Declan Hughes went to two games of hockey on opposite sides of the Atlantic with rather different atmospheres. From Belfield and the Bell Centre, here’s how Declan experienced his two favourite hockey teams.
When I was 3 years old my parents emigrated to Canada. The city they chose was Montreal. An unusual choice given, Montreal is the largest French speaking city outside of France, but my mother’s brother Séan had spent a year there as an architectural graduate. Anyway we lived there for six years and I started primary school there. We came back to Ireland when I was 9 years old and I didn’t return to Montreal for 37 years.
What brought me back to the city primarily was hockey or as people outside Canada call it ice hockey. I had the good fortune to live in Montreal during a period when the local NHL team the Canadiens won 4 Stanley Cups between 1965 and 1971. I had no contact of any kind with the game from 1971 to 1985 bar the few years we received yearbooks to update our encyclopaedia but even they stopped in 1981. In 1985 I replaced our old black and white television with a portable 14 inch colour one. I got a cable TV package and one of the stations available at that time was called Screensport. This UK based channel had the rights to show NHL highlights and I watched packaged from NHL On The Fly regularly on the station. They also showed the occasional live game and I had the pleasure of watching the 1986 Canadiens win a surprise Stanley Cup largely due to goalkeeper Patrick Roy standing on his head for the entire play off series. I was able to follow the exploits of the 1993 Stanley Cup winning side more closely as there was a lot of live hockey on that season but then Screensport was merged with British Satellite Broadcasting and eventually subsumed into Sky Sports and ice hockey all but disappeared from Cable TV and became exclusively a Premium Sports Channel product.
A few years later when internet access became widely available I was able to follow the NHL watching highlights online. I was then able to tune into listen to the odd game live online from radio stations based in Canada.
In 2007 I found a website online called Classmates.com. I scrolled down through the dropdown menus and discovered they covered Canada and had the province of Quebec and the city of Montreal. I was amazed to discover not only my old primary school but a couple of former classmates looking to find fellow alumni. I made contact with one named Karl and made a decision to revisit Montreal in 2008. It was the centenary season of the Montreal Canadiens whom I had never seen play live until that point. I found a hotel downtown online near the home venue to which they had moved in 1996 called The Bell Centre. The vast bulk of the 24 of Montreal’s Stanley Cup victories had been won in their former venue The Forum in Atwater which is now sadly a shopping mall although they tastefully contain several reminders of the venue’s former role.
Anyway in November 2008 some 37 years after we left the city I finally got to see Montreal take on the Buffalo Sabres. It was an amazing experience and one I have tried to replicate on each of my subsequent visits over the years.
Montreal Canadiens 3 New Jersey Devils 2, 2 December 2013, Bell Centre
The introduction of the players is a high tech lights display with all the razamatazz of a rock concert. The players from the home team’s starting line ups are announced as a jumbotron shows the players in the tunnel about to appear on the ice. This is preceded by the young skating mascots decked out in Canadiens hockey outfits bearing flags as they skate around the ice just before the players emerge.
The visitors opened the scoring in the 11th minute of the first period through a deflected shot turned in by Steve Bernier. Montreal equalised midway through the second period through . In the 16th minute of the period Montreal took the lead when André Markov passed to Desharnais and his effort was turned into the net by Max Pacioretty to make it 2-1 to the home side. In the third period ex- Canadiens player Michael Ryder scored for the Devils to make it 2-2. Alexei Emelin and Bourque combined to set up Alex Galchenyuk and the youngster scored in the 9th minute of the third period to make it 3-2 which ended up the final score. The Devils outshot the Canadiens by 30 shots to 17.
It was a great game and a great spectacle and I enjoyed the experience immensely. Montreal are vying for top spot in the Atlantic Division of the NHL Eastern Conference. The Devils are in mid table in the Metropolitan Division of the NHL Eastern Conference.
There are 21, 273 tickets available for every home game at the Bell Centre and every game is a sell out. My ticket cost C$173 Canadian including taxes, which worked out at €131, but that did include free food and soft drinks from the concession stands on my floor of the arena just outside the section where my seat was located.
When my parents and I returned to Ireland in 1971, from Montreal , we moved into a newly built housing estate in Dublin on the Northside of the city. Living across the road was Barry Doak and we played football together. Indeed Barry’s father brought me to my first League of Ireland football game. But Barry was to have another influence on me, unbeknownst to him, because he started playing 11-a-side hockey played while he was in primary school. I was in secondary school with a guy named Eddie Woods who was an all round sportsman and he took up hockey and became a team mate of Barry Doak’s at the Aer Lingus hockey club in the 1980’s. When I was at university a colleague there, Noel O’Meara, whom I knew through football , eventually played hockey for St. James’s Gate and one of his team mates there was Eddie Woods who was by this time a work colleague [Editor’s note – Zen, baby].
