Lurching at L–A–X: A Leafs Travel Tale

TORONTO (Apr. 3) — In our COVID–19 universe, laughter is cathartic. Here is one story (among many) from my years (1994–2010) traveling with the Toronto Maple Leafs as a reporter for The FAN–590, Canada’s first all–sports radio station. Hope you chuckle a bit:

This travesty immediately followed my first game as a full–time hockey reporter — at the start of the lockout–shortened National Hockey League schedule of January–to–May 1995. I remember it, particularly, for Bob Cole, the legendary voice of the Leafs on Hockey Night In Canada. It was January 20, 1995. The Maple Leafs and Kings had just played to a 3–3 tie at the Los Angeles Forum in the season opener for both clubs. Back in the day, reporters and broadcasters were permitted to travel on the team bus for rides to and from airports and arenas. No–such luxury exists today. On this occasion, given a large media contingent for the season opener, the Maple Leafs had ordered a separate bus. The players and coaches were heading to Los Angeles International Airport on one vehicle; the media, directly behind them. Or, so went the plan.

We were aiming to meet up for a charter–flight to Oakland International Airport, whereupon another pair of buses would transport us down Interstate–880 (the Nimitz Freeway) to San Jose for the following night’s encounter between the Leafs and Sharks. I remember the media bus ferried myself; Leafs radio broadcasters Joe Bowen and Gord Stellick; the CBC telecast tandem of Cole and Harry Neale; a dozen or so producers, technicians and cameramen (including my old pal, Mark Askin, who choreographed Leaf games on TV); three scribes from the Toronto Sun; two from the Toronto Star and a reporter (Lance Brown) from CFTO, Channel 9, in Toronto. The weather in Los Angeles had been miserable for days; it was poring–rain when we climbed aboard the second bus just after 11 p.m. Both vehicles were intended for the aviation/charter area of L–A–X, which was separate from any of the terminals. Naturally, we didn’t even consider that our driver had never made such a trip; what charter–bus company would assign a coachman unfamiliar with the route — explicitly ordered to follow a team of NHL players — at night, in one of the world’s most heavily traveled cities, amid a monsoon? Sadly, we on the media bus were destined to find out.

Compounding the mystery was the brief trek from the Great Western Forum (as it was known back then) to L.A. Airport. Anyone who strolled from the arena to the parking lot may recall being startled by jetliners suddenly appearing — no more than a thousand feet overhead — on final approach to L–A–X. The runways were merely two miles west; the drive, roughly 3.8 miles from the Forum. Getting lost required some effort.


THE GREAT WESTERN FORUM IN INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA — AS IT APPEARED IN JANUARY 1995.

Post–game traffic along Prarie Ave., adjacent to the Forum, was still rather heavy and our driver kept in radio contact with the Leaf bus, about a block ahead. Then, two blocks ahead. Then, three blocks… and, before we knew it, out of sight. Again, there was no particular concern; how could a professional coach driver not find Los Angeles Airport from Inglewood? Well, our man either wasn’t professional… or had never–before driven in the L.A. area. Within moments, it was clear the poor sap had not a clue. Increasingly fearful radio calls to the Leaf bus went unanswered. Several blocks later, he pulled off the main road and we found ourselves in a remote parking area beneath an overpass of the Century Freeway. The Leaf bus finally answered his frantic calls and he was told to look for the “guard gate.” When the driver replied, “which guard gate… and where”, we knew we were in trouble. This feeling intensified when he made a right turn into the Korean Airlines cargo terminal. “Boy, what a road trip — Los Angeles tonight; Seoul tomorrow,” came a zinger from the back of the bus. It was now painfully evident that our trusty chauffeur had lost direction… and his confidence.

