Maple Leaf Gardens may be long gone, but GM Cliff Fletcher is back for another run as GM. (Photo by B. Bennett/Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)
I was inside Maple Leaf Gardens this weekend for the first time in nearly a decade.
It looked a lot better than I thought it would. It appears to still be intact inside; it’s as clean as it ever was and, surprisingly, most of the seats still are in place. (Remember the faraway greys, the slightly better greens, the blues at each end, then down to the prime reds and all-but-unattainable golds?)
In fact, it looks like the Leafs could play there tomorrow (Click HERE to see a photo gallery). The scoreboard still hangs over center ice, 10 years of being suspended in the darkness. (Hey! Just like Leafs fans!) Old photos still line some of the hallways: pictures of the Gardens being constructed (it took six months, at a total cost of $1.5 million, in 1931 during the darkest days of the Depression); of society women gleefully taking in a game, and of course, the requisite black-and-white action shots from hockey days gone by.
The concession stands remain, too; there’s a curtain pulled over the service counter, but you could practically smell the hot dogs and hear those delicious little doughnuts sizzling away in the deep fryer.
The arena floor was covered in flat, black boards, but you didn’t have to stretch the imagination much to envision a game-day crew coming out and stripping off the woodwork to expose a fresh sheet of white ice underneath, just like they do at the Air Canada Centre before every game.
The Gardens were open to the public on the first Saturday of October – no, it wasn’t a Hockey Night in Canada flashback – as part of ‘Nuit Blanche,’ an all-night event celebrating contemporary art at various venues around the city of Toronto.
And, as you might expect, Maple Leaf Gardens was a top destination when word went ’round that the old barn was opening its doors.
I won’t try to explain the “art installation” at the Gardens – OK, basically, it was two movie screens, facing each other from opposite ends of the center ice red line, with what appeared to be milk on the screens, which would vibrate in time to a loud digital voice that said random words.
Like I said, it was just good to be back inside the Gardens for the first time in a long while.
I attended 15-20 Leafs games during the late 1980s, but had only been inside the old barn once in nearly 20 years. The last time I was there was on Boxing Day in 1998. I was working at the Timmins Daily Press in Northern Ontario and came down to Toronto for a few days over the holiday season.
As it happened, Timmins native son Steve Sullivan was breaking in with the Leafs, although he wasn’t having a lot of success at the time. I attended a morning skate and talked with Sullivan for a story afterwards; and talked with him again that night following a 4-3 loss to Montreal. (Sullivan dressed and played in the game, but he didn’t get much ice time after a second period turnover that led to a Habs goal. He didn’t get much ice time, period, but he really didn’t get much ice time after that turnover.)
Less than a year later, Sullivan was dealt to Chicago and his career took off. The Leafs? Well, they left the Gardens for the upscale ACC. So the bottom line has taken off, but it left the team behind.
Anyhow, back to the Gardens, open again after all these years. What I’ll probably remember most from this latest peek inside is, well, how small Maple Leaf Gardens looked. Like, if you stood at center ice and looked up, you wondered if the upper bowl was missing. Or maybe it just needed to be filled with 15,746 screaming fans, to add a little atmosphere and blue-and-white attitude.
Whatever the case, the modern-day sports fan will never know the cozy confines of arenas like Maple Leaf Gardens, the Boston Garden or even the Montreal Forum.
But, on Saturday night at least, fans lined up around the corner for a skate down Gardens lane. And it looked just like we remembered: musty and old, and ready for hockey.
Sam McCaig’s From The Point column appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Have a point to make with Sam McCaig? You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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