Trying to measure a moment: Leafs/Flyers March 11th, 2008

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 90px-Old_spitfires_logoSouthern 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.

By junior

Guitar owner and silly person.

16 comments

  1. I think there’s a few parallels that can be drawn between baseball and hockey — the hope that starts each new season, the scramble for playoff positioning at the close, the storied rivalries. There’s passion that baffles outsiders — those who haven’t had the opportunity to try the game — there’s dreams of hallowed grounds and emotional shifts so strong it can make you physically sick and giddy.

    I have certain images, sounds, smells, etc. seared into my memory so strongly that recalling them is to risk certain reversion to earlier behaviors and thoughts. The crackle of AM, tinny fanfare and rapid-fire announcements all consipire to make me small again.

  2. To this day, I still prefer to listen to a baseball game on the radio over watching it on TV – World Series and playoffs excepted, of course.

    It always causes me difficulties, explaining my loyalties to the Tigers (baseball) and Maple Leafs (hockey). Growing up in Windsor in the early 70s, there were no Blue Jays yet; my introduction to baseball was Al Kaline, Bill Freehan and Norm Cash, as told to me by Ernie Harwell and Paul Carey. Tiger Stadium became a mythical place for me, and I haven’t been to a Tigers game since they moved to Comerica Park (partly because I’ve lost my love for baseball).

    The Maple Leafs were a natural obsession for me; my Dad had collected the players’ photos that came with a certain brand of honey as a kid, and he made it clear that if I wanted to live in the house, I would root for the guys with the blue shirts.

    Yet there’s more than nostalgia to it – I really mean it that listening to the game on the radio last night brought all those things back to me in an instant, but the feeling is more than just that – it’s something tribal…

  3. Reading your narrative about your memories of the crystal radio set and hockey broadcasts just transported me back in time with the same memories. My dad and I built one from scratch (he was knowledgeable in those things as you know) and I would listen to it at night with my little pillow speaker. The only station I could get was the local CBC station but that was the station that carried the Leafs on Saturday night and introduced me to the wonderful magical world of hockey as described by the incomparable Foster Hewitt. In any close game I willed Ted Kennedy, Tod Sloan and, my favorite, Sid Smith to get on the ice and get us the goal we needed – and in those days, they rarely let me down. You have brought back many great memories and you have described exactly how I felt as I was drawn into this world of my imagination and undying loyalty to my beloved Leafs. That is precisely why I gave you that crystal radio kit – I hoped you would somehow have similar wonderful experiences with it.
    One of my greatest thrills in recent years was the unexpected surprise of meeting Sid Smith at the Air Canada Centre where he was signing autographs before a Leaf game. Sadly he has since passed away but I am so glad I got to meet him although I probably made a fool of myself by bubbling like a 12 year old when I was talking to him. It sure brought back memories as we talked briefly about the Leafs from those long ago radio days. I actually felt giddy for the rest of the evening as I couldn’t get over my good luck! I have since framed the autographed picture I got that night – my old one from the 50’s is a little worn out!
    I know how you feel about ingrained loyalties/hates to sports teams. I still hate the Red Wings because when they came on TV in the early 1950’s, the between periods commentator was the Publicity Director Fred Huber who I found to be a “homer” and obnoxious to me, a Leaf fan. Also Al Nagler was the radio play by play man and he was a hopeless homer as well as a hopeless broadcaster.
    I also remember listening to the Tigers on the radio in the 1940’s. One particular game against the Red Sox stands out in my memory (for some reason, I think Bobby Doerr played second base for the Red Sox then) but I have no idea why it sticks out in my mind other than to say that listening to the ball game on the radio just seemed to fit with sitting in the backyard on a warm summer day with my Dad and Grandfather. It just seemed to be the way one should spend such an afternoon.
    I have also been a Tiger fan since that time and, with some difficulty, have also carved out some space in my heart for the Blue Jays. I too have not followed baseball much since the last strike in the mid-90’s I think.
    Anyway, thanks for the trip down memory lane. It is neat to know that we shared exactly the same feelings but a generation apart.
    PS When I went to the Windsor Arena as a kid, it was to see the first edition of the Windsor Spitfires with my Dad. They folded about 1950 I think and my visits to the “barn” were then to see the Windsor Bulldogs Senior A hockey team with Gord Haidy, Bobby Brown and even Joe Klukay after his NHL career.

  4. wow! Reading the post and “thegeez’s” comments gave me goose bumps. It is so cool that you guys had almost the exact same experience one generation apart!! I guess you really ARE related!!!

  5. Wow! That essay kind of deserves its own posting.

    As you know, your number two son and I chased Sid Smith around the ACC one night, hoping to corner him outside the alumni lounge and get an autograph for you. I am glad you got a chance to meet him too, because we were sorely dejected walking out of there empty handed that night. As an aside, every time I went to class in Sid Smith hall at U of T, I thought of your Leaf hero.

    I remember you taking me to see a Windsor Warlocks lacrosse game at the Arena one year too; I have two lingering memories from that game: (1) it was very VERY hot inside the arena; and (2) that game is some kind of violent – guys hitting each other with their sticks and bowling each other over. I will post another day about my one other greatest Windsor Arena memory of all time – no hints right now.

    Did I get it right? Were the Spits on CKWW or CKLW? Do you remember the play-by-play guy’s name? I Googled a bit earlier tonight but came up empty.

    P.S. Your memory about the Spits’ history is pretty good, according to wikipedia.

  6. Windsor Arena greatest memory – does the Memorial Cup and Red Storey come close?
    I think the Spits were on CKWW and I can’t remember the broadcaster but I think his first name was Dave. Does that help?

  7. Red Storey and the Memorial Cup is close – but not the trip I’m thinking of.

    I seem to remember the guy’s name being Dave too – and my “Dave” notion was independent of yours, which helps me believe it’s accurate. Was it Dave Quinn?

  8. I grew up in Detroit, and saw quite a few Spitfires games at the old barn, when the Junior Wings had the Howe boys. Dave Quinn was the Spits announcer over CKLW AM, one of the better ones IMO.

  9. @Jim:

    You’re right, it was Dave Quinn who did the Spits games. (I actually tracked down the info and reported it in in this post.

    I saw a one or two Junior Wings games myself, at the old Olympia. I remember going to a birthday party that involved a Jr. Wings game and a free Gordie Howe hockey stick. I don’t remember the kid’s name, but I remember the stuff that I got at his party!

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