I’m often asked if my passion for collecting extends throughout the family or am I an anomaly in that regard (some say I’m an anomaly in a whole different world but that’s another story altogether). My two brothers became interested but more from a passive angle, however they did walk many shows with me and at one point helped manage our own table at memorabilia gatherings. Obviously my two children grew up around the hobby attending many shows, swap meets, flea markets and any outlet that may have uncovered an unknown treasure. They dabbled like most kids with the cards of their era, Pokémon and Barney, progressing to pro sports when they started watching the games. Ryan had a fleeting interest, preferring to play the sports instead and it seemed most of the kids he grew up with preferred an x-box over a box-set of trading cards. Andra exhibited a keen interest from an observation standpoint rather than an accumulation one, preferring to ask a question about the significance of a piece rather than acquire it herself although she developed a love for Disney memorabilia, acquiring some vintage pieces that remain a part of her life today.

Of my children, Andra is probably the closest to me when it comes to real passion for the collection. Our first show together I pushed her stroller around the massive aisle-ways at the National in Cleveland that included Gordie Howe giving us his cab. For good measure he helped us load everything in the trunk of the car; she was sound asleep the whole time.

The most memorable outing we attended was the National Sports Convention in Anaheim, California in July 2000; she was eight at the time. The convention center was a short bus ride to Disneyland so the deal was half a day at each. Now the trader in me had red flags popping up everywhere thinking I was getting snookered into a trip to Disneyland with an appearance at the show.

While she did have an obvious interest in Disneyland I found out very quickly that the sports show held her attention as much, if not even more than the family theme park. I should point out that Ryan who was three years behind Andra would attend shows but the minute we’d arrive he’d seek out his “treat” and then want to leave. Proceeding with caution to Anaheim I was prepared for some pushback attending the show.

Not only did Andra enthusiastically engage in all the surroundings of the huge show room she was an excellent spotter of pieces I was searching out. At one point I was in the process of negotiating a Notre Dame four horsemen rookie card and for the life of me couldn’t remember the aisle one of the few I was examining was located, “Dad, are you looking for that good condition Notre Dame card?” “Yes I am, why?” “I know where it is, c’mon I’ll show you.”

In a state of bewilderment I held her hand and she proceeds to direct me to the exact booth with the best-conditioned card I’d err we’d seen. The card is still in the collection today.

And so it began, she was barely tall enough to see over the top of the tables but nevertheless with superman vision sought out items on our wish list.

Not only did she discover items, Andra made suggestions of pieces that may fit the theme of our collection. When she visits the “Room” nowadays there are many items Andra watched me purchase over the years but it’s the items on display from our trip to Anaheim that resonate with us. That bond will last a lifetime.

It’s very apparent how impressionable our children really are and as parents we really set the foundation for them to carry forward. Andra is now a first time parent herself and will soon leave a lasting impression on her own child. Here’s hoping and praying that if I encouraged anything, is a new Leaf fan!!

Christmas is a joyous and wonderful time of the year that can mean so much to everyone in different ways. Aside from the obvious and what the holiday season means to us personally is one thing, but it’s all the activity and events that surround the festive time that creates the buzz. The holiday parties amongst friends, co-workers and family dominate most of the weekends leading up to the big day. Workers nervously await year end bonuses from their employees; the New Year hovers around the corner sprinkled with an assortment of resolutions made in good faith, though rarely carried out, but nevertheless are all part of the process.

Growing up in the sixties unlike today, winter was really upon us come December and that meant lots of snow. The powdery white stuff represented ice forts, snowball fights, awesome street hockey games played on icy roads and of course outdoor shinny games at the local school rinks. We naturally would all try to make our own version of Maple Leaf Gardens in the backyard with some success, but the real test of accomplishment depended on how many pucks the neighbours returned early each spring. However, besides the obvious cashing in of gifts, including a surprise hockey related treasure, once the twenty minutes (maybe that long) of ripping, tearing and jumping for joy was finished, it was just another day. Although some may argue the holiday treats and big turkey dinner made it official.