Sensing this, Bob Cole left his perch beside Harry Neale and moved up to a vacant seat, across from me, at the front of the vehicle. Coley then did his level–best to keep the poor driver from breaking down. “Come on now, we should be able to find the guard gate; you know this city,” he offered in his familiar cadence. Apparently enjoying his broadcast partner’s angst, Neale maintained a stream of wisecracks. Backing out of the Korean Airlines lot, the driver pulled up to another gate and made a desperate call to the Leaf bus. No reply. While sitting there, we had a great view, through the night–time rainstorm, of the south runway and main terminals at L–A–X. Suddenly, an Airbus lifted off, right to left, no more than 500 feet in front of us. “Whup, there she goes!” cried out Neale, implying the Maple Leafs charter had left for Oakland. “Pay no attention to these people,” Cole stressed. “You can get us to the plane. We have full confidence in you.”

The driver turned around and began heading toward yet another gate. As we passed through, his waffling became more pronounced. He inched the bus forward and stopped… inched forward and stopped. “Another hundred or so lurches and we should be there,” offered Mark Askin, which brought a death–stare from Cole and a howl of laughter from Neale. Unexpectedly, the long–lost Maple Leafs vehicle re–established radio contact, informing our driver to “keep going and look for the last building on your right.” Neale, still in full clown–mode, replied “he’ll probably drop us at the the first building on our left.” To which Cole answered, “hey, you’re doing alright. Forget all the blather behind you. You’ll get us there. I know it.”


BOB COLE: HIS PEP TALKS TO THE WOEBEGONE BUS DRIVER ULTIMATELY SUCCEEDED.

Finally, we pulled up to a fourth gate that led to a Northwest Airlines DC–9 with a bus parked next to it. “That’s the one,” radioed the Leaf driver and our odyssey was over. “You mean, we’re here already?” mocked Neale, as we got up to leave. “Stop it, Harry,” replied Cole, who gave the driver a pat on the shoulder. “Good job. It’s tough of there tonight, with the weather,” he praised. Neale also greeted the disheveled coachman. “Just tryin’ to keep you loose. Thanks for the drive.” The rain was pelting down harder than ever as we mounted a portable stairwell and entered the DC–9. The Leaf players and coaches were comfortably strapped in their seats. I’ll never forget Dave Andreychuk looking at me as if to say “where the hell have you guys been?” As it turned out, our bewildered bus driver had not delayed the flight. I looked out my right–side window at the poor equipment and training staff. Brian Papineau, Jim Carey (not the actor) and Chris Broadhurst were busily loading equipment bags into the cargo hold. And, they were drenched to the bone.

Adding to our adventure, the captain warned that the 50–minute flight would take us through an area of thunderstorms northeast of Los Angeles. He wasn’t kidding. That old jet bounced around like balls in a lottery machine before settling down in the second half of the trip. We flew to the north of San Francisco then turned back south directly over the Golden Gate Bridge. In a spectacular approach to the airport, we followed the water over Alcatraz and the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. I still remember looking at the lights of San Francisco shining brilliantly through broken cloud out my right–side window. Three minutes later, we were on the ramp in Oakland… with two more buses waiting to drive us south, to San Jose. In case you’re wondering, we flew to Oakland as a result of noise–abatement. San Jose International Airport is close to the center of town and, therefore, has curfew restrictions. It was 1:45 a.m. when our jet touched down.

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A postscript to this story occurred just more than 11 years later. Bob Cole and I were on the same evening flight from Toronto to Ottawa, April 20, 2006, for the start (the following night) of an opening–round playoff series between the Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning. I was covering for The FAN–590; Bob would call the games for Hockey Night In Canada. As always, I stayed at a Holiday Inn Select hotel off the highway in Kanata, close to what is now the Canadian Tire Centre. Bob was at the more–luxurious Brookstreet Hotel, several miles north. As we awaited our luggage at the airport, I told Bob I was renting a car and would drop him off at the Brookstreet. He thanked me and said, “you know where it is, right?” I answered affirmatively, though I wasn’t certain which local street led to the property. I did know to get off the westbound Queensway (417) at the “March Rd./Ottawa Regional Rd. 49” exit. Unfortunately, that’s all I knew.

