Back in the mid-1970s, when I was about seven or eight years old, I built a crystal radio set. The radio came in a kit, and I got it as a gift, I think probably for my birthday. Building the radio was fun, and I learned a little bit about electronics and how radios work; really just enough to whet my already substantial appetite for any kind of technology. It was cool fitting the pieces together and actually using a piece of technology that I built with my own two hands (thanks to heavily scripted and almost entirely idiot-proof instructions in the Radio Shack kit). In my mind’s eye, I can still see the little dark green box made of transparent plastic (all the better to see the resistors, capacitors and such).
Even more fun than that, though, was listening to the radio at night when I went to bed. Once tucked away under the covers, I would pop the (one) greyish, ugly and bulky earphone into my ear and tune in whatever I could find on the AM dial (man would the kids today, with their fancy noise-cancelling iPod earbuds and 80 GB mp3 capacity be shocked by this whole concept). I learned that Elvis had died listening to my crystal radio. [ed. note: for clarity, Elvis died on the toilet – my radio was nowhere near him at the time. I learned about the King’s unfortunate demise while I was listening to the set; that’s what I meant to say. ]
Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, there were two things that I listened to on that crystal radio whenever possible: the first was Detroit Tigers baseball (AM 760, WJR out of Detroit – my favourite players were Al Kaline, Norm Cash, then Ron Leflore and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych) with Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey; and the second was any hockey broadcast I could convince the fragile little set to receive, in the following (descending) order of priority:
- Windsor Spitfires. I first remember seeing the Spits when they were a Junior “A” team in the Southern Ontario Junior A league, but from 1975 on, they were a member club in the top-level Ontario Major Junior Hockey League – now known as the OHL. The Spitfires were the first team I ever followed as a fan. I don’t remember the name of the fellow who broadcast the games, but they were on CKWW (AM 580 ? CKLW 800?), right there in the City of Roses). My Dad used to take me to games at the Windsor Arena, which was a decrepit old barn even then (and it’s still in use), but to me it was like walking in to a grand shrine. I remember well climbing the stairs and heading to our seats (usually against the wall at the top of the arena where my Uncle Frank had his season seats) just between the blue line and red on the Spits’ side of centre. I can still remember sitting on the wooden bench that served as our seat, next to my Dad and Uncle, clutching my box of popcorn (inexplicably emblazoned with the cartoon image of a clown, the popcorn tasting like it was made out of the same material as the cardboard packaging) and a wax cup with eight ounces of seventy percent water, twenty percent ice and ten percent Coke. I always loved it when – unaided by any Jumbotron, any blaring music, or (worse yet) any roving “game host” or mascot, mind you – the crowd would spontaneously get behind the Spits as they pushed for a goal. It seemed to my seven year old ears that the iron girders holding the roof up would lift right off as people shouted as one, “Go Spits Go!”, and the chant would build and roll around the building, growing louder and more urgent. It was the kind of thrill you only ever experience as a kid.
- Toronto Maple Leafs – I had a giant Dave Keon poster that I got for free from Coca-Cola, I think, with a cheesy painting of Keon and his ridiculous mid-70s hair and moustache combo. The poster stayed affixed to the wall even when Keon bolted the Leafs for the Minnesota Fighting Saints (and, latterly, the Hartford Whalers) of the fledgling WHA. Keon was, in my world, indisputably the greatest hockey player of all time. My brother had a similar poster from the same promotion on his wall depicting Yvan “Roadrunner” Cournoyer of the Montreal Candiens. At times, we didn’t get along all that well when we were growing up. My undying devotion to Keon gradually shifted to Doug Favell, because (poster notwithstanding) Keon left the Leafs and there weren’t a lot of Minnesota Fighting Saints games on Windsor radio and TV. When I wrote to Favell he wrote back – well, at least somebody stuffed a team picture (colour! autographed!) into the envelope, which had the pre-printed return address of 60 Carlton St, Toronto Ontario on it (no postal code, this was long before that). In my mind, holding on to that picture, I could see Favell sitting with his pads on in front of his locker in the Leaf dressing room, maybe between periods of a game with the Rangers, sweat dripping from his brow as he prepared to go out and finish the game – and carefully sliding the team picture, my team picture, into the manilla envelope then writing my name on the front and licking the glue on the flap to seal it shut. I loved that team picture. Even in my teens, when I realized that the Leafs had once traded Bernie Parent to get Favell, I couldn’t be mad at the guy.
