One’s first game at Maple Leaf Gardens is an event every young hockey fan, like myself, remembers all his life. I think my dad said he got the seats from work. I was too excited to listen to such details because all that really mattered was we were going to a Leaf game!
I found out years later that my father had known for a few days that we were going, but my parents were worried I would be too wound up to sleep, so they told me the night before.The Saturday routine I was accustomed to remained the same: a morning game and a day on the street playing road hockey. There was the suggestion of an afternoon nap but to no avail. Who could sleep?!!! It was December 2, 1961. The Leafs were playing the Chicago Black Hawks. They could have been playing anyone for all I cared.
We got to the Gardens early and parked on Carlton by Allan Gardens. Walking in, the first thing that struck me was the excitement of the crowd. Even at that young age I had the feeling that something special was about to happen.
We went in the front doors and the huge framed pictures of previous Leaf championship teams struck me. It must have made quite an impression, as roughly 40 years later I would be bidding on those giant collages at the Gardens Auction. We stood underneath one of those giant collages and before I could say anything, my dad handed me a small brown leather-covered book that said “autographs” on the cover.
With a 7 years olds expression of “what’s this for?” on my face, my dad explained to me that the players would be coming in this way and that I could get them to sign the book if I wanted to. ‘The LEAFS??” “ No they come in another entrance, the HAWKS come in this way.” Ok, they are NHL players after all. So my dad would point out the player and I would slowly walk up and quietly ask the player for his autograph. Your own dad wouldn’t steer you wrong now, would he? As it turned out he didn’t. Murray Balfour, Ken Wharram, Pierre Pilote, Stan Mikita, Bill Hay, Eric Nesterenko, they were all so nice to me. It was very crowded and a lot of people were doing exactly what I was doing, but the players always seemed to notice me, actually seemed quite impressed that I knew who they were and eagerly signed my book.
Nothing prepared me for my next autograph. Bobby Hull, the Golden Jet! You could feel the excitement pick up immensely at the front entrance and beyond. The room seemed to light up and the whole crowd moved with him as he entered the front doors. I approached and again he found me, just like the other guys had, and he immediately reached down to take my pen and book. He waited until I squeaked out “could I have your autograph Mr. Hull, please?” “You sure can young man.” He asked me if I played hockey, and I think I said yes. Then he asked me who my favorite team was and I must have said the Leafs because he laughed and so did the crowd.
And at that exact moment someone in the crowd yelled “HEY BOBBY, YOU GOING TO GET 3 TONIGHT?’” Hull looked up and immediately said…”the name’s SIMPSON not SAMPSON.” The crowd roared with laughter and then he was gone. It was time to go in. What a surreal feeling going through the turnstiles. Again they struck a cord, as I sit here today and smile as I see two of those turnstiles in my room. The smell of popcorn, the sounds of the program seller screaming “GET YOUR PROGRAMS”, the souvenir stand, the escalators, and the pictures on the wall (I own about a dozen of those today). It was all moving so fast. After getting a program and a mini Dave Keon stick (with the small head shot on the blade) it was time to sit down. We got in for the warm-up and my heart sank thinking we’d missed some of the game, but my dad informed me they get to warm up first and the game would begin after they flooded the ice.
Our seats where about halfway up in the greens, they were seats that attached to the wall and flipped down. We didn’t leave until the 3 stars were announced. In those days wagons were pulled up and down the ice to resurface the ice. There was no Zamboni. The organ player played Christmas tunes. The building was massive. The ceiling went on forever. The 4- sided ‘players please’ time clock lit up to let you know when it was the last minute of play in the period. The sound of the bells ringing to end the period, the wavy green ‘seasons greetings’ painted inside each blue line, it was all so perfect. The players seemed to look and move differently. The crowd was much louder than on TV, and responded to the players much more vocally than you could hear on TV or the radio. The roar of excitement when Frank Mahovlich carried the puck, the clapping for his great skill when Dave Keon made a nifty play, and the roar of approval when Johnny Bower made a save. I loved this! I never wanted this to end!
I read recently that Wayne Gretzky, who is honored in my Hall Of Fame room, as are the Leafs, thought of the Gardens as his hallowed hall, as I did. He had attended his first game at the Gardens and sat in last row greys. He also never left until the 3 stars where announced. Dare I say? Great minds……….Probably not. Because one of his last memories at the Gardens was standing at center ice having just scored 3 goals and eliminating the Leafs from the semi-finals in game 7 of the ‘93 season. And on the same note, calling that game the 2nd greatest game he ever played (the first being game 2 of the 1987 Canada Cup). This was a tough act too follow. However, I too remember standing at center ice as one of my last fond memories of the Gardens. Just like Gretzky! It was 7 years later that I was bidding on the artifacts of the hallowed hall at the Maple Leaf Gardens Auction.
The Leafs beat Chicago that night in 1961 with a score of 6 to 4. What a game. What a night! What could possibly top what I had just witnessed? Roger Maris breaking Babe Ruth’s single season home run record? Gordie Howe becoming the first NHL player to play 1000 games? The Beatles signing a formal agreement to be managed by Brian Epstein? The debut of the Dick van Dyke show or Mr. Ed? Nah, in time they’d resonate some interest in my life. But after my first game at the Gardens? Give me the Toronto Maple Leafs and a game at the Gardens and it doesn’t get any better!