Roughly 45 minutes later, Bob and I were driving around, aimlessly, in pitch–darkness.

“Hang in there, Coley, I’ll find the place,” I assured without a smidgen of confidence. I pulled over to the side of the road and made a call on my cellphone. “Alright, Bob, I’ve got it now.” Twenty minutes later… more darkness. I wasn’t sure we were still in Ontario, let alone near Kanata. Through the entire wayward trip, Cole sat quietly, while wishing, I’m certain, he had hopped into a taxi at Ottawa Airport. At one point, he said, “y’know, Howard, this is starting to remind me of that bus ride in Los Angeles way back when.” Though still uncertain of my whereabouts, I burst out laughing. Thankfully, we soon came upon a directional sign to the Brookstreet and I dropped off the Hall–of–Fame broadcaster (now 86) a few minutes later.

“See, Coley, I told you I knew where it was.”

“G’night, Howard,” he replied.

“G’night, Bob.”

BACK IN THE DAY… NHL LINE–UPS

In my previous blogs, I featured program line–ups from hockey games at Maple Leaf Gardens. Today, as part of my collection, I share with you line–ups from other NHL arenas. These 10 programs date from Mar. 29, 1967 to Mar. 9, 1985. Please enjoy:


MAR. 29, 1967: Toronto 3 at Montreal 5 — Within a month, the Leafs and Canadiens would be squaring off in the Stanley Cup final. This was their final meeting of the 1966–67 regular season. Each club had 30 wins and 61 points. The first period ended in a 2–2 tie… Larry Hillman and Red Kelly scoring for the Leafs; Jean–Guy Talbot and Gilles Tremblay for the Habs. Yvan Cournoyer and Leon Rochefort put Montreal ahead, 4–2, by 7:25 of the middle frame. Mike Walton (Toronto) and J.C. Tremblay then traded markers. Johnny Bower started the game in goal for the Leafs, but gave way to Terry Sawchuk at 8:26 of the second period. Rogatien Vachon went the distance for the Canadiens and stopped 29 Leaf shots. This win allowed Montreal to place second in the six–team standings, two points ahead of Toronto (and 17 behind first–place Chicago).

Bill Friday was the referee; Neil Armstrong and Bob Frampton, the linesmen.

  
NOV. 2, 1968: Pittsburgh 2 at Los Angeles 3 — The Penguins and Kings were early in their second NHL seasons when they met, on this night, at the Los Angeles Forum. Upon losing, Pittsburgh was 1–6–2 after nine games. Red Kelly coached the Kings; Red Sullivan, the Penguins. Defenseman Dale Rolfe scored for L.A. just 24 seconds into the match. Bob Wall and Bill Flett also connected for the Kings; Jean Pronovost and Earl Ingarfield for the visitors. Rookie Gerry Desjardins was the winning goalie; veteran Les Binkley, the loser. Lloyd Gilmour officiated the game; Pat Shetler and Claude Bechard were the linesmen. Earlier in the evening, the Canadiens had played their first game at the renovated Montreal Forum, edging Detroit, 2–1.

  
FEB. 23, 1969: Los Angeles 4 at Oakland 3 — The NHL’s two expansion teams from California were mediocre and did not develop a heated rivalry, though the Los Angeles Kings and Oakland Seals would clash in a seven–game, quarterfinal playoff series in April 1969. On this night, two months beforehand at the Oakland Coliseum–Arena, the visitors prevailed on a goal by Ted Irvine at 7:26 of the third period. The Kings had actually jumped to a 3–0 lead by 14:04 of the opening frame, getting goals from Eddie Joyal, Dale Rolfe and Bill Flett. Ted Hampson replied for the Seals late in the period, then scored again at 0:33 of the second. Oakland defenseman Carol Vadnais tied the match at 14:19 of the middle period. Gerry Desjardins stopped 34 shots for the win; Gary Smith took the loss. Art Skov was the referee; Ed Butler and Willard Norris, the linesmen. Los Angeles would prevail in the playoff match-up that spring, winning 5–3 at Oakland in Game 7.

