Montreal's pandemic-weary sports bars see relief with home team in Stanley Cup finals

·3-min read

By Allison Lampert

MONTREAL (Reuters) - Downtown Montreal bars reeling from the loss of summer festivals and months of lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic are seeing a windfall as the hockey mad city prepares to cheer on its beloved Canadiens on Friday in their first game on home ice of the Stanley Cup finals.

The upstart Montreal Canadiens are down two games to none in the best-of-seven championship series following Wednesday's loss to defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning in Tampa.

The Canadiens, who have defied the odds by reaching the finals after being underdogs in each playoff round so far, are on a quest to end Canada's 28-year Stanley Cup drought. Montreal was the last Canada-based NHL team to lift the coveted Cup in 1993.

The series has brought out crowds in Canada's second-largest city, which has seen its tourism industry battered by travel restrictions and the cancellations of summer festivities like the Canadian Grand Prix Formula One motor race.

The Canadiens' unlikely advance to the Stanley Cup finals has fans driving around with team flags and created long lines to buy Montreal jerseys. It has also attracted tourists from other parts of the province, helping to fill restaurants, said Glenn Castanheira, executive director of business association Montreal Centreville.

"What we're living in downtown Montreal is something out of a fairy tale," he said. "No one was expecting them to make the final."

Foreign tourists visiting Montreal plummeted by about 85% in 2020 compared with 2019, according to Tourisme Montreal. Lockdowns have also deprived the city's downtown of 350,000 workers and 150,000 higher education students, Castanheira said.

The elimination of the heavily-favored Las Vegas Golden Knights on June 24 in Montreal, which advanced the Canadiens into the finals, saw packed revelers setting off fireworks, sparking celebrations in a city just coming out of confinement.

Some took the revelry too far with people throwing projectiles at officers, forcing Montreal Police to warn fans to avoid the area around the arena.

While Montreal's playoff run cannot compensate for the losses bars have incurred after being closed for most of the year, owners said it has generated much needed revenue and boosted morale.

"After all these months of being closed, reopening with the (Canadiens) in the playoffs - the stars are aligned," said Stuart Ashton, general manager and co-owner of McLean's Pub in the city's downtown.

Since restaurants are not allowed to fill to capacity due to health guidelines, some fans arrive in the afternoon to get a table ahead of playoff games that night, he said.

"There were so many people we had to say no to," Ashton said.

"The days of the matches are very animated. We are happy for the restaurants and bars," said Geneviève Jutras, a spokeswoman for Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante.

Alain Creton, owner of the downtown French brasserie Chez Alexandre, said the restaurant reserved its cigar lounge for a group of fans eager to watch Wednesday's second game in private at a cost of C$100 ($80.65) each.

He is bringing in an additional large-screen television and three additional waiters to accommodate an expected maximum allowed capacity crowd on Friday.

"We will be very busy."

($1 = 1.2400 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting By Allison Lampert; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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