MONTREAL — The sun hadn't yet risen in Montreal on Friday morning when a contingent of Ontario hockey fans prepared to descend on the city ahead of what they saw as a monumental hockey game.
The Montreal Canadiens were set to square off against the Las Vegas Golden Knights, marking the first time since 2014 that the team had made the National Hockey League's semi-finals, and Alexander Vizier and his friends had no intention of missing out.
The group had driven 17 hours from the northern Ontario community of Marathon just to take in the game.
Vizier said the excitement of the trip was compounded by the relief it offered from recent, pandemic-related events, saying he was happy to abandon talk of COVID-19 and shift the focus to Habs fever instead.
"It's even more monumental because we are getting out of COVID-19," Vizier said in an interview. "It's even better than in normal times."
The buzz strong enough to attract fans from other provinces was filling Quebec residents with excitement, too.
Philippe Fontaine drove his family 14 hours from Sept-Iles, Que., to watch his team in action. Fontaine, who saw the Canadiens play for the last time more than seven years ago, said he couldn't miss what he called a unique event — especially after a year of physical distancing.
"It feels amazing to just go out for this, walk around," he said, before chanting Go Habs Go with his family.
The Habs, like other NHL teams, had been playing to empty arenas for much of the year thanks to measures barring fans from gathering in person and potentially spreading COVID-19. But the team's playoff run coincided with the easing of many provincial public health restrictions, including the reopening of restaurants and bars.
Fans were also welcomed back into the audience as the Canadiens moved deeper into the playoffs. The government cleared the way for 2,500 fans to attend games in-person last month before raising the capacity limit to 3,500 for sporting events and festivals the day before Friday's match.
For Stuart Ashton, part-owner of a downtown-Montreal sports bar, the combination of the Habs' on-ice success, declining COVID-19 case counts and relaxed public health measures all contribute to the sense that something momentous is underway.
"There’s just a buzz in the air, everyone is excited about how well the Habs are doing, as well as it coincides with bar and resto reopening," Ashton said.
Ashton started working at McLean's Pub in 1995, two years after the Habs won the Stanley Cup for the last time. He said this year's long-awaited playoffs feel different.
"Every game, it’s one more level and it's getting more and more exciting," Ashton said. "It’s also good for the business, we were closed for eight months before that. It's a huge part of getting back on track."
Santana Enrique, owner of Sports Crescent in Montreal, also said he attributes his store's recent economic boon to Habs fever.
Before Montreal eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs from playoff contention at the end of May, nobody wanted to buy hockey merchandise, Enrique said.
"Now it's a virus, not COVID-19, but the Habs virus where everybody gets addicted," he said.
Vizier, Fontaine and other fans got to see their team edge out the Golden Knights 3-2 in Friday night, allowing the Habs to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The teams are set to face off in Montreal again on Sunday at 8 p.m.
Enrique said he hopes the team's run of good luck leads to both another Stanley Cup win and an even stronger sense that life may be returning to pre-pandemic norms.
"We are like living a normal life," he said. "We are living the life of 1993.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 19, 2021.