The rink rats of Verdun weren't going to wait for the official opening of the borough's new ice.
When Canadiens executives and politicians assembled for the opening ceremony Friday afternoon, there was physical evidence -small black marks on the new rink boards -to suggest slapshots had preceded speeches. And you don't need CSI Verdun to conclude that before the dignitaries showed up, person or persons unknown had been pucking around.
Which is the point. The Canadiens Children's Foundation has been building rinks in the city's less-advantaged neighbourhoods as part of Bleu Blanc Bouge, a program to get kids moving and enjoying the pleasure and health benefits of outdoor hockey.
Canadiens defenceman Hal Gill was having a good time at the launch. Standing about 6'9" in skates, Gill bent over to take the hand of a young girl, steadying her uncertain strides on a few circuits of the new ice. Then Gill played pied piper to about a dozen kids, whizzing around the rink and through the camera crews and media scrums.
Gill is from Concord, the small town in Massachusetts where the first battle of the Revolutionary War was fought. He learned to skate on a pond, and Gill told a radio interviewer at the rink opening that Montrealers were lucky to be living in a climate that offered a long season of outdoor hockey.
And just in case global warming renders us unlucky, the new rink has a cooling system that guarantees skating from the end of November until mid-March.
The Willibrord Park facility is the third built by the Canadiens Children's Foundation. Like its predecessors in the Villeray-Saint-Michel-Park Extension and Montreal North boroughs, the rink is state-of-the-outdoor-art: a $1-million facility featuring a skating surface built to the 200-by-85-foot dimensions of the Bell Centre, with the familiar CH logo at centre ice.
Gill and three teammates -Mathieu Darche, Benoit Pouliot and Alexandre Picard -were joined by Canadiens alum Rejean Houle and two skating mascots, Youppi! and a giant brown bear, cutesy-poo name unknown, who is the friendly, furry face of the Montreal police department. A few cops also laced up and joined the skating party on a chilly but sun-splashed afternoon.
Verdun has a rich hockey history. The area produced Donnie Marshall, who played for the dynastic Canadiens of the 1950s, and Scotty Bowman, who coached the team to four Stanley Cups in the '70s.
The game has come a long way since kids used Eaton's catalogues as shin guards and Maurice Richard honed his skills on an outdoor rink in Lafontaine Park. Most 21stcentury organized hockey is played indoors, and the equipment is more expensive than the defunct department store's free mailings.
The Bleu Blanc Bouge program may help inspire a future Canadien.
But the team's community outreach is about fun, not player development.
Canadiens owner Geoff Molson, who was on hand for the Verdun rink opening, grew up on Wood Ave. and recalls playing on the nearby rinkatthecornerof SherbrookeSt.
"When my homework was done, my parents let me go out and skate," Molson said, recalling a regimen that produces more owners than players. More youngsters are in organized and indoor leagues, but, Molson said, "the rinks are still there, and kids are out skating."
"There may be a little bit less of it," Molson added, "but my kids still ask to go to the outdoor rink on a regular basis, and there's lots of others out there."
Having grown up in a family that has been associated with the Canadiens for a good part of the team's glorious history, Molson is aware of the legends, players who "played eight hours a day on outdoor rinks and used that as an explanation for their talents."
"But it's a different game now. Coaching has become more and more important."
The Canadiens are not sending Jacques Martin down to Willibrord Park to teach the kids defensive hockey. But through the generosity of Bauer -one of the program's partners, along with Hockey Canada and the FTQ Solidarity Fund - the Willibrord kids are getting 100 sets of skates, helmets and sticks.
Barry Lorenzetti, a Hockey Canada official who grew up in Cote St. Paul, "Mario Lemieux country," said 65 per cent of the hockey rinks in Canada are more than 40 years old and praised the Canadiens' program as an admirable infrastructure initiative.
"You go into rinks and see asbestos leaking," Lorenzetti lamented. "It's not a safe environment.
"It's great to be at the opening of a new rink," he added. "But it's up to municipalities to find the money to maintain rinks, going forward."
Next step for the Bleu Blanc Bouge program: new ice in LaSalle, opening next winter.