My First Visits to Maple Leaf Gardens

TORONTO (Nov. 10) — Friday of this week will mark the 90th anniversary of the night Maple Leaf Gardens opened: Nov. 12, 1931, when the Leafs were defeated, 3–1, by the Chicago Black Hawks. I composed the following recollection for another project that’s been put on hold.

As such, I’d like to share it with you:

I have countless hockey memories from my youth. Among the earliest was Dad bringing home such monthly periodicals as Hockey Illustrated, Hockey World and Hockey Pictorial. I would barely peruse the contents before cutting out the photos and pasting them into scrapbooks. That tendency led to the more-organized scrapbooks I fashioned in my teenage years – and afterward – with newspaper stories and pictures from games of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Blue Jays. Understanding, as I grew older, that I had defaced valuable memorabilia items, I re-purchased many of the hockey magazines at sports collector shows and stored them safely.


DAD BOUGHT ME HOCKEY MAGAZINES IN THE 1960’s. WHICH I QUICKLY DESTROYED.

As for a glaring recollection, few rank with my first visit to Maple Leaf Gardens – for a Junior hockey game between the Toronto Marlboros and Peterborough Petes on Mar. 6, 1966. I had turned seven the previous month.

Mom outfitted me in a little vest and clip-on tie and I remember feeling slightly nauseous with anticipation that morning. Another memory: As we left the house in Dad’s car, the radio station (probably 1050-CHUM) played Michelle, by The Beatles, which had been released three months prior and shot to the summit of the pop-music charts. To this day, every time I hear Paul McCartney sing Michelle, it reminds me of that first car ride to the Gardens. We had tickets close to the ice in the Reds, between the blue line and the goal the Marlies defended in the first and third periods. I remember the Marlies wearing their white jerseys with blue pants, replicas of the road uniform worn by the Leafs. The Petes were in their predominantly maroon jerseys and pants, with white trim.

The previous night, I’d been allowed to stay up a bit later than usual and watch the Leafs home game against Chicago. I remember thinking, “Wow! I’m actually going to be in that arena tomorrow afternoon.” Then… sitting in the Gardens for the first time and recalling the game I had watched on TV less than 24 hours prior. Among the players I recall were the goalies: Al Smith for Toronto and Fern Rivard for Peterborough. Lanky Wayne Carleton was the Marlies’ best player while smallish Andre Lacroix starred for Peterborough; he would lead the Ontario Hockey Association in scoring for the 1965-66 season with 120 points, 24 more than teammate Danny Grant.

It was the season before the mezzanine balconies were installed in the north and south ends of Maple Leaf Gardens; they were constructed in the summer of 1966 and ready for the ’66-67 National Hockey League schedule, adding nearly 2,000 seats. The walls that the balconies would cover were still bare. At the south end, cathedral-type windows that overlooked Carlton St. drew daylight into the building. If you stand, today, opposite the main entrance of the Gardens, these vertical window-panes are evident above the arena masthead. Above the end-Blues on the north wall stood an enormous portrait of Queen Elizabeth. It would obviously be removed.


CATHEDRAL WINDOWS ABOVE CARLTON ST.,  ON THE SOUTH FACADE OF MAPLE LEAF GARDENS.

Later that month, I attended another Marlboros game – this one against the Hamilton Red Wings, whose players were largely familiar given that Thursday night matches were televised by CHCH-TV, Channel 11. Live from the old Hamilton Forum on Barton St. with Norm Marshall calling the play; Sandy Hoyt providing color and Joe Watkins of the Hamilton Spectator offering intermission analysis (I would later become friendly with Joe’s son, David Watkins, during his many years as media relations director of the Toronto Argonauts).

The names of the Hamilton players still rekindle memories: Eddie Hatoum, Lee Carpenter, Danny Lawson, Rene LeClerc, Ron Climie, Bart Crashley, Sandy Snow, Gerry Gray, Jim Rutherford. And, they wore scarlet uniforms identical to that of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings. On this night, I was sitting directly at the glass (in the rails, as they were known) near the corner of the rink. The Marlboros sold programs that were a three-page cardboard fold-in with line-ups and a glossy, 5×7-inch photo of a Toronto player. I had occasionally witnessed, on TV, fans throwing an item onto the ice, whereupon a linesman would retrieve the object and toss it into the penalty box. In my seven-year-old mind, I figured I’d look rather cool by similarly delaying the game. Prior to a face off, I discreetly slid my cardboard program through the narrow gap under the glass and onto the ice. Immediately, I heard the referee’s whistle and saw a linesman skate toward me; bend over and pick up the program. I was damned proud.

Not a moment later, however, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. An usher and a Metro Toronto policeman marched me to a room off a nearby corridor and offered a stern lecture about the heinous crime I’d committed. I was allowed to return to my seat with a warning that any further misdeed would prompt my expulsion from the Gardens.

Thereafter, I behaved.

The following winter featured my first live NHL game: the Leafs hosting Detroit on Dec. 3, 1966.

