***Originally posted at www.palhalpall.blogspot.com***
Peter Zezel's death got many of us thinking about the Toronto Maple Leafs of the early nineties. In my case, this inevitably led to a flood of memories of Maple Leaf Gardens. As far as I can remember, I have been to the Gardens twelve times, always for the Leafs, and have been lucky enough to see some pretty amazing moments, as well as a whole bunch of completely forgettable ones. But no matter what, the building was always and still is beautiful, and even if the Leafs got blown out, which was often the case, you still got your money's worth because you got to sit for 3 hours in what to many hockey fans is the most wonderful built environment in the entire country.
My First Game
Believe it or not, I could not remember exactly what year or how old I was when I went to my first ever game at Maple Leaf Gardens. Luckily, I remembered the score and the opponent, so I looked it up on www.databasehockey.com, and lo and behold, it was the 1990-91 season, November 3 to be exact, which means I was all of 7 years old. And in case you couldn't guess, the Leafs lost to the Calgary Flames big time, 7-3.
Now this was not actually my first ever hockey game, as I had been with my dad and brother to two Newmarket Saints games the year before (I think), one of which saw the Saints play the Sherbrooke Canadiens and tie them 5-5 (or beat them 6-4, meaning 5-5 was the score in the other game I saw in which the Saints' opponent escapes my memory). But that first game at Maple Leaf Gardens was my first big league experience. Again, I was with my dad and older brother. We didn't arrive until around half way through the first, and by the time we nestled into our seats in the greens, the Leafs were already down 2-1. The memory that stands out most is Daniel Marois (I think) scoring a meaningless goal with about 7 seconds left in the game. In fact, aside from actually entering the Gardens for the first time (which I don't have to tell you was a thrill), it's pretty well all that I remember clearly.
February 15, 1992: Jets 3, Leafs 1
This was my first ever Saturday night game, and it was a much better experience. We arrived in time for the warm up, which was a lot of fun, but what struck me for the first time (which somehow eluded me the year before) was just how bright and colourful the arena was. We were sitting in the golds this time, just inside the Leafs blueline on the penalty box side. What I remember most was that we were sitting right beside one of the TV cameras, and the cameraman would point the camera at me during the commercials so I could pretend I was being broadcast. Aside from that, I don't remember any specifics about the game, including who scored for the Leafs. Does anyone?
May 17, 1995: Game 6, First round, Leafs def. Chi 5-4 in Overtime
I don't remember the exact circumstances; all I remember about this day is that it was the day Leaf playoff tickets went on sale, at 8 am perhaps. I remember reading about this in the paper, and begging my dad to get on Ticketmaster's website - no, wait, to call them - and see if maybe, just maybe, we'd be able to score a pair to a Leafs playoff game. My dad got on the horn, waited with it clenched to his ear as the sound of my beating heart drowned out the noise of the world, until he was informed that there was one pair left for game 6, in the second or third last row of the corner greys where the Leafs shoot twice. We snatched them up, and I instantly became the most excited little shit on the planet. Of course, there was no guarantee it would even go to a sixth game, and when the Leafs won the first two in Chicago, I got a little worried, and perhaps could have been accused of secretly hoping the Leafs would lose two of the next three; so feel free to blame me for what ended up actually happening.
The Leafs ended up losing the next three, and were on the brink of elimination when we settled into one of the worst pairs of seats at Maple Leaf Gardens, which of course means I had a fantastic view of the entire ice while still being close enough to hear some of the on ice banter, when the noise of the crowd would allow it. I couldn't sleep the night before, and couldn't think about anything else all day at school. And when I was finally in my seat, I was both nervous and ecstatic. And naturally, I would look frequently up at the scoreboard with trepidation as each second ticked away, ushering me closer and closer to life outside of Maple Leaf Gardens; but this was an experience common to any game I'd see at MLG thereafter - I'm sure many of you who have attended games know the feeling of looking up at the scoreboard and thinking "What, the first is over already, it only just started! Games were never long enough at the Gardens.
I'm sure most of you remember how the game unfolded. The Leafs, as I recall, took a commanding 4-1 lead, and the crowd was louder than anything I'd ever heard. I think Keenan pulled Belfour, and after the Hawks scored a couple, put him back in. Inevitably, the Hawks tied it, which gave me that strange dichotomy of sensations: horror that I was about to watch the Leafs get eliminated in the FIRST ROUND of the playoffs, and almost unbearable excitement about being present at an NHL playoff overtime game. And then it happened; the buzzer sounded, and we were headed to sudden death.
Luckily, or unfortunately, the overtime period didn't last too long. All I remember from seeing it live - I didn't see a replay until the next year when I bought Rock 'Em Sock 'Em 7 - was the incomparable Randy Wood dragging the puck around the net and just firing it at Eddy Belfour. Everyone in the entire arena stood up as the puck fluttered towards The Eagle, and so my eleven year-old eyes couldn't see even an inch of ice. But it didn't matter; I never saw the puck cross the line, but I was screaming my head off as loud as anyone anyhow. This was truly one of the most thrilling experiences of my childhood days.
The goal itself, as I would later learn, was actually a pretty weak one. But at the time, it was the most beautiful goal I had never seen (Incidentally, I was going to write a blog about some of the moments I couldn't find on YouTube until Down Goes Brown fixed that for me - Wendel Clark's return home was at the top of the list. Now, Randy Wood's O.T. goal is what I want to see, so if anyone knows of a way to view it, please let me know). Of course, there was one last minor thrill in store for me; as we were making our way to the front exit of Maple Leaf Gardens, we passed one of the corridors to the gold section, around which stood a large crowd. I peered in, and there was Felix Potvin being interviewed by CBC (who would have been interviewing him back then?). We watched for about half a minute and then moved along. As the crowd spilled out onto Carlton Street, everyone continued to whoop it up. When we got home, my body was numb with excitement. Unfortunately, game 7 turned out to be the perfect anticlimax.
From that point on, my one wish in life was to get seasons tickets for the Toronto Maple Leafs. And while this predictably has never come to pass, I was lucky enough to see several more games at Toronto's most beautiful landmark and one of the last great hockey arenas, a place that still gives me chills whenever I am in its general area. I shall share some more memories in the near future; please share with me some of yours.