Memories of a Garden party

In Editorial, Sports /

Opinion by Sean Fitz-Gerald

Doug Gilmour feeds me a quick pass as I streak down the left boards. I give a had fake to a stunned Red Wing defenseman and dart for the goalmouth. The stunned defender’s partner tries to slide across to help, but it is too late. I bury a wicked wrist shot over the stunned goalie, for the overtime winner.

My teammates surround me, screaming. We have just beaten the Wings and are advancing to the Stanley Cup finals.

*****

This is a dream I had watching the Leafs the year little Nikolai Borshevsky beat the Wings in overtime. For the first time in my life, the Leafs were a championship-calibre team. I could wear my imitation Gilmour road jersey with my head held high once again.

I watched the game on television that year. I must have been low on Lady Luck’s list, because she couldn’t score me up a pair of tickets I wasn’t angry though, because I had already seen a ton of hockey in Maple Leaf Gardens, home to the fable Leafs.

It had been a lifelong dream of mine to play at the Gardens. I used to play road hockey in front of my Burlington home, pretending I was dashing through centre ice towards a nameless, helpless visiting goalie.

In reality, however, the only way I could have played in the Gardens was if it was pumped full of a toxic nerve gas that nobody else wanted to play in. I suck. I love hockey. I love playing it, but little kids on those double blade skates can lap my sorry ass around any rink.

The highest level of hockey I could reach was the Burlington Lions Optimist Minor Hockey Association’s “white” division. This was where they put the kids whose main talent was lacing their own skates, and some couldn’t even do that.

With the Leafs vacating the Gardens on Feb. 13 (Saturday night) I was becoming desperate for a chance to play. And since nerve-gas toting terrorists aren’t listed in the Yellow Pages, I needed a scam.

To my delight, my part-time job at the weekly bible of god’s game, The Hockey News, made me eligible for a “media day” promotion at the Gardens over the Christmas break.

The promotion, the “Molson game day experience,” had called for members of the Toronto-area media to play a game at the Gardens, and receive a jersey with their name and number stitched on the back, and royal treatment for a day.

The special treatment included: a free Molson Export throw mat, a free CCM Tacks hockey stick, a hockey card of myself, and all the beer and pizza I could shovel into my face. But it wasn’t the free stuff that drew me to this event.

My dream wasn’t that different from most Canadian kids. Just about every red-blooded Canuck has a tie to the building that former Maple Leaf owner Conn Smythe built 68 years ago.

I’ve been to Leafs games. I’ve been to Leafs practices. When I was in grade school my father, who was the Leafs beat writer at The Hamilton Spectator, used to pull me out of school so I could watch the Leafs and their opponent-of-the-week practice. I’ve been around the Gardens, but I was never able to fulfill by dream of skating out onto a clean white sheet of Gardens ice. Ah, but for the scam.

I walked through the front doors of Maple Leaf Gardens a full half-hour early because I couldn’t contain my excitement any longer. I was finally getting the chance to play a game inside the old building just two blocks north of Ryerson.

I got dressed and walked out of the change room towards the ice. As I neared the end of the hallway, I stopped to look at the ringside gold seats that I could never afford. Then the lights of the arena hit me. Finally, I wasn’t at theme watching the Leafs through the fuzzy reception of my 20-year-old television. I was on the ice.

There is no drug, no vice or thrill that could match the rush you get when you glide out onto the Gardens’ glistening fresh ice.

I skated directly to centre ice and looked into the stands. I felt like I was looking at the golds, reds, greens and greys for the first time. They appeared brighter from centre ice than than they do on T.V. I imagined I was getting ready to take the opening face off as 15,000 screaming fans stood from their seats.

As I took my spot on the bench, I noticed it wasn’t different from those I had spent a lot of time sitting on in house league. The wood behind the dasher boards was still chipped, just like all those in my local arenas. The floor in front of the bench was still covered with water and melting lumps of ice, and the bench still got cold as the game went on.

I was playing on the same surface that former Leafs greats Dave Keon, Frank Mahovolich and George Armstrong once did.

But I would not share in their glory on this day.

My meagre abilities, coupled with the fact that TSN personality John Gallagher was our goalie, led my team, the Molson Exports, into the gaping jaws of an 8-1 drubbing.

I couldn’t care less. I got a chance to play a game in the Gardens while the Leafs were still the primary tenants.

When the game ended and the lights dimmed (they did, I’m not being dramatic), I took a final lap around the Gardens ice, paying a solemn tribute to the place where many of my youthful dreams were made. I actually got the chance to streak (in a slow, slow motion replay fashion) down the left side. I never scored, but I think I did get a shot on net.

Besides, who cares? The story will change as I get older and tell little kids about the 10-goal explosion I had that day in the old Maple Leaf Gardens.

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