Peter Chang, a tourist visiting from Hong Kong, sits next to a sculpture at the Pepsi Forum, former home to the Montreal Canadiens Wednesday, September 26, 2012 in Montreal. The building is now an entertainment complex and is among several sites that showcase the city's hockey history.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
MONTREAL - It's considered by many as the cradle of modern hockey — a city that hosted the first-known organized match, witnessed the creation of the National Hockey League and cheered as local teams captured 41 Stanley Cups including the very first one.
All this would make Montreal an ideal tourist destination for hockey-starved fans this year as a lockout threatens the NHL season.
The city's landscape, however, offers few hints to the local role in shaping what has become a national pastime and world-class sport.
The key is knowing where to look.
Decades of urban redevelopment and a shortage of historical markers have left few hints of Montreal's place in hockey lore.
Gone are the city's old hockey barns, arenas that helped craft the game's modern rules and housed several different Montreal clubs on their path to dozens of Stanley Cup titles.
Today, fabled sites like these have since been transformed into new uses: a grocery store, a movie theatre and a even a multi-level parking garage.
But the unassuming presence of hockey history here means the most determined visitors can still detect the subtle traces. Like the local legend that says ghosts patrolled the rafters of the old Forum, the game's past still resonates.
From the marking of centre ice at the reconfigured Forum, to the childhood home of Montreal Canadiens legend Maurice (Rocket) Richard, to the hotel where the NHL was first created, there's still plenty for enthusiasts to see, says an expert on the game's history in the city.
"It's just amazing to go through the city like that," said Michel Vigneault, a Universite du Quebec a Montreal kinesiology professor who wrote his PhD thesis on the city's hockey-filled past.
"But you have to know the history behind it because some places have been changed over time."
Vigneault said a significant chunk of that history is centred around the Victoria Skating Rink, an arena that hosted the first-recorded organized game in 1875 and inspired the dimensions for future NHL ice surfaces.
Today, however, the Victoria is a parking garage — which perhaps reinforces the idea that visiting these vanished sites is reserved for only the purest hockey nerd.
The widely forgotten rink put its stamp on the sport before it was demolished in 1929.
Vigneault said that March 1875 hockey game played at the Victoria was the first with pre-established rules. It featured a wooden puck, nine players on each side and a rugby-like rule restricting athletes from making forward passes.
That match, played mostly by McGill University students, also had a nightmarish setup for netminders: the goals were eight feet wide, Vigneault said.
In a hint of things to come for the new sport, he said a newspaper report published the following day indicated the game ended in a brawl.
Vigneault insists the Victoria's place in history differs from the hotly disputed debate over the game's earlier origins. Some believe it was first played elsewhere in Canada, while others argue it began in Europe. Paintings from 17th-century Holland show people with sticks and skates on ice.
"We cannot say exactly where hockey started, but we know where organized hockey started," said Vigneault, who's also a member of the Society for International Hockey Research.
"From that, we know everything that happened after. The problem is, what happened before? We still don't know."
The downtown property is wedged between Drummond and Stanley streets, the latter named after the former governor general who created the Cup.
Coincidentally, it's close to the Bell Centre — the Canadiens' current home — where the only plaque that pays homage to the Victoria Skating Rink is found.
Other hockey landmarks can be found nearby, including Metcalfe Street's Sun Life Building (the former offices of the NHL and its longtime president Clarence Campbell) and a Peel Street building formerly known as the Windsor Hotel (where the NHL was founded in 1917).
A plaque commemorating the birth of the NHL hangs inside the old Windsor Hotel, which has since been transformed into an office building called Le Windsor.
A more famous landmark lies just over a kilometre away, near the slope of Mount Royal just below the wealthy Westmount area.
At the corner of Atwater and Ste-Catherine streets, visitors will find the site of the storied Montreal Forum, home to the Maroons from 1924 to 1938 and the Canadiens from 1926 to 1996.
