The General and Norte have both written about Maple Leaf Gardens recently; meanwhile Sean is in the middle of a series consisting of a Clark¹ of posts concerning the greatness that was the Man from Kelvington. A discussion has been raging over at PPP about the proper placement of Mats Sundin in the Maple Leaf pantheon. My own view on this last issue is that the most obvious historical parallel to Sundin is Frank Mahovlich, another great player Leaf fans were famously hesitant to fully embrace – both were (relatively speaking) large men with long strides that many people wrongly perceived as slow, uninvolved or lazy; both had plenty of drive, offensive talent and finish around the net; and both men were men of class and character, quiet leaders who were not prone to dropping the gloves.
Right now, I am not liking Mats Sundin or Frank Mahovlich very much, because they are both getting in the way of my own Maple Leaf Gardens story. So here it is: I played hockey at Maple Leaf Gardens – once.
No, my name is not George Abbott.
In the fall of 1992, I was living the life of a young man in his mid-twenties in the City of Toronto. I was single; not necessarily by choice, but through circumstance, most notably the circumstance that no girls of the female persuasion wanted to spend much time talking to me. I was starting to earn a little money after finishing years of school as a result of a ridiculously time-consuming desk job that I had. With a little extra spending money in my pockets and not a hope in hell of ever spending any of that money on a date, I did what any one of you would have done: I dedicated my life to s becoming the most accomplished journeyman beer-league hockey player that ever was.
First, a word on my talent. I had none. My skating style, it must be said, left one the residual impression of an epileptic man with his shoes on fire attempting to escape a pack of attacking dogs. As far as puck-handling skills, what I lacked in razzle, I was doubly bereft of dazzle. I was (and still am) entirely unable to execute a slap shot. On the rare occasions that I happened to find myself, through sheer coincidence, at the same end of the ice as the puck, my lone offensive weapon was a wrist shot whose principal virtue was the sheer mystery surrounding the possible trajectory of the puck upon its departure from the profoundly illegal curve on my stick blade. I know that you dismiss this self-deprecating assessment of my prowess; I sense you wondering how it is possible that I, the startlingly awesome Junior, could be such an endless wellspring of suck in any area of worthy endeavour. Well, it’s true. On one occasion, I found myself standing in the opposition goaler’s crease with the puck on my stick. Every other player on the ice, including the opposing goaltender, had been knocked to the ice, I believe as a result of a series of brief and highly localized earthquakes. Situated approximately two and a half feet from the goal line, without a single opposing player between myself and the yawning cage, I quickly assessed the situation. There was no one available to pass to, so that option was out. I was going to have to take a shot. The aforementioned opposition goalie was not only not blocking my target, but far out of his crease: he was in the corner, flat on his back and without his stick. In future years, this would come to be known by hockey fans around the world as the “Andrew Raycroft” position. The unfortunate goaler’s paddle lay on the ice between myself and the abandoned cage, which meant that I was going to have to raise the puck at least a half an inch if I was going to deposit the biscuit in the basket. Over the course of approximately the next six or seven minutes, I lined up the shot much like Tiger Woods would assess a putt on the 17th green at Augusta. I addressed the puck lying motionless at my feet and thought, “top shelf, where they keep the peanut butter”. Like all great snipers, I inhaled, closed my eyes, and unleashed my most fearsome wrister, which rose up from the ice like a wounded goose taking flight. The shot wobbled skywards at an 82-degree angle, sailed high over the crossbar and, in a slow and graceful arc drifted over the glass at the end of the rink, plonking carelessly to the floor somewhere near a startled teenager with a six-year old hot dog he’d just purchased from the concession stand.
So I wasn’t what you would call a conventional talent. I was a grinder, a fourth-line scrub with plenty of heart and the most aggressively odiferous hockey equipment you will ever have the supreme misfortune to smell. What I did have to offer the discerning rec-league general manager looking to assemble a team was a fistful of cash and my rock-solid and highly believable commitment to actually show up for games, given that there was so much time that I wasn’t spending with my non-existent girlfriend, not to mention the extreme improbability of that situation changing at any time in the future.
I played with a lot of teams: guys that I worked with, guys that I had gone to school with, friends of friends; I even joined one team that was composed entirely of complete strangers: we were the “unaffiliated individuals” of Chesswood D-division men’s summer league hockey, bound together by nothing at all and unified by our complete and utter lack of any knowledge about one another. It is the only hockey team I’ve ever seen whose uniforms featured nametags on the front rather than surnames across the shoulders. In all, I played with my various squads something like five times a week on a regular basis, with the occasional additional afternoon game of pickup or morning shinny thrown in.