For that hockey season, a bank of bright lights had been installed amid the west girders of the arena, spanning the length of the ice. Extra illumination was now required to televise Leaf home games in color. These lights were switched on just prior to the pre-game warm-up, bathing the rink in a brilliant white (the color of paint beneath the upper layers of ice). Also standing out were the colored markings of the center red line; the blue lines, and the red circle at center-ice that contained the blue Leafs logo. Whenever I attended a game in the 60’s and 70’s, fans in the arena prior to the warm-up would react identically: with an audible gasp when the TV lights were triggered.

I can close my eyes nearly 55 years later and still envision that December night.

Dad and I sat in the East Blues, roughly 12 rows up from the glass and just inside the north blue line. As such, the TV lights shone in our eyes from the opposite side of the arena. Having watched Leafs games only on a black-and-white television, it was the first time seeing Toronto’s navy blue uniforms. And, the white Detroit road jerseys with the red winged-wheel logo; red pants and striping on the sleeves and socks. The colors were absolutely brilliant. By then, I was familiar with the Leaf players. But, to actually view such legends as Johnny Bower, Terry Sawchuk, Dave Keon, Frank Mahovlich, George Armstrong, Tim Horton, Bob Baun and the others skating around in the warm-up induced an out-of-body experience for a kid not yet eight years old. At the opposite end was — my Gawd! — Gordie Howe, merely the greatest player in hockey annals to that point; then in his 22nd NHL season. I also remember a Detroit player oddly wearing a white surgeon’s mask throughout the game. It was Paul Henderson, No. 19, who suffered from a breathing malady. Henderson would be traded to the Leafs in the Frank Mahovlich deal of Mar. 3, 1968. He then attained worldwide hockey fame by scoring the decisive, last-minute goal for Canada, at Moscow, in Game 8 of the original summit series against the Russians (Sep. 28, 1972).

 
IN MY HOCKEY COLLECTION: THE 1966–67 EXPORT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS WALL CALENDAR. UBIQUITOUS, BACK THEN, IN BARBER SHOPS ACROSS THE CITY. THE DECEMBER PAGE, BELOW, SHOWING THE DATE OF MY FIRST LIVE NHL GAME: SATURDAY THE 3rd, vs. DETROIT.


It was the final year of the six-team NHL. For a quarter-century, the league had been comprised of the Leafs, Red Wings, Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers. The following season, 1967-68, would bring about the Great Expansion, as the NHL doubled in size by adding the California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues.

I remember listening to the baritone inflection of Gardens’ public-address voice, Paul Morris, booming over large speakers that were suspended from steel girders near the score clock at center ice. Before the teams skated out to begin the match, Morris announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, these are the officials for tonight’s game… the referee, Vern Buffey; the linesmen, Matt Pavelich and Pat Shetler. The official scorer, Bill Graham. The timekeeper, Joe Lamantia. Penalty timekeeper, Red Hewitt. The goal judges… at the north end, Eddie Mepham; at the south end, Grant Easson.” Then, after a brief pause: “In goal for Detroit and wearing No. 30, Hank Bassen.” After another pause: “In goal for Toronto and wearing No. 30, Terry Sawchuk.”

On this milestone night for yours truly, the Maple Leafs skated to a 5-2 victory over Detroit; Toronto’s eighth win in 14 games to start the season. The first live goal I witnessed was scored just 52 seconds after the opening face-off: by Red Kelly of the Leafs (Larry Jeffrey earning the lone assist). Dave Keon (from Frank Mahovlich and Marcel Provovost) at 6:48; then Jim Pappin (from Bob Pulford and Mahovlich) at 12:08 (on the powerplay with Pete Goegan of Detroit off for holding) had the Leafs in front, 3-0, after the first period. Pulford (from Eddie Shack and John Brenneman) made it 4-0 at 6:11 of the second period. Ted Hampson (from Ray Cullen and Gordie Howe) finally put the visitors on the board at 16:15 of the middle frame – a powerplay marker with Shack serving a high-sticking penalty. Cullen scored (from Bert Marshall and Floyd Smith) at 8:57 of the third period to make the score interesting. But, captain George Armstrong (from Keon) restored Toronto’s three-goal margin just 44 seconds later, at 9:41, with Leo Boivin of Detroit off for hooking. The Red Wings outshot the Leafs, 37-35. I witnessed by first NHL fight with just 1:29 left in the game: Brian Conacher of the Leafs battling Detroit defenseman Gary Bergman.

The Leafs, of course, would win the Stanley Cup that season.

Need I remind you they haven’t won it since?

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

6 comments on “My First Visits to Maple Leaf Gardens

  1. Thanks for the memories Howard. We must be of the same vintage, my grade 6 school teacher used to give me a pair of Marlies tickets each week, Pete’s were my favorite team. Thanks Mr. Fraser, for giving a poor kid a chance to live the dream.

  2. Vivid memories from a little boy whose love of the game grew with time.
    Your collection is stunning.

  3. I have distant memories seeing those calendars at our family’s friend who had a barber shop.

    I wonder why the Leafs, or anyone else has resurrected that style of calendar. I’m sure they would sell well!

  4. First for me was December 30, 1970. I was 7. Went with my Dad. Leafs 3 Seals 1.

    On December 26, 1973, 10-year-old me and my 8-year-old brother went to the game alone on the subway. (Different world in 1973!) Leafs beat the Canadiens 9-2 that night.

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