TORONTO (Apr. 3) — Though unseasonably cool, it was a perfect, late–afternoon on Good Friday 2021 to visit my old stomping ground, Maple Leaf Gardens, where I spent countless nights between 1966 and 1999 watching the Toronto Maple Leafs: first, from season tickets in Sec. 30 of the south–mezzanine Blues; then, from the press box as a reporter for The FAN–590. Best part of the hour–long stroll? Being with my 24–year–old son, Shane.
It’s difficult to fathom that more than 22 years has passed since the final National Hockey League game in the building; so vivid are the memories of the Toronto–Chicago match of Feb. 13, 1999. Or, that it’s going on 55 years since I attended my first Leafs game, with my father, Irv, on Dec. 3, 1966. Exactly two months prior to my eighth birthday. Toronto won, that night, 5–2, on a three–goal eruption in the first period — Red Kelly, Dave Keon and Jim Pappin beating Hank Bassen in the Red Wings net. Terry Sawchuk played goal for the Maple Leafs.
Given the memorable moments I witnessed at the Gardens — chief among them Darryl Sittler’s 10–point game against Boston on Feb. 7, 1976 — I found myself reflecting, hilariously, on a night just more than a year prior: Nov. 23, 1974, to be precise. I had two tickets for the Toronto–Philadelphia game in Sec. 49 of the east Reds; a terrific location roughly halfway up from the ice, behind the Leafs bench, between the south blue line and center ice. Philly was a hot ticket back then, having become the first of the 1967 expansion teams to win the Stanley Cup. My aunt, Linda Blatt, was a big Leafs fan and I invited her to the game. Before heading downtown, we visited my maternal grandmother, Bernice Robins, who served up her family–famous vegetable soup… containing chunks of corn, cauliflower, broccoli, farfel and lima beans. Not, shall we say, an ideal combination for yours truly.
THE LATE–AFTERNOON SUN ON FRIDAY ILLUMINATES THE SOUTH FACADE OF MAPLE LEAF GARDENS, ABOVE WHAT USED TO BE THE MAIN ENTRANCE TO THE ARENA, OFF CARLTON STREET.
Everything was pleasant and normal until sometime in the second period, when the soup, unavoidably, began to “take effect”. Though I gave it an honest effort, I had no chance of containing the rumble from within. Two or three times, I noticed Aunt Linda glancing at me with a sour face. All I could do was shrug. When eight minutes of the third period elapsed without her returning to the seat, I felt badly. But, neither was I concerned. “Oh, I watched from a ramp over there,” my aunt explained, still quite wary and pointing to our left. All of these years later, I howl when recalling that fetid night at 60 Carlton. Aunt Linda — now in her mid–70’s — recalls it without laughter.
Maple Leaf Gardens is the last of the pre–expansion, or Original Six, arenas to maintain its exterior. Long gone are the Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium, the Detroit Olympia and Madison Square Garden–3 (1925–68). The Montreal Forum, though still erect, is a depressing sight — painted all–black on the outside with only one of its movie houses still open during the pandemic (after its final NHL game, in March 1996, the Forum was converted to a multi–theater complex). Co–owned by Loblaws Inc. and Ryerson University, the Gardens is still a bustling place, though the athletic facilities for Ryerson — including Mattamy Home Ice, a 3,850–seat arena miraculously constructed on the third level of the original structure — are dormant amid the coronavirus. The massive Loblaws grocery store, accessed from the southeast corner of the Gardens, was surprisingly open (with capacity limit) on Good Friday. A line–up of shoppers, waiting to enter, stretched along the Church St. (or east) side of the building.
Of course, no commemoration of Maple Leaf Gardens is complete without mention of the atrocities that occurred within its walls by those involved in the pedophile ring that became public in early 1997. But, neither should all who worked in the building through the years be painted by the brush of those horrific few.
Here are images from my nostalgic stroll around Maple Leaf Gardens:
WITH MY GOOD–NATURED AUNT, LINDA BLATT (LEFT), AND MY SON, SHANE (FRIDAY AFTERNOON).
THE MOST–INDELIBLE AND ICONIC IMAGE OF MAPLE LEAF GARDENS — AS PHOTOGRAPHED ON SO MANY OCCASIONS — FROM THE SOUTHEAST CORNER OF CHURCH AND CARLTON STREETS.