One of the guys I played with knew a group of guys from the Kitchener-Waterloo/Cambridge area, many of whom had been playing sports of one kind or another with and against each other since two days before God’s parents were born. The KW/Cambridge group had a tradition of getting together a game of shinny once a year at a special location, and one of those guys knew a guy who knew a guy who once saw a guy that knew a guy who had heard of a person that worked in some capacity at Maple Leaf Gardens. In those days, apparently, the Leafs only rented out the ice in the old barn to the public one or two weekends a year for reasons that were explained to me at time and which i am now going to identify, perhaps even correctly, as having to do with the extreme demand upon the ice and building staff. Whatever the reality of the situation, as a result of the very close ties between this KW/Cambridge group and MLG, they managed to get one of the coveted slots. A few short weeks’ worth of begging, car washing, harassing telephone calls and tearful tantrums later, my buddy and I were invited to join them on the fateful afternoon.
When the day finally came, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face all day. It started when I packed my equipment up, marking the only time in history that any human being exhibited any signs of pleasure or contentment whatsoever while situated within thirty yards of my fetid gear. As I collected my rank paraphenalia and zipped it into my bag, Paul Morris’ voice filled my head, announcing the fifth of my goals as the fans in the greys rose to their feet in full-throated yell. I drove to the rink in a virtual fog; in my mind, I was a pro, it was Saturday afternoon, and I was driving down to the Gardens – the hallowed ground – to do battle not with a bunch of out-of-shape beer drinkers, but rather as a member of my beloved Leafs facing off against the hated Detroit Red Wings. I paid the twenty bucks to park at a lot on Carlton street within sight of MLG because I wanted to savour the moment of throwing my bag over my shoulder, sticks in hand, and walking down the sidewalk toward the front door at 60 Carlton.
As I have written elsewhere, I have been a Leafs fan all my life, and these were heady times for the Blue and White: Harold Ballard was (and still is, to the best of my knowledge) dead; Wendel Clark was finally taking to the ice on a regular basis, having triumphed over a series of knee injuries, back woes, and international communism; and Steve Stavro, the owner of the club, was trying to restore some semblance of respectability to the storied franchise by attempting to win hockey games – he did this by continuing to sell groceries and count his money, staying out of the fucking way of the smart hockey people he’d hired to take care of his hockey team. In January of that year, Cliff Fletcher had proved to everyone in the world that Doug Risebrough is an idiot, bringing “Killer” Gilmour, Ric Nattress, Jamie Macoun, Rick Wamsley and Kent Manderville to the Leafs for a bag of pucks and a box of paperclips. Later that year, the Leafs would reach the Conference Finals only to lose Game 7 when some guy named Gretzky played the greatest game of his life and managed to bank a puck in from behind the net off a startled Dave Ellet’s skate. As I said, I’ve been a Leafs fan all my life, and I began following the team as a kid growing up in Windsor, Ontario, idolizing Dave Keon, Darryl Sittler, Borje Salming and Lanny McDonald from a distance. There was no one to idolize in the early 80’s, so I spent that time pretending that the NHL didn’t exist and that the New York Islanders were winning Stanley Cups in a made-for-TV movie that was produced for entertainment purposes only. In later years, I attended university in Hogtown, and spent four years sneaking down to the Gardens whenever possible on Saturday night, waiting ’til the game had begun and then trying to find a scalper with a surplus single ticket that I could get for below cost. I saw a lot of games from the blues at the south end of the rink that way, and every time I walked into that building I was a kid again – the pictures lining the wall in the corridors and beside the escalators were of the people and places I had read about and dreamed about in books and magazines throughout my life. The place just sweat history like Raj Binder in a remake of Cool Hand Luke.
I was thinking about all of these things as I strode along the sidewalk, chills racing up and down my spine, staring at the Marquee on the front of the building and striding – for the first and only time in my life – through the door and into Maple Leaf Gardens as a player. Some of the guys were in the front lobby awaiting our MLG hosts to arrive and escort us to the changing room. I dropped my gear to the floor and we all tried to act casual, some guys sipping coffee, while we all tried not to be detected as we excitedly looked around. There was a passageway to the gold seats right in the centre of the south end of the rink through which you could see to the ice surface; only some of the lights were on, so the great shrine was half-darkened. The ice was pristine, and the building empty, but in my mind the nets were not standing cold and blue in dusky and cavernous silence, they were the centre of a warm, yellow TV-lit storm as a goal-mouth scramble unfolded in my mind. With visions of my arms upraised over an overtime winner and my Maple Leaf teammates joyously patting me on the helmet, sticks upraised, we followed our guide to the dressing room – alas, not the room used by my heroes, but another room behind the visitors bench that I believe was once used as the visitors’ dressing room. As we all dressed hurriedly, someone wise and full of forethought reminded us that once we got on the ice we ought not succumb to temptation and start flicking pucks high into the empty stands, because the stands were – and would remain – empty, so we’d run out of pucks, which would kind of be an incredibly stupid reason to delay our game at Maple Leaf Gardens.
