MONTREAL—Montreal’s history of hockey-related unrest repeated itself early Thursday morning as a small-scale riot broke out downtown.
At about 12:20 a.m. a few youths celebrating along with hundreds of others on Ste-Catherine St. began to break the windows of a government-owned SAQ liquor store, including with a trash can, near the intersection of Stanley St. In a flash, dozens had jumped through the shattered windows and were looting the store.
Many emerged holding bottles up in both hands, as if in victory.
“Want something from the liquor store?” one young man was heard asking his friend before they both headed inside.
The break-in unfolded over the course of 10 minutes as several dozen police, wearing helmets and in a line a mere 20 metres away, did nothing.
Perhaps empowered by the sight of such impunity, several other rioters began to shatter the windows of a Foot Locker across the street. Again, people came from all directions, buzzed into the store and left with merchandise. One young man’s booty was a pile of sports socks.
Then, a women’s wear store next door called Marciano had its windows smashed. Rioters then took limbs from mannequins and hurled them at other windows, breaking them too.
“It’s bloody ridiculous,” said Michelle Wiltshire, from outside Chiliwack, B.C., who was staying in the nearby Sheraton Hotel and had ventured on to Ste-Catherine to observe rabid Habs’ fans reverie. “I come from a small town so it was quite exciting to walk up and down the street. But then it got really scary.”
Fans were hopped up on excitement, scarcely believing that their beloved Montreal Canadiens, who were not even expected to make the playoffs, had laid waste to the defending Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday night by a score of 5-2.
Thousands packed the sold-out Bell Centre to watch the game on the arena’s big screens even though the game was being played south of the border.
It was so loud inside that there were several people who, while leaving, claimed to be temporarily deaf. Scalpers said tickets, priced at $7.50 each, were going for $45 to $50.
Throughout the evening in the Bell Centre messages were broadcast featuring former Habs’ winger Réjean Houle and mixed-martial arts fighter Georges St-Pierre urging fans to celebrate with “respect and dignity.”
Montreal has a long history of hockey-related hooliganism. Ste-Catherine St. was the site of playoff riots in 2008, when police cars were burned and businesses vandalized. In 1993 after the Habs won their 24th Stanley Cup, riots caused about $2.5 million in damage. This year police tried to prepare. They closed off a long stretch of the street so that there would be no cars to vandalize. And there was a heavy police presence, on foot and horseback, from the start. Riot police were also at the ready.
The festivities that spilled on to Ste-Catherine were orderly for the most part. People climbed on top of traffic lights. A few newspaper fires were set but police quickly moved in each time. Bottles were thrown at police. Around 11:30 p.m. truncheon-wielding riot police cleared one intersection using horses and tear gas. But the huge crowds wouldn’t go away, and became more hostile to the police, chanting obscenities and throwing beer bottles at them.
Police, as they were clearing one road, aggressively pushed one girl who had tripped, causing her to trip again and again. A large crowd booed and advanced on the police. Then the looting started. After about 20 minutes, police finally took control of the businesses but made no arrests.
“I might have expected this if they lost,” Wiltshire commented. “But they won!”
As the Habs continue their unlikely drive to the Stanley Cup, Montreal has been increasingly – predictably—transformed by hockey fever. From proud subway drivers wearing CH jerseys to the sight of at least one car on every street displaying the tricolour flag, to the entire staff of a bargain department store decked out in red, white and blue.
One newspaper has been publishing a daily page of photos sent in by fans wearing their team’s logo in far-flung places, such as the Great Wall of China and the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. “I feel very Canadian when hockey is on,” said Alexandra Marquez, 24, a McGill University medical school student who hails from Delaware. “It’s a Canadian game and there’s so much spirit here.”
Classmate Evan Martow, a Torontonian who was born in Montreal, said he’s never seen the kind of team spirit in Hogtown. “People here support the team regardless of how they’re doing.” Montrealer Josh Gurberg, 22, joked that he was born with birthmark in the shape of the Habs’ logo. The Montreal Canadiens faced four elimination bouts already in these Stanley Cup playoffs and survived, to the astonished delight of fans in this hockey-mad city. And they showed their appreciation Wednesday night.
Amid the delirious crowds, there was at least one man brave enough to show up in a Penguins’ jersey. It was Sylvain Lefort of Verdun, who arrived with his 13-year-old son Mathieu Raco. All around them Habs’ fans taunted him, waving their banners and flags in his face. “I’m not afraid,” Lefort said. Lefort has been a Penguins fan for 25 years, abandoning the Canadiens after Guy Lafleur unhappily left the team following the 1984-85 season.
Despite his loyalties, Lefort said he’d still be happy if the Canadiens won. “I’m surprised (Montreal) has done so well,” he said. “They have a lot of heart.” Student Rony Islam, 25, said the degree of fan spirit was near-startling. “We’re having a huge party, and once we win it’s going to be an even bigger party.” Islam said the tricolour pursuit of the Stanley Cup is also bringing the city closer together.
“It’s a game, and we talk a lot about this game,” he explained. “And so we’re all Canadians. There’s no difference between Anglos or Francos or anything else. We’re all one, one Canadian team, and it’s amazing to go as far as we have.”