  
DEC. 14, 1969: Pittsburgh 1 at Boston 2 — There was little to compare between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins in 1969–70, other than finishing second in their respective divisions. Boston, the eventual Stanley Cup champion, compiled 35 more points (99–64) in the standings. On this night, however, at the Boston Garden, the Penguins stayed close thanks to a good performance by goalie Al Smith, who stopped 38 shots. Ken Schinkel put the visitors up, 1–0, at 13:21 of the first period, but Derek Sanderson and Gary Doak erased the lead in a 1:05 span later in the frame. Eddie Johnston stopped 29 shots for the victory in goal. Don Awrey (Boston) and Bryan Hextall fought at 17:01 of the second period. Referee John Ashley called 32 minutes in penalties. His linesmen were Ed Butler and Ron Finn.

  
MAR. 13, 1971: Boston 6 at Vancouver 3 — As expected, the Vancouver Canucks were nothing to brag about in their expansion season, having joined the NHL, with the Buffalo Sabres, for 1970–71. The Canucks were 62 points inferior to Boston (107–45) before this Saturday, late–afternoon encounter at the Pacific Coliseum. And, no match for the Bruins during the game. The defending Stanley Cup champions were putting up ungodly numbers, individually and as a team. Prior to this game, Phil Esposito (135 points) and Bobby Orr (119 points) led Boston; Andre Boudrias (53 points) paced Vancouver. As often happens in a lop–sided match, the loser struck first — Murray Hall scoring for the Canucks at 18:11 of the opening period. But, Esposito, Johnny Bucyk and Wayne Carleton (with a pair) had the visitors comfortably in front by 12:26 of the second. The underdogs didn’t quit; Rosaire Paiment and Wayne Maki scoring the next two goals. Mike Walton and John McKenzie, however, put the game out of reach in the third period. Boston fired 46 shots at veteran Charlie Hodge. Eddie Johnston stopped 28 shots for the win. Ron Wicks officiated the game with linesmen Matt Pavelich and Bob Mclaren. Boston, as many recall, bowed out in the opening round of the 1971 playoffs to rookie goalie Ken Dryden and the eventual–champion Montreal Canadiens.

  
APR. 1, 1973: St. Louis 1 at Buffalo 3 — This was an historic night in the early–franchise history of the Buffalo Sabres. A victory at the Memorial Auditorium over St. Louis on the final night of the 1972–73 schedule lifted Buffalo — playing its third NHL season — into the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time. There was a bit of early anxiety for fans at the Aud as Wayne Merrick of the Blues beat Roger Crozier just 1:54 into the game. But, Gilbert Perreault evened the count at 15:35 of the opening frame. Larry Mickey and Jim Lorentz then beat Jacques Caron in a 3:45 span of the second period. A wild celebration ensued at the final horn… and in the Sabres’ dressing room after the game. The referee was Art Skov. Neil Armstrong and Willard Norris were the linesmen. After losing the first three games against Montreal in the Stanley Cup quarterfinals, the Sabres rallied with a pair of wins — Game 5 being decided, at the Montreal Forum, when Rene Robert beat Ken Dryden at 9:18 of overtime. The Habs wrapped up the series in Game 6 at the Memorial Auditorium, amid chants of “Thank you Sabres!” from the appreciative crowd.