Once the day was complete, it was the kid’s version of “receiver’s remorse” but to me it meant one day closer to attending the Leaf open practice at the Gardens. I recall opening an envelope from Santa at the age of 10 and a pair of tickets from Dominion wedged into the fold of the card (which I neglected to read of course), with the words, Leafs, practice and Maple Leaf Gardens boldly staring me in the face. My heart skipped a beat with excitement trying decipher what this meant and before I could spray the words, my dad was filling in the details. It was all a blur as I envisioned my heroes practicing and wondering if Punch (Imlach) yelled at them when they messed up a drill, like my coach did.

“Dad how long is the practice and will they scrimmage?”
“I imagine they are on for an hour or so and they probably will.”
I can still visualize the broad smile and look of joy on my dad’s face while he explained the plan for the day. Now a father myself I can relate to that feeling like no other as a parent bestowing a priceless gift to your child and the look on their face. I could barely contain my excitement until I found out I had to wait almost 5 days for the special day to arrive. It was four sleepless nights of anticipation I can assure you that.

Thursday December 30th, 1965 finally arrived and after parking a short distance east on Carleton, by Allan Gardens (we parked here for games as well) something felt different making our way to the seats in the Greens. I’d only been to a few games at that stage of my life but considered myself experience enough to know that “feeling” of the Gardens. The halls had that distinct aroma of popcorn and hotdogs, ushers escorting the crowd towards the seats seemed familiar but it soon dawned on me the crisp loud voice of the program sellers were noticeably absent. The buzz of crowd noise had a higher pitch than normal realizing as we sat down that most of the 14,000+ in attendance were kids.

The roar of the crowd was deafening as the Leafs made their way to the ice. Leaning over for a closer look, I was fixated on each and every player making his way to the ice surface taking attendance to make sure no one was missing. They weren’t.

For the next hour and a bit, I watched in utter awe as the players effortlessly went through the drills. Some looked familiar and others new too me, however each drill was performed at an up tempo, game like pace. I remember thinking, my own coach continuously preaching to my team, “you play like you practice” and if the Leafs can do it, so can I.

My favourite drill was the end to end skating races (known as the bag skate today) exhibiting the beautiful skating stride of Dave Keon and Ron Ellis; they seemed to glide above the ice and instantly stopped on the end red-line spraying snow that hit the glass over the end boards. That was my “wow factor,” and simply a thing of beauty in my eyes. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent after that day trying to glide and spray snow like that.

The open practice became an annual event in our household and reached the pinnacle in 1971. This team friendly affair turn nasty that year with Rick Ley and Jim Dorey engaging in a real fight with the end result, Dorey lost to the Leafs for 3-weeks with a lacerated finger from punching Ley in the mouth. The most controversial incident until that day usually had someone (like Eddie Shack) spraying a teammate with water as they skated by the bench.

The Maple Leaf annual open practice is just one of those lasting memories adults from my era can really appreciate and hold dearly forever. I still think of the last practice I attended every time I hear George Harrison’s, “My Sweet Lord” that was playing on my dad’s car radio, driving to the Gardens with a car full of kids that day. Today with social media, a fan can practically skate around the ice with a player while riding a Ferris wheel needing only a smart phone to observe the whole experience.

The in-game or practice experience should not be lost on any of us and lacking today is an appreciation for the elite skill level the modern player possesses. Hockey people marveled at the out of this world skill-level a Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky exhibited during practice honing their skills, leaving observers, coaches and teammates speechless.

So as the Christmas season comes and goes there isn’t a year that goes by I don’t reflect back on the Dominion Stores open Leaf practice with very fond memories. What made it even more special was my mom shopped at Loblaws.

I had just turned onto the QEW this 3rd day of December, prepared for the two-hour plus trek to a small community north of London Ontario, called Mt. Brydges. The purpose of my trip was to watch my son Ryan play goal for the Lambeth Lancers against the local team, the Bulldogs. With Bob McCown voicing his criticism of the Jays latest GM hire faintly echoing throughout the car, I found myself day dreaming about what laid ahead in the next few hours.

About 7 months ago Ryan mentioned he’d like to play hockey again and bounced the idea off me for my opinion. He hadn’t played for a few years and to come back would be extremely difficult not only physically but simply because all the teams wouldn’t know who he was. To his credit he started a strict training regiment and was on the ice 5 times a week training with a number of pro-players making enough of an advancement to receive a couple of offers to try-out.

Late in August I set off for Listowel with the Jays game on the radio and a large double-double Tim’s in the coffee cup holder. Listowel Ontario, is a community of 6,000 centered in a farmland area north west of Kitchener.

