As a kid I was in love with hockey. Actually, love is an understatement. I was obsessed. I ate, slept and breathed the game. On weekends, in the winter months, my friends and I would play on any one of the outdoor rinks around Waterloo. I can’t count the nights my mother caught me trying to wear my stinky old Leafs sweater to bed.
I guess my love for hockey came from my grandfather Glen, the biggest Canadiens fan to ever walk God’s green earth. It was with him I first listened to the echoes of play on Saturday nights from such legendary arenas as the Forum in Montreal, the old Gardens in New York City, Chicago Stadium, Boston Gardens, the Olympia in Detroit and, of course, the most legendary of them all, Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.
I cheered the Habs alongside grandpa for a few months, until one day my best friend Steven came to school wearing a Toronto sweater. That was it, I was mesmerized by the leaf. I had to have one of my own. I just had to. I begged my mother for a sweater like the one Steven owned. For months I pestered her until, finally, for my thirteenth birthday, I got a brand new Maple Leafs jersey. But then came a major dilemma – how could I cheer the Canadiens and wear the Toronto colours? I had no other alternative but to switch teams. Grandpa called me a traitor, a fickle fan who would be cheering for Boston or Chicago next.
Over the years I did my best to get my father to take interest in the games. He always said the same thing when I asked him to watch the game with me: “I have no reason to watch a group of grown men chase a tiny piece of black rubber around.” Still, somewhere inside I believed with all my heart that dad enjoyed the games on Saturday nights as much as I did. He was always in the room when the game was on, reading the newspaper paper. The odd time he’d let slip a smile when the leafs would score and I was jumping around like a lunatic.
One evening dad came in from work, and he and mom huddled in the kitchen, whispering. Mom called me into the room. Dad asked if I had been good. “Of course I have,” I yelled, seeing the coloured envelope in his hand. “Then this is for you,” he smiled and handed me the package. I opened it. It was two tickets to the third game in the Stanley Cup finals at Maple Leaf Gardens. There I was, after years of dreaming about going to a professional hockey game, with not just a ticket, but a ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals.
I was beside myself. I was finally going to a real live hockey game. My dad was going to accompany me, he said, only because, “your mother doesn’t want to drive in Toronto.” When he left the room, after my many thank yous and hugs, my mother gave one of her just between you and me winks.
When the big day finally arrived, I sprang out of bed, ran down the stairs and raced into the kitchen. Dad was sitting with a cup of coffee, quietly reading the morning paper. “You’re up pretty early today, boy,” he said. I was puzzled. “The game’s today! The game. Remember?” I stood frozen, maybe the whole thing had been nothing more than a fantastic dream.
Dad scratched his head. “Game? What game would that be?” I bounced around the kitchen. “The Maple Leafs and Canadiens.” My dad’s expression never changed. “Well, me and Andy gotta run on down to Windsor this afternoon on business.” I was horrified. My heart sank. “That’s enough Stan,” my mother shouted from the front room. Dad let out a chuckle and patted me on the back. “Just teasing, son. Eat your breakfast and get ready.” I returned to bouncing around the kitchen.
We left early so dad and I could spend the entire day together. It was Tuesday April 25, 1967 (a school day), and my dad talked more about hockey during the drive to Toronto than he ever had before. “That Lonnie Rower, he’s one hell of a goal-tender, eh?” he whistled, trying to act knowledgeable. I knew he was talking about Johnny Bower, but I didn’t bother to correct him. Hearing him talk about the Leafs was enough to make me the happiest boy on the planet.
Maple Leaf Gardens, in photographs, is breathtaking, but the sight of the historic building in person raised goose bumps on my arms. My stomach churned with butterflies as we stood in line on Carlton Street waiting for the great ice palace doors to open. The crowd was filled with a dizzying charge of energy; expectation hung heavy in the air. “Leafs rule!” One guy yelled. “Habs in five!” another man barked. A small argument ensued and the men had to be restrained by friends. I thought I was a fanatic, but in Toronto, I quickly learned, hockey was a religion.
When the doors finally opened, after what seemed like an eternity, we were pushed in by the force of the overzealous crowd. Once inside, my senses were peppered with a mélange of odours; the smell of hotdogs, popcorn and cotton candy filled my nostrils. I was overwhelmed, excited and, I must admit, a little scared. Dad, sensing my anxiety, placed a hand firmly on my shoulder and guided me through the maze of people. After a few confusing moments, and a short tour of the Gardens, we were pointed to our seats by an usher. We were in the greys, directly behind the penalty box, near the top of the historic building. Not the best seats in the house, but we could have been up in the press box for all I cared, we were there, and that’s all that mattered.
The crowd was buzzing when the puck finally dropped to open game three in the best of seven series. Tim Horton took a penalty for interference in the early minutes. Montreal scored a quick power play goal. I was on the edge of my seat. The Canadiens took a penalty before the period was over, and the Leafs came back with a power play goal of their own. I leapt out of my seat along with nearly sixteen thousand other fans and cheered at the top of my lungs. I turned and, to my surprise, found my dad standing with his fist in the air cheering along with the rest of us. When he caught me looking at him, he sat down, adjusted his shirt collar and squirmed in his seat, looking a little self-conscious.
The game proved to be all and more than I could have ever dreamed. Toronto moved ahead in the second period and held the lead until Montreal tied it up in the dying seconds. The third period kept the full house clinging to their programs and cheering each time the leafs touched the puck. After three periods of play, the teams were tied at two goals apiece. The first overtime solved nothing, with no scoring and no penalties. Excitement was at a fevered pitch. The game was nearing the halfway mark in the second overtime period when Bob Pulford took a pass from Pete Stemkowski and slipped a shot past Montreal goaltender Rogie Vachon. The crowd erupted. I sprang from my seat. It was over. The Leafs had won.
I will never forget the look on my dad’s face when that puck went into the net. His usual stone expression melted into a huge smile. He cheered and grabbed hold of my arm, and we celebrated as Toronto took a one game lead in the series (which they eventually won 4 games to 2). Dad talked about the win all the way home. “We’re gonna win the cup for sure, boy,” he repeated at least a half dozen times, slapping my knee. And we did win the cup.
Dad and I never had the opportunity to attend another game together. We did, however, spend countless Saturday nights in front of the television, me cheering on the boys in blue and white, him reading the paper and pretending to ignore the game.