To Pee or not to Pee

TORONTO (June 7) — I was watching a newscast on the weekend when a familiar and grotesque image from September 11, 2001 filled the screen: United Airlines Flight 175 (a Boeing–767 laden with jet–fuel after departing nearby Boston) being deliberately steered into Tower 2 at the World Trade Center in New York. Like millions of others, I camped in front of my TV on that horrific day nearly 15 years ago while periodically checking with Air Canada to see if my mid–afternoon flight to St. John’s, Nfld. would be delayed.

That’s how naive I was in the moments after the terrorist attacks began. As history recounts, no aircraft would fly anywhere within North American airspace for close to three days. I had booked a trip to St. John’s as part of my job covering the Toronto Maple Leafs for The FAN–590. The club had planned on spending the first week of training camp in the city of its American Hockey League affiliate. Mile One Arena had just opened and the camp visit would culminate with an exhibition game between the Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. It wasn’t long, however, before I realized that neither the Leafs nor I were going anyplace on that Tuesday. Or, for that matter, on Wednesday and Thursday. And while there will never be anything funny about Sep. 11, 2001, the postponement of my flight did engender a rather humorous episode.

Airspace was re–opened on Friday in Canada and the United States.

The Toronto–Montreal pre–season match had been scheduled for Saturday night, so the Leafs chartered into St. John’s on Friday afternoon. I re–booked a flight for Saturday morning and used an upgrade certificate to travel in Executive Class on an Air Canada Airbus–319. Also in the small forward cabin were Leafs owner Steve Stavro; Board director Brian Bellmore and president Ken Dryden. I got along reasonably well with the latter two, but Mr. Stavro had no use for me after I’d repeatedly called him a skinflint.

It began when he scaled back the Maple Leafs’ budget in early–1996, forcing general manager Cliff Fletcher to trade such veterans as Dave Andreychuk, Mike Gartner and Todd Gill for virtually no return. I remember sitting in the reception area of the hockey office at Maple Leaf Gardens one afternoon, awaiting a pre–arranged audience with Fletcher. Mr. Stavro came in; nodded happily toward the secretaries; then turned and nodded toward me. But, he quickly did a double–take. And, I submit that if looks could indeed kill, I’d have pitched forward into eternity at that very moment.

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STEVE STAVRO OWNED THE LEAFS AND CONTROLLED MAPLE LEAF GARDENS IN ITS FINAL YEARS.

Nothing had changed more than 5½ years later — or so it seemed. I’ll admit it was slightly uncomfortable for me to sit one row directly in front of Mr. Stavro as the Airbus departed Pearson International for St. John’s on Sep. 15, 2001. Bellmore and Dryden were perched directly across the aisle from their boss, over my right shoulder. I spent most of the three–hour journey reading and listening to music. At one point, shortly before the plane began its descent, I got up and walked toward the lone lavatory in back of the flight–deck. The little slide–detector showed green, indicating the bathroom was vacant.

I opened the door and was startled to notice the owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs leisurely going about his “business” — un–buckled trousers having fallen to the floor. There are things in life that could only happen to me, and this was one of them. “Oh, I’m sorry, Mr. Stavro; please excuse me,” I croaked. As I turned and walked toward my seat — mortified — Messers Bellmore and Dryden were in utter hysterics. Clearly, they knew I was going to walk in on Mr. Stavro, yet neither had bothered to warn me. I shook my head; rolled my eyes and slumped back down, realizing they had “gotten” me pretty good.

A moment later, Mr. Stavro emerged from the loo and casually strolled past me to his seat without saying a word. Within 20 minutes, we were in St. John’s and I still remember all the European jumbo–jets clustered side–by–side on the edge of the tarmac. Airlines that would ordinarily never fly into Newfoundland were re–directed to St. John’s on 9/11. Planes from Europe that were more than halfway toward North America and bound for New York, Chicago, Atlanta (or any other city), were ordered to land at the easternmost airport on the continent. Those less than halfway toward North America turned back to their departure points.

St. John’s International — a medium–sized facility — was therefore permeated beyond capacity. The terminal and luggage carousels were closed for security reasons. Our suitcases were transferred to a large hangar and we followed, moments later, on a bus. Actually finding our individual bags was quite a challenge. I still laugh when I recall an airport worker asking a female passenger to describe her suitcase.

“It’s a dark–color,” she said.

“Gee, thanks lady,” replied the worker, gazing upon 300 pieces of luggage, 270 of which were black.