Outside of the odd grunt or cheer depending on what was happening in the Jays game at the time, I wasn’t paying much attention to the surroundings whle heading north of Kitchener until spotting what looked like a horse drawn buggy about a mile ahead, plodding along the shoulder of the now two-lane highway. I realized I was in Amish country.

Coming to a stop at the small intersection after a short drive from the main street, I felt a warm smile break out on my face observing the sight in front of me.

There was the rink, but what really caught my attention was the community center, curling rink and ball field all centered right in the middle of this mature town, established first in 1852. All of the facilities were older but immaculately cared for. The ball field was encompassed with wooden bleachers and the field manicured to perfection. This was a Norman Rockwell moment.

My mind raced back in time to my childhood and even my hockey life travelling throughout the country. I was picturing this exact setting in every small town I ever played in, including Unionville, in the days the road leading to this then farm community arena was gravel and dirt. (I would end up living there for 18-years).

Walking from the car to the arena, I noticed how quiet, almost peaceful it was and crispness in the air, reminding that fall would soon be here. Opening the door to the rink I immediately was impacted with the “hockey smell” associated with any mature rink, along with the sound of pucks banging off the boards and the rush of cool air from the ice surface. Oh how I missed these simple pleasures.

The stale aroma of popcorn and fresh coffee was prevalent, yet most of the parents had Tim Horton cups in their hands. I paused for a moment to take it all in and must have been obvious because a few of the parents gave me an inquisitive look and then smiled. They get it.

My curiosity as a researcher had me scurrying around the rink looking for anything to identify some of the history. I struck gold discovering a plaque dedicated to famous hockey legend Cyclone Taylor who grew up 50-miles north of Listowel in the town of Tara but moved here in 1890. He would play professionally from 1905 -23 yet made a point of returning to Listowel every summer until he died in 1979. Thus the hockey club honoured him by naming the team the Listowel Cyclones.

The arena is on the original spot it was built, but tragedy struck Feb 28, 1959, when the roof collapsed on a boy’s hockey team playing a scrimmage game killing 7-of them along with the recreation director and a referee. They are all memorialized in an enclosed glass case.

The city player as a youngster will never experience this unless they move to play out of town or maybe the odd tournament. With the fast moving lives we all have, today’s rinks are complexes with gyms, restaurants and up to six ice surfaces. The only thing on anyone’s mind is, how close can we park to the rink and what will I order in the restaurant.

Travelling the circuit Ryan’s playing has revived a whole new awareness not lost on him either, usually arriving a few hours before the game, he will even take a quick drive around the town.   I find myself envisioning kids playing pick up games on the frozen ponds around the small towns or just a simple road hockey game on the slippery streets throughout the winter. Its Canadiana clearly defined. It’s whom we are as Canadians and a part of our heritage that should not be lost on any of us.

Game nights in particular provide an insight to the rituals of the local hockey club. Groups of teenage girls and guys gather to cheer on classmates representing the town, the presence of family members standout and of course the resident rink rats who’ve not only attended games throughout most of their lives but may have even played for the local team blend in with the crowd. The local volunteers who sell the tickets, programs and 50-50 draws, are integral pieces, adding to the ambiance of the experience with a warm, small-town smile and thank you.

Taking this all in from the spectator’s perspective, I visualize this exact scenario unfolding right across the country in hundreds of settings such as this one. It really is the innocence of the game at its best with the whole community chipping in, providing the local kids an opportunity to play this great game of ours. But the real victory in all of this is those same kids grow up in the community and reciprocate the favour by volunteering themselves, giving a new generation of hopefuls a chance to play.

We as Canadians must never lose sight of what separates us from the rest of the world.   Observing these small towns pull together for the benefit of the community really does identify us as a nation and for that, we should never forget.

The first weekend of November is the mecca for a sports fan. It’s the one weekend of the year when all the major sports cross paths and Toronto hosts the semi-annual hockey memorabilia show at the International Center. I’ve attended card shows as long as I can remember and this, the high light show of the season, The Super Bowl for hockey collectors the past 25 years. However with the passing of time and social media, it has become a shadow of itself almost negating the necessity to walk the massive aisles. Today, a collector merely goes on line to search the various sites and auctions to hunt treasures and the only pre-requisite is a credit card.