- Detroit Red Wings – I didn’t like the Wings as a kid; it was hard to hate them because they were so terrible – even when compared to mid-70s Maple Leaf standards, which is really saying something. I remember that the games were broadcast by Bruce Martin (play by play), with Sid Abel doing the colour commentary. It was difficult to conceive of Abel as the incredibly awesome former player that he was, because it was somewhat evident that he had played the game a long time without a helmet – he had difficulties, for example, conjugating the verb “to be”. Whenever I think of Sid, I can hear him in my head saying, “Well, Bruce, Ogrodnick are not scoring enough goals…”
The reason I mention all of this is that I listened to the third period of last night’s Leafs/Flyers game …on the radio. Spouse and I were in the car driving back from a trip out to the (soon to be) Juniorvanian countryside. It was absolutely thrilling; it’s been a long time since I listened to a hockey game rather than watching on the tube, but I was absolutely gripped by the excitement.
Weeks ago, I had stated my preference unequivocally: I wanted my beloved Leafs to fail miserably and often, spectacularly if necessary but not necessarily spectactularly, so that the team would get a decent draft choice and Leaf fans could look forward to a brighter future with some excellent young talent. I was so convinced that this was and is the best strategy that I was advocating for Andrew Raycroft as starting goaltender for the rest of the year. Just to make sure, I further wanted to send him out there without a stick, possibly without a cup, and wearing DARK sunglasses.
Last night’s game, though, turned out to be one of those nights that makes you remember why you follow professional sports. The buzz going into the game was all about the “must win” nature of this game (and tonight’s rematch in Philly) for the Leafs, who sat eight points out of a playoff spot (currently occupied by the Flyers) with twelve games remaining to play. The Flyers also had a game in hand. Now truthfully, as James Mirtle has pointed out, it’s already all over for the Leafs. Intellectually, I know – and knew – that they can’t qualify for the playoffs, because they’re not capable of winning enough games to finish out the year. As I pointed out, my spirit is resigned to not wanting them to do so. Still, as a fan of the team, until you’re incontrovertibly mathematically eliminated, there is this little irrational voice that claims to be hope in the back of your head. I didn’t see the early part of last night’s game (Spouse and I were running new-house related errands), but the game was on my mind throughout our running about and I was pleased when we were finished with the errands and decided to stop in for some pub grub. It was the second period, and the TVs were on in the pub we chose, and quite a crowd was gathered to watch the proceedings unfold. It was clear from what the announcers were saying on TSN that the Leafs had been all over the Flyers early, but the second period ended with the Buds down 0-2, despite my fellow patrons’ vocal support of the Torontonians.
Just as we finished our dinner and stood up to head home, Daniel Briere scored for the Flyers. The goal came about a minute into the 3rd period. I actually turned to Spouse and said, “Good, that’s it. They’re dead. They’re done. They can’t make the playoffs, and now we can just concentrate on getting a decent draft choice.” And we headed out the door to the car for the drive home.
Out of curiosity, more than anything else, I forced Spouse to leave the radio tuned to 640 for the broadcast of the game, even though there was an ungodly amount of static and it was hard to listen to the damn thing at times. Something happened in that third period, though. Spouse and I were chatting about something else entirely when Mats Sundin scored to make it 3-1. A few minutes went by, and we were still talking about other things when I heard Sundin win a faceoff and Pavel Kubina scored to make it 3-2. There were still a few minutes left in the game and you could hear the crowd at the ACC screaming and shouting, willing the Leafs to tie the game. Spouse noticed that I had become quiet. I was now listening intently to the play as we drove along.
“I thought you wanted them to lose?” she asked.
“I do. But it’s 3-2 late in the game. Maybe I don’t want them to lose. I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?”
