi Forum is located at 2313 Ste-Catherine Street West.
- Information about The Bell Centre, including guided tours, can be found at www.bellcentre.ca
- The Canadiens new practice facility - the Bell Sports Complex - is open to the public and a short trip off the Island of Montreal. For more information: www.complexesportifbell.com