It is hard to believe as I write this story that it has been close to a decade since I last walked within hockey’s greatest shrine, Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. It was the thirteenth day of February back in the year 1999 and it was to be the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs played a National Hockey League game in what had been their home since 1931.
I had attended Maple Leaf Gardens hundreds of times over the previous three decades attending everything from Maple Leaf, Marlee and Toro home games to tennis matches, circuses, rock concerts and religious assemblies.
I had seen everything from The Harlem Globetrotters to New Years Eve Rush concerts to elephants at the Vatican of the hockey world. Now sadly the Gardens would close its doors after this final game against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Having shared season tickets for seventeen seasons then coincidentally losing those tickets the year before, I had to find a way to be at this final historic game. It was sure to be the hardest ticket in town and along with planned festivities it would attract the attention of millions of people who had visited the building at one time during almost eighty years of existence.
Just over sixteen thousand would be able to watch the game live and I had to be one of them. I just had to be there. I would be there.
The Gardens is, was and always will be the Vatican of the hockey world. Sure, there will be the arguments from La Belle Province as to the supremacy of the Gardens over the old Montreal Forum but the Gardens was the venue where Foster Hewitt broadcast Saturday night games from an era when radio was the only link to professional hockey and the Toronto Maple Leafs, Canada’s team. Canada’s team was the Toronto Maple Leafs and Canada’s home team arena was Maple Leaf Gardens.
My mission would be simple, or so I thought. Find a person willing to part with their tickets early and make them an offer they could not refuse. It was September when I would begin my quest.
I had put the word out and after a couple weeks I got a call.
The garage owner whose garage performed all the maintenance on my work truck let me know that he had a friend who had four Reds that were less than a dozen rows from the ice. He would be willing to part with them should the price be right. Never one to haggle or bargain I offered three thousand dollars for the four tickets, that would be my only offer, take it or leave it.
He took it.
We agreed that we would meet the following week at the garage and I would bring the cash. The deal went just as planned and although I was three grand lighter in pocket, I had four prime seats for the final game at Maple Leaf Gardens this February.
Now my plan was to put the tickets in a safe place and a month before the big game I would advertise one pair for sale in the Toronto Star for three thousand dollars, that way my two tickets would be free with the exception of my advertising cost. That was my plan.
I thought it was a great plan.
Time quickly passed and before I knew it I was fielding calls from interested fans looking for a great pair of seats. My best offer was $2800 from a lady looking to surprise her husband on his birthday but I refused it, holding out for those three ‘G’ notes instead.
Too bad I never took that offer, I should have but once again my stubbornness was going to cost me, big time.
The historic day was finally here and the city was abuzz with everything going on that day from Carlton Street. The street was blocked off from traffic and huge party tents were erected on Church Street. It was a beautiful sunny day although I remember it being very cold.
I left my Mississauga house at 9 am and headed out early to pick up a case of programs, I wanted to get as many as I could knowing that they would be the supreme collector’s item. I would also attempt to sell the extra pair of tickets I had not yet sold, on the street. I was also looking forward to just spending the whole day with the Grande Old Lady on Carlton Street.
After parking my car I arrived at the Gardens main foyer at about ten o’clock. There were hundreds of people already hanging out on the street and programs were my main focus of attention right now. I had well over three hundred dollars to purchase programs for the many friends that had requested if possible this once in a lifetime souvenir.
“Sorry, one program per person” I was told when I asked for one case of thirty-six programs.
What to do now? I went out on Carlton Street and summoned the help of an Oriental family just happening to be walking by. They could barely understand English but I was able to convince the group of five to each come into the Gardens foyer and purchase five programs after which I gave them twenty bucks for their trouble.
Within a couple hours, programs were sold out and that meant there were actually going to be no programs for the fans attending the game in about eight hours.
Talk about the ultimate piss off.
I was happy though that I was able to get ten individually numbered mementos for myself and I quickly ran back to my car. I hid them in my trunk then I ran back over to Carlton Street.
It was now close to noon and the sun was shining bright. I perched myself on the sunny north side of Carlton about a hundred feet from the subway exit. The crowd was starting to build and the usual familiar scalpers were selling tickets, the best I could gather there was nothing but upper greys available on the street, which made my two Reds ten rows from the ice the premium seats on the street that day.
“Who needs a pair?” I asked passing fans arriving early for tonight’s momentous event.
Many stopped and enquired as to where my seats were but when I requested my now reduced price of two thousand dollars for a pair they just kept walking. Finally a break from a guy who had told me earlier that my tickets were too expensive now held out his hand which now contained a big wad of cash. He was looking to deal so we headed across the street to the Coffee Time.
While walking I asked him if he was a cop and since he said he was not I then asked him for his wallet. He handed me his wallet, no badge, glancing at his licence it looked like he was visiting from North Bay.
We grabbed a table in the coffee shop and I asked him how he wanted his coffee. I returned with two coffees and laid the pair of tickets on the table. He stood up and pulled out a police badge and told me that he was charging me with ticket speculation or ‘scalping’.
I was busted.
I asked him how he could bust me after I had just bought him a coffee. He stood up and tossed a loonie on the table,
“You didn’t buy me a coffee.” he said.
Actually this cop gave me a huge break, instead of taking the tickets off the table and confiscating the pair I was using for myself he told me that if he saw me around on the street before game time he would take all my tickets and arrest me.
