STADIUM DUDE’S NHL ARENA RANK: #4
- Location: Montreal, Quebec
- Opened 1996
- Capacity 21,302
- Games attended: 3
- Last visited: 2010
The Bell Center is the closest to a “bucket list” experience among the hockey rinks. Toronto may be the Center of the Hockey Universe, but Montreal is still the Mecca. Hockey fans know a Habs game is treated like a religious experience. It’s been a while since I’ve been to “church”; I owe myself a return visit soon.
Despite the time lapse, my memories of my visits here are seared. Home of the most successful NHL franchise in history, the place makes an impression unlike any other. Just walking into the arena, you feel the history: 24 Stanley Cup banners and 15 retired numbers representing 18 players. And reading the names in the rafters feels like a Who’s Who of hockey immortals: Morenz, Richard, Beliveau, Plante, Lafleur, Roy. There’s a Yankee-esque awe to the whole thing.
The Canadiens keep celebrating their unparalleled history in the pre-game show. This presentation does a perfect job of honoring past greatness, while exciting fans and whipping them into a frenzy. The projections are amazing, the large videoboards are used well, the showmanship is strong, and the cheese factor is low. Others may be more entertaining, but none move you more.
As for the arena itself, the seating bowl is huge. It’s pitched steep, in part due to necessity given the rink’s limited horizontal footprint, and in part due to design. Hockey works better when you’re close to the ice; the pitch sends you higher, but likely not further, keeping fans on top of the action and creating a more intimidating atmosphere. Watching a Habs game from the upper bowl gives you a sense on how God watches hockey (with many old-timers insisting that God is a Habs fan). The downside: you need a Sherpa you’re so high. “Nosebleed” seats may not be hyperbole here.
The building’s small footprint also forced really narrow concourses, made worse by the fact that the 21,000+ Habs fans tend stay in their seats to (gasp) watch the game, leaving en masse only for intermission. Concessions are fairly sparse, and except for the one smoked meat stand, surprisingly basic (though Montreal “steamies” are still the best hot dogs in sport, and I’ll punch you in the throat if you say otherwise). It is also extremely crowded outside the arena, since fans really have nowhere to mingle other than the sidewalks and downtown streets.
Were this ranking based solely on atmosphere, memorability, and pecking order of the most important hockey arenas, the Bell Centre would be Number 1 with a bullet. I honestly considered putting it there. But the physical shortcomings are too great to ignore. Nonetheless, you won’t get a better vibe, and any hockey arena tour that doesn’t include a trip or two here is horribly incomplete. It’s #4 in my rankings, but absolutely the #1 “must-see” venue in the NHL.