Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Town's arena a Habs heaven for hockey fans

Ex-Canadiens players drop in

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For one crisp afternoon on Saturday, the Ile-des-Chenes arena wasn't just any rural hockey rink.

It was a little piece of Habs heaven.

Fans flooded the community with red, white and blue to celebrate the arrival of the Montreal Canadiens alumni team. But before the puck dropped in a match between the former NHL stars and the Ile-des-Chenes Elks, Habs diehards got their chance to get up-close and personal with their hockey heroes.

More than 150 people lined up in Iles des Chenes' TransCanada Centre hall, shelling out $75 for a chance to snap photos and get autographs from Habs stars including Patrice Brisebois, Georges Laraque and Norm Dupont, who played three seasons for the Winnipeg Jets after being traded from Montreal in 1980.

Oh, and they were also joined by their coach, a gentleman by the name of Guy Lafleur. You may have heard of him.

"To shake his hand and take a couple of pictures, it's an honour," beamed Jean-Paul Lafleche, who brought the "priceless" seat he once occupied at Montreal's historic Forum for Lafleur to sign: seat 10, row D, section 210.

For many Habs fans in attendance, the love of the team is a longstanding family affair. When Lafleche was born, his 77-year-old father Sylvio Lafleche recalled, his grandfather was so distraught over who would replace then-Habs star Jean Beliveau that he barely noticed the newborn baby in his arms.

Beliveau's replacement, of course, was Guy Lafleur, who would go on to become the Canadiens' all-time leading scorer, with 1,246 points in 14 years -- and who signed Sylvio's brick, taken from Montreal's Bell Centre.

Indeed, it seemed almost every fan in line had a personal story about the Habs, and Lafleur. Claude Tremblay remembered being just a boy when he met Lafleur in 1988, during the star's hiatus from the NHL. The Habs hero gave him one of his hockey sticks.

On Saturday, now grown up and a hockey coach in Ile-des-Chenes, Tremblay got that stick signed. "Here I am 25 years later and I still feel like a kid," Tremblay chuckled. "I still feel nervous around my hero."

The Montreal Canadiens alumni team regularly tours Canada, playing exhibition games for charity fundraisers. The money raised in the Ile-des-Chenes event will benefit the community's minor hockey programs. A staffer with the team said he wasn't surprised by the outpouring of Habs love, noting that the 103-year-old hockey club has deep roots across Canada.

Perhaps that's especially true in Ile-des-Chenes, where many fans agreed the area's strong francophone community has long held a deep connection to the Habs.

Organizer Marc Palud, who helped bring the team to Ile-des-Chenes, said the day would finish off with a bang, as over 850 people were expected to attend the exhibition game.

"It raises the profile of our community," Palud said. "We have this amazing facility here, and we couldn't have picked a better team with the roots and local history here."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 12, 2012 A5

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