Not only were two-dozen Stanley Cups won by the teams playing in that building. The site also witnessed three notable international sporting events within several years.
There was the shocking first contest of the 1972 Summit Series, where the dominant Soviets cast instant doubt on Canada's claim to hockey supremacy. Three years later, in 1975, the Canadiens and Moscow's Red Army played what some have called the greatest game ever. In world sporting history, it's also the site where gymnast Nadia Comaneci recorded her perfect 10 in the 1976 Olympics.
Today, the site is a movie complex.
The building houses stores, restaurants, a bowling alley, a bar and a comedy club in addition to the cineplex.
There is a nod to its hockey heritage: Habs logos mark the original spot of centre ice on the floor of the complex, where there is a cluster of the arena's old seats and a statue of Richard. Upstairs, photos of former Habs teams adorn the walls.
Other places that used to be the home of the Canadiens, and other Montreal hockey franchises, dot the city, which has seen six different clubs hoist the Stanley Cup 41 times.
Across Atwater from the Forum is the former location of the Westmount Arena, an early home for the Habs and other local teams until a fire destroyed it in 1918. It is now a shopping mall.
Among the major rinks that have disappeared: Jubilee Arena (Ste-Catherine and Moreau Street), the Mont-Royal Arena (now a grocery store at Mont-Royal Avenue and St-Urbain Street) and the former College Ste-Marie (Bleury Street).
College Ste-Marie is where francophones first learned the game on the school's outdoor rink, thanks to a religious connection, Vigneault wrote in his thesis.
Irish students at the Roman Catholic college, who had learned the game from anglophones, taught the sport to their francophone schoolmates.
"That's where the French started to play hockey with the Irish," Vigneault said of College Ste-Marie, which is now the Gesu theatre.
Visitors can also check out the lower sports field at McGill — just north of the intersection of McGill College Avenue and Sherbrooke Street. Students used to play hockey on a rink set up for the Montreal winter carnivals of the 1880s.
The McCord Museum, not far from McGill, is one of two downtown museums that hold some of hockey's artifacts.
McCord has a hockey stick from the 1880s and the original Carnival Cup, a predecessor to the Stanley Cup that was awarded to champions of Montreal's ice carnival starting in 1883.
The Bell Centre's basement also has a museum: the Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame. It's packed with items from the famed franchise that has existed for more than a century.
Away from the bustle of the city, on the slopes of Mount Royal, fans can also visit the tombs of Montreal hockey heroes — most notably, Howie Morenz (Mount Royal Cemetery) and Richard (Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery).
Those enamoured with the Rocket can also venture to Parc Lafontaine, where he fine-tuned his skills on the outdoor rinks as a youngster. During one standout season of minor hockey there, Richard scored 133 of his team's 144 goals.
Vigneault said the house where the Hall of Famer grew up is in the north-end borough of Ahuntsic-Cartierville, at 11407 Avenue de Bois-de-Boulogne.
The historian said he would like the city to offer more to visitors interested in hockey.
He was part of a group that made a proposal to the city to build a hockey walk of fame that would start in front of the Victoria rink site, stretch to the old Forum and continue until it reached the Bell Centre.
The names of Stanley Cup winners who played for Montreal and those were born in Montreal would have been engraved in the sidewalks, he said.
One local politician expressed interest in the idea, pitched in the 1990s, as did senior executives with the Canadiens, he added.
The project, however, never got off the ground.
With a little research, Vigneault said those interested in the city's hockey history can create their own tour — even if the landmarks have been altered.
"Still, it's kind of fun to say, 'Oh, it was there,' " he said.
If you go:
— Montreal Canadiens Hall of Fame costs $11 for adults, $8 for seniors, $8 for children (aged five to 16 years old). Children four and under are free. Call 514-925-7777 or visit http://canadiens.nhl.com/club/page.htm?id=59997 for details and opening hours.
— McCord Museum. Call 514-398-7100 or visit http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/ for details and opening hours. Call ahead to find out whether the hockey items are on display.