I was eleven years old the first time I attended a Toronto Maple Leaf hockey game. The date was February 26, 1972, a Saturday evening and it had snowed all day in Toronto. I remember taking the subway down to College Street and walking up the open stairway from the subway to the very busy street level.
The snow was falling heavily has I walked up those stairs, the large flakes melting as they landed on the warm stairway, heated from the hundreds of bodies walking quickly up them. On the street, the snow had really accumulated and the large flakes would cling to my woolen toque.
When I arrived at the top of the staircase, I was on Carlton Street and my direction was east, east to the Vatican of the hockey world, Maple Leaf Gardens.
The street was bustling, the crowd was large and everyone was heading in the same direction. I remember numerous vendors selling roasted chestnuts, popcorn and candy apples along the route. The street had a slight bend, around the bend there it was, the large blue and white lighted marquee. It simply read “Vancouver 8 P.M”.
As we got closer, the excitement started to build and you could smell big league hockey in the cold winter air. I will never forget that smell of juicy fruit gum, popcorn, hot dogs and the old arena itself all simmering when I entered the main front doors. Program sellers inside, scalpers outside along with hundreds of snow capped hockey fans made for a loud yet peaceful sound.
The Gardens did not have much of a foyer so once you entered the front doors it was either right or left depending weather your ticket read east or west. My ticket read WEST across a green stripe. I turned left and went through one of the ancient blue and white turnstiles.
An elderly gentleman ripped my ticket and told me to go up the escalator. Reds were the best seats and required no escalator, followed by the Blues, Greens and at the top, the Greys.
Dozens of large framed black and white pictures lined the interior street level hallway. An occasional newer colored photo of a recent player was visible, most though were old vintage black and white. Former Leaf heroes in action shots capturing the proud moments of Maple Leaf history. The old relic photos of player’s just grinning, smiling down on the fans letting us know we were all in a special place, a religious place.
The Ford Motor Company had a car on display at the bottom of the long narrow escalator that would whisk fans to the upper levels. Each escalator was manned by an usher with a captain like hat. It was his job to direct the fans to the proper sections once they arrived on the right level.
It just seemed as if everyone knew exactly where they needed to go which made his job easier. I remember the escalators were narrow so that only one person could stand on a step. I traveled up two narrow escalators until I reached my level, a large sign reading Greens and Greys greeted me. I was sitting in the Greens, section seventy, I cannot remember the exact row but it was more than half way down and to the right.
What I remember most was the brightness once you walked up the tiny ramp to the seating area. The television lights were on, the blue lines were so dark yet they were so bright, like two skinny first prize ribbons just draped across the rink. The red, checkered centre ice line with the large Maple Leaf in the middle also made an instant impression.
The ice was white, pure white and it glistened in the television lighting from the thin layer of water left on the surface by the Zamboni. The Zamboni was just finishing, in a few minutes the teams would arrive on the ice and the reason why we had all come would begin, the hockey game.
I soaked everything up that night like a thirsty sponge, nothing escaped by view. The large bulky square green score clock above centre ice with the word Dominion on top of it's four sides.
The large 'No Smoking' signs in each corner on the walls of the upper levels. The Gondola, where the play by play would be broadcast to a hockey starved country. It was as if the Gardens were the reason I went to the game and not the game itself.
I looked in awe at everything and when I die, I wished I could, be buried under the ice. Program sellers were walking up the isles, how I wished I could be one of them, to be able to come to every game and be paid, I would do it free. Boys, not much older than myself with baskets, selling Cokes, peanuts and popcorn, I thought they all had the best life.
They were all so lucky.
The referees came on the ice followed by the teams. Not many players wore helmets. The Leafs wore white and the Canucks wore dark blue. The game started and just seemed to fly by. The first period, the second and the third just seemed to disappear into the winter night and before I knew it, the game was over.
Why did hockey games just seem so short while sitting in church seemed like a whole day?
The Leafs won 7-1 and Paul Henderson scored a hatrick, he was the first star. Ron Ellis and Norm Ullman also scored. I lost my program when I exited the grande old shrine but I still had my ticket stub. It was now snowing even heavier as the crowd made it's way west, west to those subway steps.
It was a miserable night outdoors but indoors, the sell out crowd was joyous. The Leafs had won and I had just experienced my first Toronto Maple Leaf hockey game. And like they say, you never ever forget your first time.
I never will.