A hard time to be a hockey fan

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Canadiens fans can bid adieu to the stirring Centennial Plaza with its statues of Habs greats such as Jean Beliveau outside the Bell Centre as the site becomes home to pricey high-rise condominiums. (Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMI)

NHL: JAN 25 All-Star Weekend - All-Star Game

By Stu Hackel

While there are other hockey stories to discuss -- the start of salary arbitration hearings (T.J. Oshie and Sam Gagner are up first on Friday), the Capitals signing Mike Green to a three-year $18.25 million deal, Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelecconvicted of drunk driving in the Czech Republic, the sale of the Coyotes clearing a hurdle with the failure of petitioners to force the team's arena lease agreement to a public referendum -- it's hard to avoid the CBA talks, which resume on Wednesday in New York. With team owners submitting a first proposal that the players will never accept, the clock is now ticking toward what many believe will be a lockout-shortened season -- if not an entirely lost one.

Yes, we've been down this road before, not very long ago. It was a painful path, especially for those who work in the hockey business. But it was no fun either for those whose spending makes that business possible: the fans.

Here's an indication that the outlook for fans and the season is dim: the Capitals have cancelled their annual convention, which for the past three years has been a very popular event in late September or early October, the eve of the regular season.  Caps fans have been able to mingle and interact with their past and present star-spangled heroes at the conventions, but this year, sorry. "Due to the uncertainty surrounding the collective bargaining agreement," the team's statement read, "the Capitals have decided not to hold a convention in 2012, but the event will return in the fall of 2013." It may be a less joyous event then.

When the NHL returned after its last lost season, large "Thank You Fans" notices were painted on the ice to greet the returning patrons. Those customers came to forgive and they repaid the previously warring sides with seven years of increased loyalty -- not to mention increased revenues and salaries. Now it appears as if we've started down that ugly lockout road again and the bewildered fans of this sport are not happy about it at all. They feel they've been duped into believing in the new NHL-NHLPA "partnership" that was supposed to cure the sport of its economic inequities.

The fact is that fans get taken for granted and their loyalties to the game and their teams are regularly abused and exploited. That's hardly news or a groundbreaking opinion, but it needs to be restated in times like this. To be a passionate fan is to be a romantic, but it's fair to ask how much the NHL loves its fans in return. This league is a business first, after all, and there's no romance in finance.

There's also no more romantic locale for hockey than Montreal, the place where the game was born, where the fans can electrify not just the Canadiens' home arena, but the entire city after a mere regular season victory. But even in Montreal, which celebrates hockey like nowhere else, business comes first.

For example, the Canadiens announced on Monday that they're becoming partners in a new high-rise condominium project, Tour des Canadiens, to be built adjacent to the Bell Centre.

The tower will be 48 floors high, have 534 units, and prices start at $250,000. Here's the website for Tour des Canadiens, and while what the Habs make from this project almost certainly won't be classified as "hockey-related revenue" when the owners' books are examined to determine future salary caps, it's clear that the great legacy of the club is the major hook in marketing the condos. The team logo will even be affixed to the top floor.

"Some players might choose to live there," writes Allison Lampert, the real estate reporter in The Montreal Gazette, "but I’d personally be surprised to see that many Montreal-based Habs fans swapping their current homes for condos at the Bell Centre. The price range, from $250,000 for a 500 square foot condo, to about $800,000 for a 2,000 square foot penthouse, while reasonable for downtown, is already out of reach for the majority of Montreal buyers."

The other problem for the average Habs fan is that Tour des Canadiens is being erected on the site of Centennial Plaza, a marvelous public space that is traversed by thousands of rail commuters and sightseeing fans daily. Here's a video about the dedication of the Plaza from 2008; it's worth seeing while it's still there.

The Plaza features four bronze statues of Canadiens greats -- Howie Morenz, Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur. That's not all. "Plaques honouring the team’s 24 Cups and its 15 retired numbers line the west and east sides, respectively,"writes Mike Boone in The Montreal Gazette. "Centennial Plaza is inlaid with slabs of black granite commemorating 100 great moments in the team’s history. Each 'moment' is bordered by red and beige bricks that were purchased by fans whose $175 for a 4”x 8” brick or $350 for an 8”x 8” also bought a personal inscription. Examples: 'First game seen,' 'Habs Fan 4ever,' 'Le CH tatoué sur le Coeur' and the ubiquitous 'Go Habs Go!'”

You don't need to cheer for the Canadiens to appreciate it; any hockey fan has to love it, if only because of how the plaza celebrates the sport and the team while integrating the fans who share the sentiments.

"There’s a story behind each of the 20,000-plus bricks in Centennial Plaza," write Boone. "And all those personal memories will be displaced when work begins next year on Tour des Canadiens."

Canadiens owner and president Geoff Molson has pledged that all the mementos will be relocated somewhere within the new edifice, which will also include a two-story sports bar and grill. “When we were initially approached by Cadillac Fairview, which owns the land where the Tour des Canadiens will be built, our initial concern was that the project would have to blend in perfectly with the vocation of the Bell Centre and protect the symbol of our fans’ attachment and support,” Molson said. “It is of paramount importance that the thousands of bricks acquired by Canadiens supporters, the sculptures and the memorials and plaques that are now part of our sports culture in Montreal are properly taken care of and carefully stored before they’re redeployed. This is our firm commitment to our fans and the support they have given the club for more than a century.”

There's no reason to doubt Molson's intent or his respect for the fans but, really, it's very hard to envision these objects being transplanted anywhere that comes close to the current plaza for being an effective symbol of the romance between the fans and the team.

Boone, whose late mother bought a brick for him (even though she never attended a Habs game) remains concerned. "An email from the Canadiens to those who bought bricks promises they will be 'reintegrated into the environment surrounding the new residential complex'," he writes. "But where? I can’t see the lobby of a posh condo development crawling with gawking hockey fans. And the space around the Bell Centre is filling up fast with projects that dwarf the arena, including an office tower on the east side, adjacent to Windsor Station, and a hotel between Ave. des Canadiens-de-Montreal and René Lévesque Blvd.

"Molson tried to be reassuring. But...I don’t want my little chunk of Habs history to become just another brick in a mall."

Such is the plight of the fan. You can bleed the colors of your favorite team all you want, but the primary color the team cares about is green. Finance trumps romance every time.

Here's the original version, out of Atlanta, GA.

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