The time came, and we strode out of the room, through the tunnel and up the gently sloping ramp toward the bench, where we emerged among the gold seats. In an instant, I had leapt through the open door and began skating as fast as I could across the surface. In my head, the organ was churning, the fans were chanting, and it was Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. One look at the rest of the guys on the ice confirmed for me that they were all thinking the exact same thing. Incredibly, cameras emerged from the hidden recesses of hockey pants, though these are not (to my knowledge) manufactured in any configuration that includes pockets. Flashes popped and guys good-naturedly jostled with one another to have their picture taken facing off with their buddy over the famous blue Leaf at centre ice.
Every one of us flipped a puck up over the boards and into the stands.
Before long, we tossed our sticks in a pile at centre ice. Teams were chosen by one fellow who was kind of the organizey guy of us all by randomly distributing lumber towards each end of the rink. I can’t remember if I was on the “dark” or “white” team, but I do know that as the game got under way, I took my place on the Leaf (!) bench and waited for my first shift.
I will never forget the rush of excitement I felt as the lines rolled over once and I knew that my turn was coming. The play seemed to scramble back and forth interminably; finally, the second-line left winger, who I had the honour and duty of replacing on the ice, could no longer get any oxygen and decided (after a short six-minute shift) that he ought to seek re-inforcements. As he staggered toward the bench like a zombie in molasses, I took a deep breath and tried to stop shaking with excitement. I stood up and casually hopped over the boards.
In my excitement and haste, I apparently forgot to lift my trailing foot quite high enough in the air. The toe of my right skate thumped off the top of the boards and I fell straight down onto the ice in a heap. I remember absolutely nothing else about my first shift on the ice.
I do know that at one point in the game, the puck was on my stick in the high slot (it is possible that many of the players were drinking heavily before the game – I do not know how otherwise to explain the occurrence of this anomalous circumstance). Drawing on my previous shooting experience, I closed my eyes much tighter than before and unleashed a Wendelesque laser beam that clanged off the iron behind the opposing netminder and came out the other side. I remember that I found the ice surface quite large, especially when it was time to backcheck – in this way, my style of play somewhat presaged that of Sergei Berezin. I remember sitting hunched over on the bench, with one glove draped over the top of the boards and the other gripping the shaft of my stick, sweat rolling down from my forehead, then dripping from the tip of my nose on to the rubber mats at our feet and thinking about how the sweat from my brow was mingling on the floor with the sweat of my heroes. Really, I’m not kidding around here; I actually had that thought as I was sitting watching the game and trying not to cough up a lung.
The one other thing I remember about the game is a defensive zone scramble along the left wing side. This is where untalented defensive-minded fourth line muckers such as myself earn our bread and butter. I skated determinedly in to the fray from my defensive station along the boards. The puck was loose but being contested by one of my opponents near the faceoff dot. As I strode toward the loose puck, I saw that I would get there before the attacker. I also saw that I was going to need to find an escape route quickly, because he was a much larger person than myself, and (it almost doesn’t bear mentioning) a much better player. I collected the puck and began turning to my right, towards the boards, trying to curl around quickly and lead a rush back up ice. As I turned around and began heading back up ice, I noticed another attacker bearing down on me quickly, pinching me towards the boards. I kept skating, fading to my left in hopes of squeezing between my tormentor and the boards, then finding myself with an open path to the offensive zone. Too late, I realized that it was not to be. My attacker closed on me quickly, curled alongside me and leaned forward, lunging for the puck on my stick. I attempted to duck under his outstretched arm and continue up the left wing boards. It didn’t work and with a crunch, I hit the boards. My opponent’s upper arm hit me in the helmet, and my neck was forced to tilt my head forward and to the left. With a thud, I cracked my forehead off the top of the yellow plastic dasher, the surface at the top of the boards where it joins with the glass. The two of us crumpled to the ice together in a tangle of arms, legs and no puck; it had bounced away – fortuitously, to one of my teammates who could actually skate, and my side began an attack up ice. As I rose to my feet, I felt a warm fluid over my left eyebrow; I removed my glove, reached up and wiped at my forehead with my bare right hand. As I drew my hand away and started to skate up ice to follow the attack, I caught a glimpse of blood on my fingers. A quick glimpse at the dasher board confirmed that there was a little bloodstain there from the fresh wound to my coconut.
I circled to the bench. As I approached, i caught a glimpse of my reflection in the glass at the top of the boards. The smile on my face was about six feet wide.
¹I suggest that from here on in, Leaf fans and members of the Barilkosphere use the term “Clark” as a grouping noun to refer to “seventeen” of anything.