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COVID-19 restrictions could still limit celebrations as Habs try to win Stanley Cup

Unlike past playoff runs, many fans will be celebrating from their homes instead of in bars and restaurants
Montreal Canadiens fans celebrate on Rue St Catherine after the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in overtime game 6 NHL Stanley Cup playoff hockey semifinal action in Montreal, Thursday, June 24, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Peter McCabe

Montrealers won’t be the only ones to start celebrating next week as the Habs make a run for Canada’s first Stanley Cup in 28 years.

Fans and beer drinkers from across the country will be lifting their glasses as hockey’s winningest franchise seeks its 25th championship and first since 1993.

But the impact will likely be more muted than past finals involving a Canadian team because of restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In normal times you’d pack a bar or restaurant as full as you possibly could and that’s just not possible anymore,” said James Rilett, central Canada vice-president of Restaurants Canada.

Sales increased 20 to 30 per cent across the country when the Toronto Raptors headed to become the first non-U.S. team to win the NBA basketball crown.

But bars have been forced to close during lockdowns and many provinces have restrictions on indoor dining and limitations on outdoor patios.

Even fans have seen fewer opportunities to cheer on their favourite team in Canada. Some games have been played this season with no fans in attendance and the playoffs have seen limited numbers in the stands.

Rilett added that outdoor patios will probably be as full as they can get given the restrictions that remain, for example, in Ontario.

The exception could be in Quebec, where local fans are caught up in the frenzy of another run for the Cup.

“They’re not fully open, but they’re definitely more open than other parts of the country, so it happened at a good time for them that they can get more people in restaurants and bars there than before,” he said in an interview.

Unlike past playoff runs, many fans will be celebrating from their homes instead of in bars and restaurants, which typically account for nearly 30 per cent of all beer sold in Canada, says Beers Canada.

Draught beer sales declined by 55 per cent last year due to COVID restrictions.

“This year, with continued limitations on gathering sizes and capacity restrictions in place at restaurants and bars across Canada, there will be fewer opportunities for brewers to grow sales in that channel during the Stanley Cup finals compared to previous years,” says vice-president Luke Chapman.

“That said, we do anticipate hockey fans to gather safely in small numbers, where permitted, to enjoy a few beers and cheer on the Canadiens.”

As the official beer of the NHL, Molson Coors is hoping to profit from the final series that will see a Canadian team facing off against an American one for the first time since the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in 2011.

“Molson and hockey are inextricably linked and have been for generations,” Brian Collins, senior manager of sports and entertainment partnerships, wrote in an email.

“There is a positively contagious feeling in Quebec as Canadians from all over are watching the Habs’ historic run and I have no doubt a lot of people have been celebrating with a Molson beer.”

The Montreal- and Denver-based brewer said it will air ads promoting Molson Canadian across Canada and Molson Export in Quebec. It will also have a light show on the wall of its Montreal brewery.

“This is a great opportunity and collaborative effort to invite people back in on-premise locations and help the hospitality industry get back to growth via the public love for the Montreal Canadiens during the Stanley Cup finals,” said Collins.

Ken Wong, a marketing professor at Queen’s University’s School of Business and a Montreal native, doesn’t think the Habs will have a huge impact on Molson Coors or the Canadian restaurant industry as whole.

Very few people outside of Montreal associate the brewer with the hockey team, he said.

And unlike when the Raptors and the Toronto Blue Jays made their successful runs for basketball and baseball championships, the Habs are not necessarily viewed as Canada’s team, he said.

“There’s nothing that would make me happier than to see them win,” he said from Kingston, Ont. “But I cannot help but believe that because they have won so often and because they are the old guard, the celebration wouldn’t be nearly what it would be if, say, Winnipeg won.”

There could also be some lingering hard feelings from fans of the Leafs in Toronto and Jets in Winnipeg after the Habs eliminated those teams during the playoffs.

He pointed to the criticism after the CN Tower was lit up in red, blue and white after Montreal swept the Winnipeg Jets.

Wong also said the impact on restaurants will be almost impossible to detect because there’s so much pent-up demand.

“I was on a patio last week. I’ve never seen people so happy to be on the patio in all my life.

“That has nothing to do with the playoffs. That really has more to do with people’s desire for social contact.”

Ross Marowits, The Canadian Press

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