He warned me that there were over a dozen undercover cops looking for scalpers around the Gardens today. He wrote me a ticket and said I would have to go to court and would probably be fined. Whatever, I ran out of the coffee shop and over to Wood Street, the street directly behind the Gardens.
It was now walking briskly on Wood Street. I was approached by another guy who actually looked like a cop. He asked me if I still had that pair of Reds for sale and I told him to go to hell. I said I had just got busted by one of his buddies and I was not talking to anybody.
I still had those tickets though.
He explained that he was not a cop but was a football player and played for the Argo’s. He flashed a Grey Cup ring and I explained to him that I go to many sports memorabilia shows and have seen many Grey Cup rings for sale so anybody could buy a Grey Cup ring. And yes I still had the tickets but I was not selling to any cops.
After trying to convince me he was not a cop I told him that we will walk over to Yonge Street, he can spread eagle against the Shoppers Drug Mart.
‘I will frisk you for a badge, ticket book or even a gun, something to prove he was a cop.’ I warned.
He agreed. He also explained that he had only a thousand bucks and that was all he was willing to spend.
It was about four in the afternoon and that grand was looking pretty good right about now yet I could not risk being caught by an undercover cop again and getting arrested.
I still was not convinced as I ran my hands up and down his body looking for any clue as to the true identity of this stranger, much to the amazement of many shoppers just walking by on Yonge Street that afternoon. Perhaps in their minds I appeared to be a cop apprehending a shoplifter.
Still not convinced I told him to walk into the Pizzaville across the street and order me a veggie slice. I told him to leave the thousand bucks under the slice at the counter. I would order him a pepperoni slice and leave the tickets under his slice still refusing to any actual transaction.
We agreed the next time we would see each other would be at the game.
The final score of the game was 6-2 in favour of the Blackhawks. The festivities were memorable as the Leafs tried to equal the final game celebrations of the Montreal Forum. I think every living player that had ever played for the Leafs was paraded out on the ice that night with one big exception, Dave Keon.
My favourite all time Leaf Borje Salming even made the trip from Sweden. It was great to see and brought back so many fond memories for everyone in attendance that night. Doug Gilmour who now played for Chicago even participated in all the hoopla. The game was secondary for me that night; I never really cared about the actual game. For me, what was most important was being in the building that housed so much nostalga and memories one last time.
It was important to be there for the final farewell, to say I was in attendance the night Maple Leaf Gardens would close its doors for good. I had taken a homemade sign to the game that night only the second time I could ever remember doing that. It simply read “Hockey is my religion and I'm in church” I appeared the following day in a coloured crowd shot proudly holding my sign in the Toronto Star.
I found out later that Reuter’s news agency had photographed me and after asking my permission for the pictures release the picture had been picked up by some papers from around the world the next day. So I guess that would be my fifteen minutes of fame.
After the game I made one final gesture, my final farewell to the Carlton Street Cashbox.
I had been sitting in the Reds and I walked up to the Greens over to section seventy. The crowds had dispersed and no one remained, not even the usher. I walked down the staircase to the first row railing, turned around and walked back up.
Once at the top before I exited I turned, I took one more photographic picture in my mind, the lights were not as bright and there was a small tear in my eye. With the exception of a few cleaners I was probably the last fan to leave the seating area that night.
Or at least that will be my story and I am sticking to it.
I saluted a goodbye and reached up to touch the railing of the Greys section ninety, about an arm’s length from where I was now standing. It had been the railing that I had leaned on for seventeen years while I had shared those season tickets. The railing I had slammed in disgust after many, many disappointments, the railing I pretended was my organ while I had tried to keep up with hundreds of intermission interludes.
I had now gone full circle since my first game in ’72 when I sat in that same section seventy of the Greens. I walked out to the concourse, down the narrow escalator past the Ford car on display and back out onto Carlton Street.
I never went back and probably never will.
I literally have hundreds of happy, cherished, unforgettable memories having sat in almost every section at least once over the years. I also attended dozens of games in the standing room area behind the cramped end Reds. The narrow steep end Blues and corner upper Reds were by far the least comfortable seats as I could barely bend my six foot five frame without my knees resting in my mouth.
I remember sitting once by myself although I can’t remember how I got the ticket in the first row behind the Leaf bench against the Washington Capitals. I was shocked at the profanity unleashed towards referees from both players and the coach. I sat also on the rail once in the end Golds, behind the net. Gretzky and the Oilers were the visitors and my knees were braced right up against the inner boards, my body would shiver with every body check thrown that night behind the net I was exhausted after the game.
I had spent many nights on the street waiting in line for scarce playoff when the Leafs would make the spring journey towards the Stanley Cup only to fall short. Tickets would be made available to the public the following morning.
Been there, done that.
The following week the festivities switched over to the Leafs new home, The Air Canada Centre. I have attended a handful of games and probably a handful of other events over the last decade. I have never left the ACC with the same hard to describe feeling I had when I left Maple leaf Gardens.
It is hard to put my finger on the exact reason as to why I have such fondness for that old building on Carlton Street. But even after a decade has passed I still have such vivid memories of my first game, my last game and all the games in between, all the events that put a smile or even a frown on my face.
I have been a Leaf fan all my life and I am sure the frowns outnumbered those smiles at least three to one.
I am certain of that.