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48th Highlanders proud to keep Maple Leafs home-opener tradition alive

TORONTO - The 48th Highlanders Pipe and Drum Band is ready for one of the oldest traditions in the NHL.

Master warrant officers Iain Lang and Chris Reesor will lead the group on to the ice on Saturday before the Toronto Maple Leafs' home opener against the Ottawa Senators as part of a ceremony that's over 80 years old.

"There's a few jobs every year that everybody enjoys doing and it's definitely one of the ones on the top, that people anticipate throughout the year," said Lang, the band's musical director and pipe major.

Although it's a much-anticipated and high-profile event, nerves are rarely an issue for the band, which is a mix of active members of the 48th Highlanders, retirees from the Canadian Forces, as well as police officers and other emergency personnel.

"We're not really there that long and you're out on the ice for seven or 10 minutes and then you're off," Lang said. "And while you're out there for those minutes, it's not nerve-wracking but you've got a job to do and you're thinking about what you're doing and then it's done.

"It goes by really fast, it's not like seven minutes that seem to take forever and last a lifetime. It's the opposite."

The relationship between the Toronto-based regiment and the Maple Leafs dates back to 1931. Owner Conn Smythe and team president Jack Bickell were brainstorming ideas to add flair to the opening ceremonies of Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto's new hockey arena.

Bickell, who'd served overseas with the 48th Highlanders in the First World War, suggested the regiment's pipe and drums and its military band to add a sense of ceremony to the proceedings. Smythe, a veteran of both World Wars, readily agreed. The 48th Highlanders have not missed a Leafs' home opener since.

"The Pipes and Drums members really enjoy the relationship that we have with the Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment organization and that we've been able to maintain this tradition even with the move to the new facility, the Air Canada Centre," said Reesor, the band's drum major. "That they themselves are the ones that want to maintain this tradition in addition to ourselves is quite thrilling, actually."

Although the ceremony has deep historical roots, the band tries to vary its musical selections. Alexander Muir's "The Maple Leaf Forever" is always played, but otherwise the 48th Highlanders try to keep the performance fresh.

"We just pick another static piece to play with the military band, the brass-reed band," said Lang. "Anything we play out there is well-rehearsed so it's not difficult. All of the musical hurdles are done and over with before you ever get to the ice."

Of course, there are some unique challenges to marching 50 people in full highland regalia across ice as they maintain a strict formation and play music. Band members have to affix spikes or other devices to the bottom of their boots to grip the ice. During rehearsals they practice short stepping and landing flat footed to help maintain their balance.

Still, accidents have occurred. In the early 1990s one band member bought new strips for his boots before the performance, but they fell off one by one with each step he took on the ice.

"Of course, because we go out there right after the flood, after they've done their warm-up skate they go out and flood the ice, so there's still water setting up and freezing while we're out there," said Reesor, laughing. "All those pieces that he left behind were now frozen in the ice and we're standing down waiting for the opening ceremonies to finish.

"I think it was (goaltender Felix) Potvin was in the crease chopping away trying to get this thing out of his crease so it wasn't a hindrance for the game."

Falls, however, are rare. The two master warrant officers could only remember one band member falling in their combined 50 years with the band.

Both Lang and Reesor have strong memories of their first time on the ice.

"Scary. Harrowing. You're out there, you know you're on national television and you're trying to march on the ice," said Reesor, who's been with the 48th Highlanders for 23 years. "You're trying to play, you're trying to watch your dressing, you're trying to concentrate on what's going on, and you're trying not to slip and fall down on national television."

Lang, who debuted with the band at Maple Leaf Gardens in October 1982 as a boy piper, tried to focus on the task at hand but was struck by the significance of playing in the historic arena.

"I don't remember being terrified, I remember being in awe of playing in the building," said Lang. "You're so focused on what you're doing and at that point in time I was still pretty young, so there was lots of guidance from the older guys. It was just another band job, really."

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