NEXT STOP: ST. LOUIS


They stood in line for hours, waiting for a chance to say goodbye to the unassuming young man from Bratislava, who carried the playoff weight of the Montreal hockey world on his shoulders during the Canadiens’ unlikely playoff run last season.

Fans of all ages, waiting for an opportunity to get up close and personal with goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who returned to the Montreal area to sign autographs as a way to raise funds for a local hospital foundation, and as a way to say thank you to this city.

Let me suggest that the 5,000-plus who lined up in front of a sporting goods store at Fairview Centre to see Halak before he rode out of town, for good, were the one’s saying “Thank You.”

Approximately 2,000 8×10 glossies were made available to those who showed up to see Halak, some as early as 8 a.m., in advance of his 2 p.m. appearance.  For the record, those glossies featured an action shot of their hero in a Montreal Canadiens’ uniform.  Truth be told, the photo could have featured Halak in an action shot wearing his jammies.  It wouldn’t have made a difference.

Sporting a black ball cap and wearing a white tee shirt and shorts, Halak, who arrived in Montreal yesterday, seemed overwhelmed with the crowd that had gathered.  And he appeared genuinely humbled with the outpouring of affection from hockey fans in this city who clearly hold this man near and dear to their hearts, even though he is now a St. Louis Blue.

Before getting down to the business of signing autographs, Halak admitted it felt a bit weird to be back in Montreal as a member of another hockey team and said he was sad to leave the Canadiens.  But at the same time, he added he’s happy he will have a chance to play and prove himself worthy of number one status in St. Louis.

“I was really happy that they (the Blues) got me,” said Halak. ” They showed me respect. I’m really looking forward to it.  It’s a new challenge, a new team, new fans.  I’m really happy.”

“They (the Blues) showed me respect.”  You don’t have to work too hard to read between the lines when it comes to that comment.  It became pretty clear to Halak, pretty quickly, where his future rested.  And it wasn’t in Montreal.

“When I got traded it never came down to asking me or my agents … staying in Montreal.  When I heard the news that I got traded, I was surprised but I was kind of  happy,  to a team that is going to give me a chance.”

Halak admitted he’s looking forward to the first time he gets a chance to suit up in Montreal, unfortunately, as he put it, with another team.

“That’s business, that’s hockey.”

In the meantime, there’s Montreal’s March date in St. Louis.

“We’ll see if I’m going to play that game.  I’ve never faced my former team and we’ll see how the feelings will be.”

Before pulling out his Sharpie, Halak was asked about the fact that he was traded to a Western Conference team.

“It doesn’t really matter where you end up.  At the end of the day it’s about if you play or if you don’t play.  I hope I will play and I will help the team.”

And with those words, fans began to make their way to the table where Halak had parked himself for the afternoon. What was originally scheduled to be a two-hour autograph session turned into a three-and-a-half hour love-in.  At around 5:30, Halak put down his marker, and called it a day, with fans still lined up.  But not before he thanked them for their support, and apologized to those who were unable to get their items autographed.

Apology accepted, from all accounts.

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About ahefter

I have covered hockey extensively during my 30-year sports broadcasting career. From the Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid to the Edmonton Oiler dynasty years, I've shared my views on hockey with listeners in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. You can "catch me in action" on Youtube at the following URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1n5BdB9ngYw My radio stops include TSN 690 Montreal, CJAD Montreal, CKNW Vancouver, and CKEY Toronto. I also ran the Canadian Press sports desk (radio). My travels as a network reporter have taken me to four Olympics, most recently Vancouver 2010. I'm currently an Applied Assistant Professor within the School of Communication at the University of Hartford.
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