A Montreal Canadiens game at the Bell Centre is more than just hockey. What happens on the ice is the most important thing, but it’s also part of a bigger product being sold to fans.
At the end of last season, Canadiens president Geoff Molson promised an improved fan experience, and that’s what the franchise has been working on.
In early October, the Habs unveiled the M2 Marché-Montréal, a high-end food court and bar in the basement of the Bell Centre.
Now, a live band in the stands will perform during stoppages in play and period intermissions when the Canadiens host the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night.
Popular Montreal singer Gregory Charles will provide the live music accompanied by the Habs Band — a four-piece ensemble consisting of a guitarist, bassist and drummer, along with veteran soul vocalist Kim Richardson.
In Nashville, a band has been entertaining fans between periods at Predators games for more than a decade. But the Habs Band experiment takes that idea one step further with Charles and his band rocking out every time the referee blows the whistle.
The experiment appears to be inspired by the glitzy entertainment approach adopted by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, where elaborate theatrical pregame performances have featured live music from pop stars.
And the Habs Band will be taking requests, via Twitter, from fans using the hashtag #HabsBand.
Charles has done this sort of thing for years. His all-request show Black & White has played the Bell Centre 43 times.
The initiative comes as Habs ticket sales seem less robust than they used to be. There have been empty seats at Canadiens games, and some season-ticket holders aren’t bothering to show up. In October, the team announced that its 14-year run of sold-out games had ended.
“The people in charge truly want to make the experience better — To bring it into this new age of the NHL,” Charles said in a phone interview.
“They’ve done that by having a speedy team this year. They’ve done that by getting new coaches. And I think this, just like the quality of food, is an attempt to say, ‘Let’s try this and see if people like it.’
“I don’t think the Montreal Canadiens are unaware of what’s been going on in other venues. I think they’re totally aware of what’s going on in Vegas.”
Charles added: “What you usually hear from the organist and the DJ, you’ll hear from us. Every time there’s a stoppage in play, we’ll play and we’ll be playing to the situation.
“If it’s tied or if we’re leading by one goal, we might play Living on a Prayer by Bon Jovi because ‘you gotta hold on to what you got.’ If there’s a fight, we might play Hit Me With Your Best Shot by Pat Benatar or we might play Eye of the Tiger. We have a vast repertoire of songs we can do spontaneously.”
They’ll be set up right in the stands so everyone will be able to see them.
“This is Bell Centre entertainment with Bell Centre hockey,” Charles said. “It’s not a show. We’re there to accompany what’s going on. It’s never been done before. It’ll be a fun challenge.”
They will also try to do some of the musical riffs that have been a part of Forum and Bell Centre hockey games for decades.
“We might change it a little bit because we’re a band — we might make it a little bit more rock ‘n’ roll,” Charles said. “But I’m a Habs fans. So I’m very respectful of traditionalists who love the stuff we used to hear before, and I think the Habs brass are respectful of that. They know they have traditional fans and they know they have younger fans.”
Charles hopes his Habs Band will get to do it again after Saturday, but he’s well aware that will depend on how well the experiment goes down with fans.
“I feel like (young Habs forward) Charles Hudon,” Charles said. “I want to make the team and I want to play. I love this idea and I’d love to do it again if it makes fans happy. If it displeases fans, I’m not going to take it personally.”
When he kicks off this unusual night of entertainment on Saturday, Charles said he will be thinking about his dad, a major hockey fan who went to many Habs games with his son. Lennox Charles died after being hit by a snow removal vehicle last February.
“My dad would’ve been psyched about this because my dad, who never laced up skates in his life, was such a Montreal Canadiens fan,” Charles said.
“He was excited that I’d play at the Bell Centre so he’d be over the moon if he knew I had the privilege of playing at a game.”