The Irish Hockey authorities moved their headquarters to UCD, where I had graduated from in 1983, later in the decade and the National Hockey stadium was built at the back of the Sports Centre in Belfield.
In 1994 Ireland were awarded the Women’s World Cup of Hockey and I attended many of the games and thoroughly enjoyed the occasion. I made a note to return to the game at some point. Fast forward to recent years and in 2010 I was asked to become involved with the On the Ball [Editor’s second note – the name pre-dates Off the Ball] radio program of Dublin City 103.2 FM.
We dipped our toe in the waters of hockey so to speak, by calling people from the governing body whenever one of their regular e-mails would alert us to something like an Inter-provincial tournament at either adult or under age level, National Cup competitions, or games involving the International teams. In 2012 we went to cover the Irish national women’s team as they attempted to qualify for the Olympics and last season we turned our focus on the club scene. I went to my first women’s club game, as a reporter, and saw UCD beat Trinity 3-0 to win the Leinster League title for 2012/2013. Next up for the hockey teams was the semi-finals and finals of the Irish Senior Cup. I was at the semi-finals and UCD beat Ballymoney on penalty strokes in the semi-final to reach the Women’s final. On final day I was in studio reduced to watching a live internet stream of the finals and UCD’s women’s team were beaten by an odd goal by rivals Railway Union.
UCD had won the Leinster League and Railway had come 3rd. UCD didn’t manage to beat Railway during their League campaign and Railway also won the Irish Senior Cup at UCD’s expense. The next part of the season was the IHL which is a national competition and UCD and Railway Union ended up playing against each other at the semi-final stages of the competition. The game went to penalty strokes and UCD once again came out the wrong side of the equation. So when the fixture list for the 2013/2014 season came out there was no chance I was going to miss this fixture.
Railway Union 2 UCD 2, 9 November 2013, at Park Avenue
Attendance: circa 100
In last season’s Leinster League fixture between these two in the League at Belfield UCD had been 4-0 ahead at one stage and it ended in a 4-4 draw. This day’s proceedings would have a similar comeback although not from as large a lead.
Both sides had half chances early on in the half with Railway dominating possession. Grace O’Flanagan made a couple of telling saves for the hosts and Tiffany Ellis was equally proficient for the Students and it was not a major surprise that it was 0-0 at half -time.
The game seemed a lot more open in the second half and Railway took the lead, following some good approach work down the right flank the ball was pulled back at the byline and found Kate Dillon whose shot was deflected to the net past a prone Tiffany Ellis who had made a save from the initial effort.
The second goal for Railway Union came when the UCD defence failed to clear their lines successfully and it fell to Julia O’Halloran who rifled the ball into the top corner of the net. At 2-0 to Railway Union it may have looked like game over. But UCD had other ideas and launched a series of counter attacks. One such counter-attack got UCD back into the game following a passing move down the left the ball found it’s way to Elaine Carey who made no mistake from close range to make it 2-1. UCD got their equaliser when they were awarded a penalty corner. Brenda Flannery’s penalty corner was pushed back to her and she made no mistake at the far post and tapped in to make it 2-2. Railway did have a penalty corner late on but were unable to breach the Belfieldians rearguard for a third time.
After the game Railway Union’s Jean McDonnell felt they had thrown away two points and that the feeling in their camp was more akin to a defeat. UCD’s Gillian Pinder felt they had battled back from a seemingly hopeless situation to gain a well earned draw.
What conclusions do I draw from those experiences? I have been at some abysmal games where 50,000 or more were in attendance. I have been at some highly entertaining games played in front of less than 100 spectators. It’s the quality of the performers on the field rather than the quantity of the numbers off the field that is the real determinant of whether something is of value in a sporting context or not. There was nothing worthless at the Railway Union – UCD game. Several extremely talented players of international calibre were on display and gave of their best. The crowd which attended the game between a successful Montreal team and the New Jersey Devils, was no different to the crowd who attended a game I attended in 2011 between a very unsuccessful Canadiens outfit who on that occasion took on the Boston Bruins. Montreal went on to finish dead last in their conference in the 2011-2012 season… no matter the game was still a sell out.