I had to think about it for a minute, but the best I could come up with is to say, “It’s complicated, being a Leafs fan.” When you have something like 35 years invested in rooting for your team (well, when the Spitfires aren’t playing, anyway), even though they’ve never really won anything of any note, and it’s 3-2 with about five minutes to go – you can’t stop cheering for them.
We sat in hushed silence listening to the ebb and flow of the play on the radio, willing the Leafs to clear their zone, wishing for the puck to go over the Flyer blue line, praying for a shot, urgently needing to hear Dennis Beyak scream, “He shoots….he scores!” With the crowd at the Air Canada Centre chanting, hooting and hollering, I was transported back to those nights lying in bed as a kid with the earphone stuck in my ear and wishing for an Ernie Godden goal and a Spitfires comeback (alright, I’m cheating a bit here, Godden’s days a Spitfire were a couple of years after I was listening to the games on the crystal radio. But I couldn’t write a posting about the Spitfires without mentioning him. I was likely cheering for guys like Behn Wilson back then). With three and a half minutes to go, Jeremy Williams (a rookie, where the hell has HE been all year?) scored to tie the game and it was clear, even over the radio, that the entire arena was just going absolutely batshit insane. The comeback was complete; but the Leafs needed one to win it now.
My fingernails dug into my palms and I pursed my lips tight as Philadelphia drew a penalty with less than two minutes to go and the Leafs pulled the goalie while tied in regulation time trying to get the winner. This was courageous stuff; with Philly shorthanded and therefore able to ice the puck, the Flyers need not worry about launching a clearing attempt at the unattended Leaf net. In my mind, I tried to resolve whether or not the numerical advantage of a 6 on 4 attack made up for the tactical advantage surrendered to the Philadelphians in such a situation. For the entire minute and 55 seconds of that power play, I couldn’t have concentrated any harder on following the actions on the ice as described to me by Dennis Beyak. I was breathing shallowly, and my heart was beating fast. Again, I was wishing, urging and hoping for a goal. Beyak’s voice rose and fell, and he sang the game to me like an epic poem might have been sung in ancient times – a poem about heroic victories in long ago wars. Beyak’s cadence assumed a palpable urgency, and one could sense the anticipation and tension throughout Leaf Nation as, with about a minute to go, the Leafs turned up ice and mounted an attack in the Philadelphia zone. Opportunities were now obviously limited by the available time, and the hour of decision was upon us. Beyak said that the puck was crossing the Philadephia zone. Now it was on Ponikarovsky’s stick. Pony gathered the puck up and set for a shot. The Flyers’ netminder Biron was down. The shot was taken – an incredible save by Biron! Still, the Leafs scrambled madly for the puck, which must now have been caroming around the Flyers zone like a pinball on crystal meth. I held my breath and waited in agony, as the seconds ticked down, for the winning goal to be scored.
It didn’t come.
The game finished tied, and went into overtime, where the Leafs won it on a goal by Pavel Kubina. The truth of the matter is that the result didn’t change anything. The Leafs had no chance of making the playoffs before this game had started, and they still don’t have a chance of making the playoffs. Even if they had gained two points on the Flyers by scoring in regulation, instead of just one (as a result of the Flyers getting the point for an overtime loss), they had no chance of making the playoffs.
But it didn’t matter to me last night. It was so thrilling listening to the end of that game. I remembered hating on the Flyers so much in the mid-70s; I remembered Rick MacLeish and Reggie Leach scoring at will (or so it seemed) on my team whenever they met in the playoffs, and I remembered the awful things that the Flyers did to Borje Salming. I remembered losing to them every time. I remembered the Leafs being eliminated from the playoffs just a few years ago in a humiliating lopsided loss. I hated the Flyers, and I cheered out loud in the car when Kubina scored, because I was happy the Leafs won a close, thrilling, “meaningful” game. I didn’t care that my brain told me it would be “better” if they just lost and got no points.
That is what following professional sports is all about.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go see if I can get tonight’s Sptifires game on a webcast, because I seem to have misplaced my little green crystal radio set.