Montreal Canadiens fans attending games at the Bell Centre can ensure they get a personalized visit at their seat from team mascot Youppi! — as long as they're willing to pay nearly $200 for the privilege.
The team has lit up Canadiens fan forums and social media accounts with its new "Fur on Demand" package, which promises a brief visit and photo session with the fuzzy orange character, who will come to ticket-holders' seats bearing confetti, a personalized sign and a gift bag of Youppi! merchandise.
Maxime Truman, a Canadiens commentator and co-owner of the popular fan site Dans Les Coulisses, saw an advertisement on social media about the offer over the weekend. He wrote an article on the offer and shared a post to social media about it; both went viral and drew hundreds of comments, most of them negative.
In an interview, Truman said that besides being angry at the price tag, many critics feel the offer exploits children's love for the team.
"For the beer to be expensive, for the parking to be expensive, that tickets are expensive, that gets a pass from some people, but this is directly aimed at children," he said.
"I think that it's this connection with young families that makes it much less well-received."
Fans who buy tickets for games through the NHL.com Ticketmaster site are given the option to purchase the Youppi! visits for $195, and to select in which period they'd like him to appear.
The site says profits will go to the Montreal Canadiens Children's Foundation — although Truman says that message was only added Monday, after the initial criticism.
The team's social media messages advertising the package on X, formerly known as Twitter, have drawn backlash, with dozens of angry messages, memes and jokes.
However, Truman says he's also received messages from a minority of people who support the Canadiens, arguing the team is a business and that nobody is forced to buy anything. While he says they have a point, "the Canadiens are more than a private business," he said.
"They're an institution in Quebec, with a history and an emotional connection to the team, and that's where most people have trouble with it."
Moshe Lander, a Concordia University lecturer who specializes in sports economics, says the visits are part of a trend by sports teams to market the overall experience of being at an arena, well beyond the game.
As TV quality has improved, teams have tried to offer fans moments they can't get at home, he said, such as concerts and personalized experiences, to encourage them to shell out hundreds of dollars for tickets.
"The game is almost becoming ancillary to the broader experience of being in stadium or in arena," he said.
In this case, he feels the Canadiens misfired, both in terms of price point and the offer itself.
"What are we supposed to do with the person who doesn't pay that money?" he said. "Is Youppi! supposed to swat at that little kid that tries to come up for a free picture and say, 'show me the money or get out of here, kid?'"
The Canadiens are known for having a loyal fanbase, but Lander said the team isn't as popular as it once was. The city's population is now increasingly made up of immigrants who didn't grow up with ice sports — and of people who can't even remember the last time the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, in 1993.
While the Youppi! blunder might not be enough on its own to turn fans away, "I just don't think that it's going to endear the Canadiens, especially when they don't have an on-ice product that would give them room for making these mistakes," Lander said.
The Canadiens aren't the only team to charge for visits from mascots, however. The Colorado Avalanche advertise a seat visit from Bernie the St. Bernard mascot for US$150; the Dallas Stars' Victor E. Green will swing by for a mere $85.
Habs management didn't answer a request for comment. A message on the Ticketmaster site says a "very limited" number of seat visits are available each match, and that there are options to meet the mascot without buying a pricey package.
"It is always possible to meet him at Chez Youppi! in section 105, before the match and during intermissions," the site says.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press