My Stairway to Heaven

Mike AllderContributor IJanuary 31, 2009

Wood Street was the street right behind the Maple Leaf Gardens. Leaf coaches, a few players would park their cars along the Gardens back wall during the day. By late morning on game days, large trucks with mobile studios would take over and would stretch almost the whole length outside Garden's north wall.

Hundreds of feet of electrical cables covered with boards so pedestrians would not trip would be strewn along the sidewalk. On Saturday nights and playoff games the CBC's Hockey Night in Canada trucks dominated this area. On most weekday nights, it would usually be a contracted company that would provide the video feed for the likes of TSN in Canada or ESPN in the States.

The networks would have their own commentators and play by play crews within the building but the game video, the replays and interviews were all controlled on Wood Street by an army of technicians flipping switches inside those large trailers.

On warm nights usually in the early fall or spring you could glance in an open door and view the mission control like atmosphere.

The majority of times I went to the Gardens I entered through the Wood Street west entrance. After walking the 10 minute walk from the Queens Park parking lot, usually in the frigid winter temps, the Wood Street doors was the fastest and least crowded way to enter the Maple Leaf Gardens.

The only escalators were easily accessible to patrons who entered through the main entrances at the south side on Carlton Street. I would have had to walk down the length of the Gardens weaving my way through the narrow Gold sections corridor which always was crowded with fans milling about looking at the gallery of old photos on the walls.

I would then have to slowly inch my way onto one of two narrow single step escalators and slowly be whisked up to the Grey sections.

This little jaunt for sure would add at least ten minutes before I could expect to be in my seat or close to it. I always ran up the stairs just inside the Wood Street doors, I never walked I always ran up taking two and sometimes three steps at a time.

On many occasions, I clocked the time from when I entered the Gardens until I was actually at my seat, on a good night I would take less than a minute.

I would park my car at Queens Park, walk quickly through the “meat hook” then cross Bay Street, Yonge Street, walk along Wood Street and enter through the west doors and be in my seat within 10 minutes. If I carpooled with Jim or another friend the trip would double to 20 minutes.

I never carpooled with Paul and I always met him at our seats. After the games I always walked back to the car at a more leisurely pace than when I had arrived.

I always thought of that climb up those wide grey concrete staircases at the Gardens as my own little “Stairway to Heaven”. My heart would be pounding by the time I reached the top but I never gasped to catch my breath. Depending on the time I arrived I would always try to catch a bit of the pregame skate. It always fascinated me how effortless the players seemed to shoot the puck.

I always said that if I was ever granted three wishes by a genie in a bottle then one of my wishes would be to shoot the puck like the pro’s. Helmetless players from both teams just skating around, their hair flying in the breeze from the speedy pregame skate.

The players shooting scores of pucks sometimes two or three at the same time by the hapless goalie that would stand in the net like a pylon. Dozens of pucks would hit the crossbars and deflect into the seats at either end only to be attacked by fans eager for a real game memento.

A few lucky kids sitting near the benches wearing Leaf jerseys leaning over to try and catch a player’s attention hoping to get another autograph added on to their Sharpie stained jersey.

Once the horn blew then the players gradually exited to the dressing rooms, a crew would come out and pick up the pucks and scrape along the dashers at the bottom of the boards while the Zamboni would flood the ice before the game.

At this time I would usually go back into the corridor to buy a coffee which was usually at its freshest prior to the game. Long time fans knew never to buy a Gardens hot dog until well into the first intermission since rumor had it that when hot dogs were remaining from a previous event they were just heated up again and sold early at the next home game.

I never bought programs because they were nothing more than over priced stale articles and advertising, although a program does make a great souvenir of one’s first visit.

The northwest stairwells also provided us the opportunity to watch Coaches Corner during the first intermission on Saturday nights. We would run down the stairs to the street level and watch the television suspended from the ceiling just inside the Wood Street doors.

By far this area was the least crowded spot to watch a television at the Gardens. Other than watching Don Cherry I never really made an effort to watch the intermissions even though televisions were on all the levels.

The corridors were just too crowded.

Fans would be trying to get to the washroom, guys lucky enough just to walk in and take a piss then walk out. Women having to wait in a lineup that stretched into the corridor lasting for the whole fifteen minute intermission. 

People trying to watch the highlights their heads all kinked upward glaring at the small television sets with only those close enough able to hear anything from the sets. Fans lining up to use the pay phones stationed under those blaring televisions, the phone in one ear, a finger in the other struggling to hear anything on the other end.

Concession lineups were always long with workers using scarps of cardboard to tally up totals. I never saw a cash register or even a calculator to make their jobs a little easier. 

After many years Ontario laws were changed and the Gardens was able to sell beer and glasses of wine during events. Naturally, that just added to the congestion as these popular beverages attracted many more customers to the mobile beer carts strategically positioned in the already crowded corridors.

For myself, intermissions at the Gardens was best spent just sitting in my seat, standing up for an occasional stretch and listening to the organ music or talking with whoever was sitting with me that night. After the game I walked down my “Stairway to Heaven” and out the same Wood Street doors.

I always walked right across the street to avoid ever being hit by a water balloon that could be lobbed from a balcony of the Carlton Inn right beside the Gardens. Water balloons were not a real threat, it happened maybe a handful of times over the years and I was hit once but for some reason I always crossed the street when I left the Gardens and always ran up my “Stairway to Heaven” when I arrived.