MONTREAL — Two hours before game time, Michael Andlauer welcomed his family inside the luxury suite tucked near the Zamboni entrance at the Bell Centre.
They have spent countless hours inside this room, which is located just a few steps away from the family’s longtime season tickets along the glass in section 117.
“Feels weird, right?” Andlauer cracked as his wife, Lucie, and son, Michael Jr., entered the suite.
It was Andlauer’s first time inside their old stomping grounds as owner of the Ottawa Senators. Suddenly the painting on the wall featuring the likes of Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur depicts legends wearing an enemy sweater.
Andlauer invited The Athletic to sit with him for an extended conversation as he prepared for the game. He revealed that as part of the agreement he made when selling off his minority share of the Montreal Canadiens, he asked Geoff Molson for one small favour.
When the Senators made their first visit to Montreal in January, Andlauer wanted a chance to sit in his old season tickets one last time.
“This is the last time I sit in those seats,” Andlauer said. “So there are some emotions.”
Andlauer held those three seats along the glass for more than a dozen years, faithfully attending as many games as he could when he was in the city. When he was out of town, Andlauer would routinely offer his seats to Guy Lafleur, Molson or any other dignitaries with the Canadiens organization.
His fondest memory from that vantage point was the magic carpet ride in 2010 when Jaroslav Halak and the Canadiens made an unexpected run to the conference finals.
“It was fresh back then. It was surreal. I loved those moments in those seats,” said Andlauer. “And we had a lot of success against Pittsburgh and Washington.”
The seeds of Andlauer’s Montreal fandom were planted three decades before that, while he was an elementary school student in the 1970s. He fell in love with Lafleur and said he lived and died with every result.
“I idolized those teams, to the point that when they lost, I would start to cry,” he said. “So thank God they didn’t lose too often back then.”
But that passion for the Habs has been slowly evaporating. And last Thursday — when the Senators hosted the Canadiens at the Canadian Tire Centre — it vanished completely.
Andlauer realized he had switched his full allegiance to his Senators when the team was clobbering the Canadiens 5-1. As the jumbotron in Ottawa showed a mass exodus of Canadiens fans leaving the building, Andlauer said he was basking in the deliciousness of that scene.
“One of the best moments of that game was watching the Montreal Canadiens fans leaving halfway through the third,” Andlauer said. “I have a competitive edge. And I’m now entrenched in Ottawa.”
When asked how he wanted Tuesday’s game at the Bell Centre to play out, Andlauer referenced the Canadiens fans heading for another early exit.
“I want the same thing to happen,” laughed Andlauer.
And sure enough, as Mathieu Joseph sealed the Ottawa victory with an empty net goal with 2:27 remaining, thousands of Canadiens fans left the Bell Centre. As Joseph scored, Andlauer jumped to his feet to celebrate the moment — savouring a visiting team’s victory for the first time ever in those rink-side seats.
But he’s fully embraced the underdog label that seems to suit Ottawa and he’s excited to lock horns with Montreal and Toronto.
“I said this in my opening press conference and I firmly believe it. We’re a small-market team between two cities that believe they’re the centre of the hockey universe,” Andlauer said. “Those are the two teams I want to have a rivalry with.”
At one point, Andlauer and Molson considered sitting together in those seats along the glass on Tuesday night, but they both agreed it might have been too much of a spectacle. Instead, Andlauer and his family had dinner with Molson in the hour leading up to the game, giving the Ottawa owner one final chance to thank Molson for his years of partnership in Montreal.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today as the owner of the Ottawa Senators without the experience I had at a first-class organization like the Montreal Canadiens,” Andlauer said. “But it’s all about Ottawa now.”
The moment that brought Cathy Pinto to tears on Tuesday at the Bell Centre happened well before her son Shane scored his first goal of the season in the second period.
Instead, it happened inside the visitor’s locker room just before the morning skate. As part of the Senators’ moms’ trip, the moms were invited to sit alongside their sons as they went through their game day routine.
“We got to see everything they do and that’s when it hit me. I hugged Shane and I just started crying.” Cathy said. “I’m so grateful that I got to be on this trip. And that’s my favourite moment.”
On Tuesday morning, the players’ moms were allowed to sit in on the full team meeting as they prepared for their game against the Canadiens. They watched a video session and listened to the coaching staff talk about the strategy they wanted to employ against their division rivals.
