While it has only been a few days into training camp, it's clear the mood and atmosphere surrounding the Montreal Canadiens has changed, and many would say for the better. A breath of fresh air might describe the atmosphere at camp. While the team looks to turn things around on the ice this year coming out of the lockout, the Habs are doing some things off-ice for their fans as well.
It's no secret that the NHL needs to win back fan support in several markets after four months without hockey. This has prompted several teams south of the border and in cities where sellouts might not be common to offer ticket discounts, cheap season tickets, 2-for-1 deals and free kids tickets. Several in-arena offers have also been presented on concession stands and at souvenir shops. While these are all generous offers in those markets, they don't translate well north of the border.
For Canadian NHL cities, including Montreal, sellouts are pretty much standard issue and therefore don't allow for ticket discounts. And when you have a full house, and a much larger fan base, focusing all your efforts to in-arena promotions doesn't truly reach out to the entire fan base. The reality is, not every fan who is a staunch supporter of their team is a season ticket holder. Yet, they will invest several of their own dollars through other aspects of the team, whether it be merchandise or other team related products which contribute to the overall financial make-up of a franchise.
Canadiens owner Geoff Molson realizes that, and hence the Habs have put together a plan that reaches out to a wide fan base and provides an opportunity for several fans to take advantage.
During last week's press conference, Molson addressed the need to acknowledge the support.
"Our plans aren't completed," said Molson. "Here in Montreal, the fans are the most important thing and we recognize that. We want to do something that will be very much appreciated."
Hence, the Canadiens are embracing the return of hockey with a week's worth of "Hockey Is Back!" festivities. Thursday night, fans can take in the Red vs. White scrimmage at the Bell Centre, free of charge on a first come, first served basis. Not only will they get free hockey experience at the Bell Centre, but also a free meal combo of hot dog, chips and soft drink.
Saturday morning provides another unique experience with another free first-come-first-served treat to watch the Canadiens and Leafs morning skates. Every fan attending will also get the same meal combo.
The Canadiens have also taken 50 per cent off all Canadiens merchandise at the Habs Zone boutique at the Bell Centre on Thursday and Saturday.
And with the Canadiens calling it a "week's worth of festivities," you can surely expect some more surprises in store.
Even Youppi! was around the city this week handing out Canadiens gift cards to surprised Montrealers. Sure, a gift card can catch you off guard, but so can a giant orange and furry mascot running towards you.
With no pre-season, recreating an exhibition game feel might be a great coaching strategy but it also provides the fans a chance to enjoy a game experience, even if it is a smaller scale, and is a great way to give back to fans and offer a chance that some would not normally be able to enjoy, reaching out to everyone. It allows families to bring their kids, and give them a great experience they can afford. And, with the co-operation of the Leafs, opening up morning skate is something most fans don't get to see.
The key to the plan put in place by Molson and the Canadiens is how they have presented offers that extend beyond the 21,273 inside the Bell Centre on a game night. There is something available to everyone with these ideas, even if they don't hold an actual game ticket.
The events also extend beyond the hockey fan and offer something more for staff and local businesses and especially for the hundreds of employees that will earn an additional game night and morning of work.
After missing about 22 home game nights of work already with pre-season and regular season nights during the lockout, an extra day or two of events is a gesture of thanks and support to the employees as well. From staff, concession stand workers, ushers, vendors and security to restaurants and surrounding area businesses that have felt the effects of the last four months. They will all benefit from some extra Habs events around the Bell Centre through opening weekend of the shortened season.
Several restaurant and bar owners around the Bell Centre are grateful the Habs are holding the two events for the fans, knowing that it will bring a mass amount of people back into the area and their establishments for hockey. One restaurant manager I spoke with is on a hiring blitz to staff up again in time for Saturday and now have called in crew for Thursday. The trickle down effect of hockey being back and good for business has begun.
For some, it will still take a while for the sting of the lockout to subside, and that is understandable. But for the majority of fans that are ready to move on and return to enjoying the game they love, it will be an event filled week leading up to the return of the Habs and Leafs on Saturday night. It's a week in which all Habs fans will have a chance to take part in some way or another.
The Canadiens have long been known for doing things with class and the right way. It's an impression that has a long history tied to it, which Geoff Molson fully understands. And the events planned for this week seem to have the feeling that the Canadiens have got it right in their efforts to reach out to all their fans.
Saturday night, it's Game On.