For the first time since guiding the Canadiens to an improbable Eastern Conference finals appearance, Jaroslav Halak is going back to Montreal.
On Tuesday, the St. Louis netminder will face his former club at the Bell Center for the first time since being traded in June of 2010, and will likely receive a hero’s welcome upon hitting the ice. To give you an idea of Halak’s popularity in Montreal, consider this, from NHL.com:
Not too long after Halak was shipped to the Blues for prospects Lars Eller and Ian Schultz, he decided to honor a charity appearance to which he had already committed. Just a few hundred people were supposed to get one last glimpse of the hero who played a major role in upsets of the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in that unforgettable postseason run..
However, in Montreal, few things are as simple as they seem when it comes to hockey.
Halak showed up for the session to benefit Ste. Justine Children’s Hospital at La Capsule Sportive store inside Fairview Mall in Pointe-Claire, Quebec expecting maybe 500 or so fans to attend and fork over $20 for a quick hello and an interview.
Estimates were a bit low, it seems. Organizer got their 500 fans — times 10.
That’s right, 5,000 fans lined up five-plus hours before the session began, forming a line stretched for a mile and doubled by the day’s conclusion. Halak stayed 90 minutes past his departure to meet the demand, yet security guards needed to eventually shut it down because of the closure of the mall. By day’s end, Halak helped raise $22,000.
Halak acknowledged Tuesday’s game will be an emotional affair.
“It was a great time [in Montreal],” he said. “I got traded and we didn’t have to go there last year. They came here [to St. Louis] and I think that was perfect. It’s going to be emotional, but at the same time, probably less than it would have been last season.
“I still have a few friends [in Montreal], but when we play against them, there’s no friends on the ice. I’m looking forward to seeing some friends off the ice. We’ll see how it goes. I can’t wait to go back in the building.”
Just in case you’re wondering, yes, Ken Hitchcock is astutely aware of the situation at hand. The St. Louis head coach has been splitting goaltending duties between Halak and Brian Elliott, but made no bones about Tuesday being Halak’s start — even though Elliott is coming off a shutout.
“This is once in a lifetime,” Hitchcock said. “Ideal situation, you want to support the shutout…I mean, come on, first time going back. I think in fairness to Jaroslav he had a heck of a time there. I think it would be dismissive of me to not recognize that.”