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Canadiens hope suburban practice rink will have them better prepared

BROSSARD, Que. - It is a nondescript glass and brick building by a highway in a particularly soulless part of the suburbs, but the Montreal Canadiens love it.

The Canadiens had nothing but rave reviews after their first skate at their new $36-million practice facility - the Complexe Sportif Bell - on Monday.

"It was an overwhelming feeling," said captain Saku Koivu. "It's a lot bigger and it's even nicer than expected."

Veteran Winger Georges Laraque, who joined the Canadiens this season after playing for other teams with suburban practice rinks, went even further.

"You can't even compare any other team's practice facility to this," he said. "And I would even go so far as to say you can't compare this to any main rink of any other team.

"This is the best in the league."

The Canadiens moved in while they are in the midst of a seven-game home stand, which continues on Tuesday night when they face Jarome Iginla and the Calgary Flames before taking on the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday and the Washington Capitals on Saturday.

The Canadiens are one of the last teams in the NHL to have their own practice facility and have spared no expense on the project, which was built together by the team, the city of Brossard and the engineering firm Axor.

It has two ice rinks and an indoor soccer pitch, but it is the off-ice facilities that had the Canadiens gushing.

The gym, the trainers' room, the players lounge and the dressing room are bigger and better equipped than anything they've had before. There is even a room with hot tubs and a swimEX pool for swimming against a current.

Athletic therapist Graham Rynbend and strength and conditioning coach Scott Livingston said they were asked to make lists of everything they wanted and the space they needed and got it all.

"It's kind of cool spending someone else's money," Rynbend said with a laugh. "I don't think any regular clinic would have the opportunity to put together a dream area and I was lucky enough to do that."

Having two ice sheets came in handy. A sheet of glass was broken early in practice, so the players simply moved over to the other rink and kept going.

The NHL club hopes the facility will make the team better prepared for games and help to attract free agents.

It is one of the amenities general manager Bob Gainey has had on his wish list for four years.

In the past, when the Bell Centre was taken over by a concert or some other event, the Canadiens dressed at their arena and then took a bus to a neighbourhood rink for practice, usually the Denis Savard Arena in Verdun about a 20-minute ride away. Then they bussed back to the Bell Centre.

Now, all their practices will be held at the new facility and they will use the Bell Centre only for games, and the short morning skates on game-days.

Taking the bus often meant going out into the cold while still sweaty from practice.

"It's not that it was bad, it was more annoying than anything else," said Laraque. "You lose half an hour getting down there and more time if there's traffic and you have to change to get on the bus.

"For guys that are hurt and need treatment, it's that much harder for them."

.Having their own rink also allows players and coaches to do extra work before and after the main practices.

"The quality of our practises will be greatly enhanced," said assistant G.M. Julien Brisebois.

He said care was taken to make their practice rink a near identical copy of the Bell Centre, from the height of the boards and the glass to the quality of the ice to the location of the Zamboni entrance. Even the advertising on the boards is mostly the same.

Brisebois said the walk from the dressing room to the ice is exactly as it is at their main rink, down to the colour of the carpeting the ramp leading to the players bench.

A difference is the dressing room.

At the Bell Centre, they tried to reproduce the famous room at the old Montreal Forum. This one has curved benches on either side that make it like a meeting room where players can all see one another, although it also has the Habs room staples - pictures of all their Hall of Fame players from the past and the inscription: To you from failing hands we throw the torch, be yours to hold it high.

Goaltender Carey Price found the practice rink is colder and had better ice than the Bell Centre. He also joked that since it will take longer to get there from his downtown residence "at least I'll be awake when I get to the rink now."

From downtown in light traffic, the facility is about a 15-minute drive over the Champlain Bridge onto the South Shore region. Several players live along the route, while others have moved to the area in recent months.

"It should be a good recruiting tool for free agents," said forward Tom Kostopoulos. "Word of mouth is going to get around the league about this place and how nice it is.

"It's a nice area for families to live. All the players now are happy. We have nothing to complain about, so there are no excuses."

The 850 seats in the main practice rink were mostly full of fans for the first day. While the seats will be kept clear for most workouts, fans can still watch through glass barriers along the facility's walkways.

Some construction work is still to be completed, but the main areas have been open to the public since Nov. 15. The ice sheets and soccer field will be rented out when the team is not using them and the Canadiens will also open a gift shop.



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