Mine was purposely blue and therefore easier to locate. Taxis were lined up near the hangar. Just as I bent into the back–seat of a cab with Ken Campbell, who was then covering the Leafs for the Toronto Star, I heard someone shout “hey, Berger.”  Looking back, I was astonished to see Mr. Stavro standing next to a limousine and wondering if I “had a ride” into the city. “Yes, thank–you Mr. Stavro, we’ve got a taxi,” I replied.

I must have turned white, because Ken looked at me and said “what’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong?” I shot back. “Steve Stavro just wondered if I had a way into town.”

Which was all the explanation my colleague needed.

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ST. JOHN’S INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT — LANDING SPOT FOR AIRLINES APPROACHING NORTH AMERICA ON SEP. 11, 2001. THE TERMINAL AND LUGGAGE CAROUSELS WERE CLOSED FOR NEARLY A WEEK. BAGS FROM MY AIR CANADA FLIGHT, SEP. 15, WERE SENT TO HANGARS AT TOP–LEFT IN THIS PHOTO.

Arriving 15 minutes later at the Delta–St. John’s Hotel, another remarkable scene unfolded. Every square–inch of the lobby was jammed with people from the stranded European flights. The hotel staff brought extra blankets and pillows to the lobby, where these individuals (and families) had been sleeping for four nights. I therefore approached the check–in counter full of trepidation. By some miracle, my room had not only been reserved, but was ready. While awaiting the key–packet, I felt a presence behind me.

“Is everything okay, Berger? Do you have a room?”

I turned around to see the owner of the Maple Leafs once again. “Oh yes, Mr. Stavro. I’m just getting the key now,” I said, wondering if I were in a dream. “Thanks again. I appreciate it.”

And, from that moment on, he and I never had an issue. We sat together and talked for hours on an Austrian Airways jet returning to Toronto from the 2005 World Hockey Championship in Vienna. Not once did I ask him why he had suddenly evolved from foe to friend. I simply grew to enjoy his acquaintance.

A few days after Mr. Stavro died (in April 2006), the National Post asked me to write a story about him, which it ran on the front page. Every time I see the horrific images of Sep. 11, 2001, I also remember an inexplicable yet wondrous moment from a few days later in my career at The FAN–590 covering the Leafs.

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MAPLE LEAF GARDENS MAP

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There aren’t many of these laying around — a seat–by–seat map for hockey at Maple Leaf Gardens.

This is the southwest corner of the arena, where I spent many–a–night in my youth.

A framed version of the full map hung on a wall of the Special Ticket Office in the Gardens. The office could be accessed by entering the main doors on Carlton Street; turning right; opening another door, and snaking up a narrow, twisting stairwell. In my pre–teen years (1967–72), I saw many Leaf games in tickets owned by my dad’s accounting firm: Sec. 46, Row M. They were Blues until 1974, and then Reds.

In the summer of 1975, Dad and I went up to the Special Ticket Office to pick out a couple of Leafs season tickets. There were corner Greys available, but we chose a pair in the last row of the south–mezzanine Blues: Sec. 30, Row F, Seats 23 and 24 (at the upper–left of this map). Our seats were up against the back wall, before the section cornered off. From there, I witnessed  the prime years of Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald, Borje Salming, Ian Turnbull, Mike Palmateer and others; the playoff war in April 1976 between the Leafs and Philadelphia. Also, Toronto games from the inaugural Canada Cup tournament in September 1976, including Sweden vs. USA (Salming received a long standing ovation); Canada vs. Russia (Bobby Hull had a terrific night) and Game 1 of the best–of–three final (Canada 6, Czechoslovakia 0). Two nights later (Sep. 15, 1976), Sittler famously scored in overtime at the Montreal Forum to win the event for Canada.

For Sittler’s NHL–record 10–point game against Boston (Feb. 7, 1976), I sat in the southwest–corner Reds.

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MAPLE LEAF GARDENS STUBS. LEFT–TO–RIGHT: THE TICKETS FROM MY DAD’S ACCOUNTING FIRM (5–3 WIN OVER PHILADELPHIA — OCT. 23, 1971); THE RED STUB FROM SITTLER’S 10–POINT NIGHT (11-4 LEAFS OVER BOSTON — FEB. 7, 1976) AND OUR SEASON TICKETS IN THE SOUTH–MEZZANINE BLUES, PURCHASED IN THE SUMMER OF 1975 (HERE, FROM AN EXHIBITION GAME AFTER THE ’76 CANADA CUP).