THESE YELLOW BRICKS HAVE BEEN IN PLACE FOR CLOSE TO 90 YEARS, AS THE GARDENS WAS BUILT, BY CONN SMYTHE, IN THE TEETH OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION: FROM MAY TO OCTOBER 1931.
LOOKING UP AT THE SOUTHEAST FACADE OF THE GARDENS, WITH THE GIANT CONDOMINIUM COMPLEX RISING ACROSS CHURCH STREET, FROM WHAT USED TO BE THE MEDIA PARKING LOT.
AN HISTORIC PLAQUE (LEFT) NEAR THE MAIN ENTRANCE TO THE GARDENS. AND GAZING DIRECTLY UP FROM THE CHURCH ST. SIDE OF THE BUILDING, WITH THE CONDO–COMPLEX RISING NEXT DOOR.
THE ORANGE DOT (LEFT) ON THE FLOOR OF THE LOBLAWS GROCERY OUTLET WHICH INDICATES THE LOCATION OF CENTER ICE FOR HOCKEY GAMES, AS SEEN FROM THIS OVERHEAD TV IMAGE (RIGHT) DURING THE 1993 STANLEY CUP SEMIFINALS. AND, POSTED ON COLUMNS IN THE STORE (BELOW), THE MEMORY OF FAMOUS MUSICAL ACTS FROM DECADES LONG PASSED.
THE MAIN ENTRANCE TO THE GARDENS, OFF CARLTON ST., AND A LOOK UNDER THE MASTHEAD.
50 YEARS AGO TONIGHT
at Maple Leaf Gardens
It was the final Saturday of the 1970–71 NHL season and the greatest team — still — to not win the Stanley Cup visited the Gardens. The Boston Bruins, led by Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, annihilated the record book in ’70–71, finishing with a mark of 57–14–7 in 78 games for 121 points, while scoring a preposterous 399 goals, 108 more than runner–up Montreal. Esposito pored in 76 goals; Orr accumulated 102 assists. I attended the game of Apr. 3, 1971, 50 years ago tonight, with my cousin, Brian Gold, and still have the program in my collection.
As evidenced by the line–ups (above and below), the Bruins were simply prolific. Phil Esposito entered the final weekend with 71 goals, having destroyed the single–season mark of 58, set by Bobby Hull of Chicago in 1968–69. Bobby Orr was three assists shy of becoming the first player to record triple–figures in that category. Though the playoff–bound Leafs were locked into fourth place in the East Division, they were no match for Boston, losing 8–3. Hall–of–Fame goalie Bernie Parent suffered through the match, allowing all the Bruin tallies. The game was tied after the first period — Esposito (with No. 72) and rookie Darryl Sittler exchanging goals. But, the Bruins took control by scoring three times in a 5:02 span of the middle frame: Esposito (his 73rd), Johnny Bucyk and former Leaf Wayne Carleton doing the damage. Billy MacMillan scored on the powerplay for Toronto, but Fred Stanfield restored the visitors’ three-goal margin before the period ended. Carleton added a pair of goals for a hattrick in the third, with Ken Hodge also scoring for Boston — Orr set up Hodge at 10:19 for his 100th assist of the season. Norm Ullman added a late powerplay goal for Toronto, which actually outshot the Bruins, 42–40. Eddie Johnston was the winning goalie. Lloyd Gilmour officiated the match, with linesmen Claude Bechard and Leon Stickle.
On the final night of the ’70–71 schedule, the Bruins pounded Montreal, 7–2, at Boston Garden — Esposito recording a hattrick to lift his total to 76 goals. Orr added a pair of assists to finish with a record 102. But, the Bruins could not defeat the Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs, famously losing in seven games; victimized by the brilliant performance of Habs’ rookie goalie Ken Dryden. Montreal then eliminated Minnesota and Chicago to win the Stanley Cup. The Maple Leafs took a 2–1 series lead over New York in the ’71 playoff quarterfinals, but the Rangers won the next three games. Former Leaf winger Bob Nevin scored the series–clinching goal in overtime of Game 6, beating veteran Jacques Plante at the Gardens.