“Just hearing a Hall of Famer like Daniel Alfredsson telling the guys what he wants to see from them in the game was such a cool experience,” said Deeann Batherson.
Drake Batherson said his mom was so excited for this trip, she was sending him daily countdown reminders this month.
“She’s been counting it down. She was saying, ‘It’s nine days.’ The next day she would tell me, ‘Eight days to go,’” laughed Drake. “She was so pumped for this.”
One of the highlights for the Bathersons came on Monday afternoon, as the majority of mothers and sons headed out for an afternoon of bowling. They shared a lane with Jakob Chychrun, Mark Kastelic and their moms and competed in three spirited bowling games. In the final one, everybody was forced to bowl with their non-dominant hand — a competition won by Deeann. Afterward, the Bathersons enjoyed some authentic bowling alley poutine.
“I might bring it up eventually that I beat him at bowling in Montreal,” laughed Deeann.
“She actually beat me in the second game as well,” said Drake. “I think I actually get all of my athletic abilities from her.”
But Deeann didn’t walk away with the crown as the most impressive bowler among the moms. That title belongs to Caroline Sogaard, who managed to bowl a 162.
“It was the best score of the moms. She was so happy,” said Mads Sogaard, who had a high score of 120 himself. “We’re both super competitive. But it was amazing. You have to tip your cap to 162. I’ll never get there.”
For most of the mothers, this was their first experience on an NHL road trip, but Chantal Tkachuk has done this before with her older son Matthew.
“I did one with the Flames in Matthew’s first year,” said Chantal. “It was a ton of fun, so I was so excited when I heard Brady’s team was doing it this year.”
While her son Brady is the captain of the Senators, Chantal said she did not fill that same role for her fellow moms on this trip.
“I don’t think there is really a captain of the moms,” laughed Chantal.
But Chantal did concede that Allison Vaughan — who works in the hockey operations department — probably deserves the captaincy for flawlessly planning and executing all of the events on this trip. Vaughan helped coordinate a pair of dinners in downtown Montreal where the players and moms had a chance to socialize in a casual setting. And then on Monday afternoon, Vaughan surprised the moms with an excursion courtesy of Andlauer and the hockey club.
The moms were handed gift cards to Holt Renfrew in downtown Montreal and given a private shopping experience that included champagne and personal shoppers.
Deeann wanted to make sure she personally thanked Andlauer for providing such a luxurious experience.
“He reminded me of a Maritimer, he was so friendly. I just wanted to thank him so much for doing this,” said Deeann. “I probably never would have stayed at a Ritz-Carlton otherwise.”
In addition to luxurious shopping trips and stays inside five-star hotels, most of the moms got to experience flying on a charter airplane for the first time. On the flight down from Ottawa to Philadelphia, Marion Stützle cherished the card game she played with her son Tim, Thomas Chabot, Josh Norris and Norris’ mom.
“It was so wonderful. We were just sitting next to our boys,” said Marion. “We had so much fun.”
‘Fun’ hasn’t been in the Senators’ vocabulary very much this season. The club has endured a difficult first half of the season, in which many of their star players like Tkachuk and Stützle have been subjected to criticism and negativity. And those players’ mothers admit it’s difficult to try and comfort your child when you’re watching them struggle from thousands of miles away.
“It’s hard because as any mother will tell you, you’re only as happy as your least happy child,” said Chantal. “And so when things aren’t going well, it’s hard to sit there and watch that.”
“If you look at the television, you can see frustration and you can’t help,” Marion added. “And you just know your boy.”
But it all changed during this stretch of games with the moms in tow. The Senators gained five of a possible six points, playing their sharpest, crispest hockey of the season.
“I think they should have the moms’ trip every year,” said Chantal. “I mean, look at how they’re playing.”
The trip ended on a boisterous note, as the moms blared a series of ABBA songs outside the Senators locker room at the Bell Centre. The impromptu dance and karaoke rendition of “Dancing Queen” bled into Claude Giroux’s postgame media availability, prompting the Senators veteran to break into a wide grin.
“They’re going pretty hard back there,” Giroux said with a laugh. “It’s great for them to be able to win. They’ve done so much for us in our whole career. They’re having a blast right now.”
(Top photo of Michael Andlauer applauding at the Bell Centre: Arianne Bergeron / NHLI via Getty Images)