The autograph pavilion along with the corporate area offering new products and giveaways, are the lures drawing the crowds today. For the purist such as myself, it’s a time to reacquaint with friends and business associates from the hobby. There is always the chance of a “find” and as any collector will tell you, that’s the common denominator among us.

The hobby has become a social media networking enterprise with most of the business executed through auctions and online sites. I mentioned in a previous blog of the staggering number of auction houses at the National this past July and while the Toronto show had a smattering of operators pitching the attendees, it failed in comparison.

The show a third the size of the U.S. National attracted very good crowds for the weekend. I connected with numerous people from the hobby, some fellow collectors, others I’ve dealt with for many years along many I never will. I get a kick listening to the same complaints about certain not so reputable vendors from other dealers and fellow collectors while thinking to myself, why that is the hobby isn’t regulated with more scrutiny.

My one fear leaving Chicago this past July centered around the number of auction houses that have surfaced and with competition so fierce for consignors, how much due diligence or lack of, has been taken from the hobby? Walking the floor of the Toronto show it occurred to me that the same could be said for the dealer standing on the other side of the table. Are these guys really putting in the work to authenticate items or taking the sellers word before they consign the artifact in an auction?

I stopped to chat with a dealer I’ve done business with for years and check out what new items they’ve uncovered. They had a few things of particular interest to me, with a couple of the old mini sticks from the 60’s and early 70’s standing out. The souvenir sticks were sold at the Gardens and on the blade it featured a small headshot of a Maple Leaf. Two of the players Bower and Plante were on mini goalie sticks that are tougher to find than the regular version. After pitching about the scarcity of the pair I of course had an immediate interest and asked to examine the pieces a little closer. The Bower looked in great shape, had the proper stamps on the stick and wasn’t cracked. The Plante had no such stamps and while clean, looked to new and more concerning was the stapled picture on the blade of the stick. The staples where too big and clearly showed two small pin holes at the top and bottom of the picture indicating to me this picture had come from another stick and reassembled. It was interesting because a small group of collectors had gathered to listen to my analysis thus I didn’t want to make a scene when informed of the price ($550 for the pair) followed by the standard,
“Mike there’s not a lot of room in this for us and that’s basically what we paid.”
I questioned the price and his partner said,
“Aww I paid $200 a piece so I’ve got a little room.”
The other chap who I also have known and dealt with for years although I’ve always been on my guard with him, embarrassingly looked at me and mumbled,
“His mind isn’t working, I know what he paid.”
At this point I was more dumbfounded than disappointed. Knowing these guys stretch the truth and they all do, but the point here is the blatant disregard to recognize the anomalies of the two artifacts. How could seasoned pros miss such an obvious flaw?

Did they really care and figure who’ll notice or simply just too busy to take it a step further?
The lack of quality items, tables filled with common product, discounts of varying degrees on cards was another distinguishable observation wandering the room. I managed to find a couple of terrific pieces but it was a prearranged deal with a vendor I transact with on a regular basis, however he still manages to save a surprise piece for me upon my arrival and this year was no exception. Collectors know the Chex cereal pictures off the box (1960’s) but to find paper copies of the photos is extremely rare because they were never sold to the public; ten different Leafs of the paper version came home with me.

A visit to the show is always an adventure and for years it wouldn’t be uncommon for me to be in attendance all three days until the very last moment hoping for that last second transaction. Today while one day was enough I found myself more of an observer and listener than a participant. My level of interest is of the private or auction scale now and I find that disappointing. Nothing used to excite me more than leaning over a table hunting for that treasure that unbeknownst to me, may never existed until that very moment. That’s the epitome of the find.

The encouraging thing coming away from the show was the long line-ups at the autograph pavilion, the crowded aisles and the assortment of ages filtering throughout the show. This gives hope that the hobby isn’t dying and purists are still willing to search the room for the elusive find instead of banging a few keys, typing in a credit card number and signing for the package when it arrives.

What the dealer of today has to realize is that the transformation of the hobby puts more onus to educate not only himself, but the collector on every piece he offers. I know that’s a little unrealistic, but if we can take small steps to bring credibility back into the hobby, then everybody wins and how can that be a bad thing?