IN THE SOUTH BALCONY

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I TOOK THESE PHOTOS FROM MY SEASON TICKETS IN THE SOUTH–MEZZANINE BLUES. ABOVE, DURING AN EXHIBITION GAME BETWEEN THE MAPLE LEAFS AND MONTREAL CANADIENS ON SAT. OCT. 2, 1976. SIX OF THE SEVEN PLAYERS IN THE PICTURE ARE NOW MEMBERS OF THE HOCKEY HALL OF FAME: BORJE SALMING (21), LANNY McDONALD (7) AND DARRYL SITTLER (27) FOR THE LEAFS; GOALIE KEN DRYDEN; DEFENSEMEN LARRY ROBINSON (IN THE CREASE) AND GUY LAPOINTE (CHECKING SALMING) FOR MONTREAL. DOUG JARVIS (21) IS THE OTHER HABS PLAYER. THE PHOTO, BELOW, WAS TAKEN A WEEK LATER (SAT. OCT. 9, 1976), AS THE 48th HIGHLANDERS PLAYED O CANADA BEFORE THE LEAFS REGULAR–SEASON OPENER AGAINST BOSTON. TORONTO PLAYERS ON BLUE LINE ARE (LEFT–TO–RIGHT): TIGER WILLIAMS (22), BOB NEELY (3), GEORGE FERGUSON (10), ERROL THOMPSON (12), LANNY McDONALD (7), RANDY CARLYLE (23), CLAIRE ALEXANDER (20), INGE HAMMARSTROM (11) AND PAT BOUTETTE (15).

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LEGENDS OF CARLTON STREET

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This is a remarkable photo, taken across the street from Maple Leaf Gardens in the mid-1950’s. Posing are eight of the most legendary names in Toronto Maple Leafs history. From left to right: Hap Day, Charlie Conacher, Red Horner, Conn Smythe, Syl Apps, Bob Davidson, Ted Kennedy and Sid Smith. All are now deceased. All but Davidson and Smith are in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Smythe built the Gardens in 1931.

BEST–OF–NOTHING

There is no reasonable scenario by which the Golden State Warriors can lose four of the remaining five games in the 2016 NBA finals. Since the beginning of the 2014–15 regular season, the defending champion has played exactly 200 games (including playoffs). Its record in that time is 166–34. Golden State was 67–15 last season; a league–record 73–9 this year. After a third–round scare against Oklahoma City, in which the Warriors clawed back from a 3–1 series deficit, the club has reeled off five consecutive wins, including a pair in Oakland to begin the best–of–seven final against Cleveland. The home team led by as many as 34 points in a Game 2 annihilation of LeBron James and Co. on Monday. Golden State’s bench has substantially out–performed the Cavaliers’ top players — James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. League MVP Steph Curry and his running–mate, Klay Thompson, have barely broken a sweat in the first two matches.

How much of a difference can Cleveland make while playing at home in Games 3 and 4?

Nothing whatsoever, unless LeBron picks it up, big–time.

The images, below, are from ABC/TSN as Golden State pulled away in the fourth quarter of Game 2. Curry watched most of the final 12 minutes from the bench. Jubilant Warriors fans spilled out of Oracle Arena.

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GAME 3 IS WEDNESDAY NIGHT…

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… AT QUICKEN LOANS ARENA IN CLEVELAND.

ALI’S LAST IMAGES

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THE SUN OF LONDON, ON MONDAY, PUBLISHED THESE HAUNTING IMAGES OF MUHAMMAD ALI — CLAIMING THEY WERE THE LAST PHOTOS TAKEN BEFORE HIS DEATH. THE PICTURES BARELY RESEMBLE THE BOXING LEGEND THAT WON THE HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP THREE TIMES.

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ALI, IN HIS PRIME, WILL APPROPRIATELY GRACE THE UP–COMING ISSUE OF SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

2 comments on “To Pee or not to Pee

  1. Great piece Mr. Berger, the content and pictures bring back some vivid memories both happy and sad. Really enjoyed it.

  2. Loved the memories about the Gardens. I had grey season tickets, $4 each. Many a time I walked up to the special ticket office when I needed an extra pair. Once we walked up and their was Felix Potvin waiting for tickets, my daughter was thrilled to talk to him while we waited. I also recalled a Saturday night, I was ill with the flu and I had to sell my ticket. That was the night Darryl got his 10 points. Great reading your column.

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