  
OCT. 13, 1976: Atlanta 4 at Cleveland 2 — A young fellow, looking at my copy of the Cleveland Barons 1976–77 media guide, recently asked me, “Cleveland had a team in the NHL?” He wouldn’t be alone. Even hockey observers of my vintage can forget the two–season tenure of the former California Golden Seals, who moved to the village of Richfield, Ohio, in the summer of ’76. The Barons drew poorly at the 19,000–seat Richfield Coliseum, located in farm–land closer to Akron than Cleveland. On this night (above and below), they played their third–ever home game and lost to the future Calgary Flames, still in Atlanta for four more years. Ken Houston and Tom Lysiak put the Flames up, 2–0, in the first period before Bob Murdoch and Greg Smith tied the match. A pair of third–period goals by Hilliard Graves proved the difference. Phil Myre tended goal for Atlanta and stopped 26 Cleveland shots. Gilles Meloche took the loss for the Barons. Ron Wicks officiated the game with linesmen Ray Scapinello and Bob Hodges. After two mediocre seasons, the red–clad Barons folded and merged rosters (for 1978–79) with the Minnesota North Stars.

  

DEC. 26, 1976: Toronto 2 at Pittsburgh 4 — This was the first Maple Leafs road game I ever attended… while visiting my cousin, Stephen Tobe, in the Pittsburgh suburb of Monroeville during the 1976 Christmas break (I was 17). A massive snowstorm enveloped Pittsburgh during the afternoon and I still thank Stephen for risking our lives to make the drive into town. There may have been 3,000 others in the Civic Arena that night. The Penguins were still in their white home jerseys with the light–blue shoulder–piping and dark–blue pants. Jean Pronovost and Dennis Owchar scored 2½ minutes apart in the first period to put the home team in front. Pat Boutette got the Leafs on the board at 4:13 of the second, but the Penguins answered with markers from Pierre Larouche and former Leaf Rick Kehoe. Don Ashby rounded out the scoring for Toronto with two minutes left. Another ex–Leaf, Dunc Wilson, stopped 31 shots for the victory; rookie Mike Palmateer took the loss. Bryan Lewis was the referee; Swede Knox and Bob Hodges, the linesmen.

  
DEC. 22, 1979: Edmonton 3 at Los Angeles 9 — With the benefit of hindsight, this was an historic occasion (above and below), as “rookie” Edmonton phenom Wayne Gretzky visited his future home, the Los Angeles Forum, for the first time. Gretzky, of course, was not eligible for the Calder Trophy in 1979–80, having played, professionally, in the World Hockey Association. After the Aug. 9, 1988 trade that sent him to California, the Great One skated with the Kings for nearly eight seasons. On this night, the future champions from Alberta got hammered. Dave Taylor and Charlie Simmer scored twice for L.A. with “Triple Crown” line–mate Marcel Dionne adding a goal and two assists. Syl Apps Jr., Steve Jensen, John–Paul Kelly and Bert Wilson also connected for the Kings, who led, 7–0, before Gretzky’s powerplay goal at 18:04 of the second period. Gretzky assisted on Ron Chipperfield’s third–period marker, then scored his second of the night with five seconds to play. Eddie Mio had a brutal game in the visitors’ net, stopping 17 of 26 shots; Mario Lessard got the win for L.A. The referee was Bob Myers; Ryan Bozak and Jim Christison, the linesmen.


  
MAR. 9, 1985: Toronto 2 at New York Islanders 4 — This was my first of many visits to watch the Leafs play at the Nassau Coliseum, including three during the memorable, seven–game quarterfinal–playoff clash of 2002 (in which Toronto prevailed). The 1984–85 Leafs compiled the worst record in modern franchise history (20–52–8 for 48 points); this game (above and below) amid a 3–12–1 slog to finish the schedule. The prize for finishing dead–last in the NHL was landing Wendel Clark as the No. 1 choice of the 1985 draft. Tomas Jonsson and Roger Kortko had the Islanders ahead, 2–0, by 3:34 of the opening period, at which point Toronto coach Dan Maloney pulled starting goalie Allan Bester in favor of Ken Wregget. Stewart Gavin scored for the Leafs, but Dale Henry restored the two–goal lead. Bill Derlago (Toronto) and John Tonelli traded markers in the third. Hall–of–Famer Billy Smith stopped 39 shots for the win. Referee Dave Newell called only six penalty minutes in the tame match. Ray Scapinello and Mark Pare were the linesmen.

  
EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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