Throughout our travels abroad Deb and I have explored many museums and galleries over the years. We initially sought out a variation of sites to inspire ideas while in the midst of designing our “Room” at home. The history and time periods of these wonderful exhibits left us breathless at times but I couldn’t help note that visiting a variety of pubs would also offer some design ideas. I didn’t usually win that proposal but the compromise entailed a few pints for me after the tour while we discussed what we had just observed.
It is with disbelief that Toronto happens to be one of the only major cities in North America that does not have a museum dedicated to its history and in the same vein neither do the Maple Leafs. There is work currently underway to proceed with homes for both and the city of Toronto Museum is on line. This is of particular interest to me because one day I will have to part with my vast collection and would like it to remain intact so it can be enjoyed in the future. Besides, it took me a lifetime to acquire.
The process of change for us will be difficult (well for me anyway) and almost surreal, so it is with earnest enthusiasm we are exploring all options. Recently it dawned on Deb and myself that we have never traveled to Ottawa to see what our own country offers in the way of historical preservation. I’ve been to Ottawa a few times for minor hockey tournaments and to see the Leafs win a few playoff games against the Senators but other than that, the only good Senator I’ve known was ex-Maple Leaf Frank Mahovlich who was appointed as one. Now I must say I have an on going friendly wager with Ottawa owner Eugene Melynk when our two teams meet. I did mention to Eugene when he visited our “Room” that the only reason he was allowed was due to his generous donation to St. Mikes new athletic field. That reminds me, he still owes me a dinner from last year.
The good folks at the Canadian Museum of History welcomed us to tour the sites and offered a behind the scenes observation of the archives. It was with an open mind we made the four drive to the Capital a week ago with the plan too make our way around the museum and the following morning a guided tour of the archives.
The first thing that caught my attention arriving that morning was the sure beauty of the city enclosed by these magnificent landmark buildings. I’ve spent so many years hating the Ottawa Senators it never seemed possible such could surround them. The CMH building was massive and attracts a million visitors a year standing as Canada’s largest museum. With our 150th anniversary as a country coming up in 2017 as well as the 100th year for the Maple Leafs they expect visitors to increase exponentially. The museum is three levels and from the ground floor takes you back 5,000 years to the first settlers progressing throughout the years to the modern era. The CMH is undertaking a massive renovation to the third level that happens to cut the story of the growth Canada as a nation short, however once completed visitors will realize the wait was well worth it.
After a few hours we made the short walk to the Military Museum. It was fantastic. The attention to detail, facts and realism was world class and even for the casual observer, well worth the visit.
The next morning we anxiously prepared to meet one of the curators for our guided tour of the archives. After the small taste the previous day we where both filled with curiosity and questions. We toured the stored artifacts in climate-controlled environments and designated to the periods in time. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and very passionate about her work so we got along famously. Sensing our thirst for historical significance pertaining to each piece, it was with great pride she patiently walked us through the steps an item takes before it’s displayed. The researching of the artifact, documentation, photography and possibility of restoration if there’s a hint of damage or erosion, are all part of the process before an item is museum worthy. Each step is meticulously carried out with the skill of a surgeon, it takes time, expertise, patience and a vision of what the end result will be. It’s with painstaking detail each piece is handled leaving Deb and myself walking away extremely impressed, and proud.
What excited us on the drive home leaving Ottawa that day centered on the vast scope of history covered in the numerous museums throughout the nation’s capital. We as a nation have to make more of an effort to tell our story as Canadians. We have a long, proud and fantastic history but we just didn’t become the best country in the world by accident. It took ingenuity, foresight and sacrifice to set the standard of who we are. The energy and passion oozing from each of the researchers we spent time with at the CMH was infectious and they are determined to get our story too the world.
It’s of particular interest to myself to hear the plans to relay our growth as a nation through hockey. There is a small sampling of the game currently on display but needs work. The acquisition of the oldest stick has set the wheels in motion. The appeal of the Maple Leafs across the country in the early years (long before social media) is a story they want to tell but I think the story reaches far beyond that. How many people are aware of the Coloured Hockey League, played between 1895-1920 in Nova Scotia? Rules from the league are used in the NHL today. But why stop there? There is proof I’ve mentioned before that baseball was first played in Canada along with football, lacrosse and basketball.
The year 2017 is a year of significance; from the 150th birthday of Canada, 100th anniversary of the Leafs, 50th year of expansion in the NHL, so its nice to see the necessary steps in progress to make this celebration one the world will stand up and take notice. Can’t wait!