Walking into Leaside Memorial Community Gardens that Friday night wasn’t any different than the hundreds of rinks I’d walked into over the years. Approaching the main door it suddenly hit me.
The year was 2005; I was about to play in a charity hockey game against the NHL Alumni. Working on Bay Street (I still do) our company had help raise money for a local cause. The reward was a game against the NHL Alumni. My mind raced back in time as I looked down at my 10-year-old son Ryan. He was coming to watch me play. He had seen me play many times in the past so this was nothing new.
I suddenly flashed back to when I was his age and I was looking up at my dad coming to watch him play at Leaside in the Sunday morning men’s league. Between the ages of 8-12 (my mom made my dad stop because he kept getting hurt) my Sunday mornings during the winter months, were spent at Leaside Arena.
Leaside Memorial Community Gardens has been a focal point for the Leaside community and surrounding neighbourhoods for more than 50 years, since the Arena opened its doors in 1951 at the intersection of Millwood and Laird. We lived close by in the suburb of Scarborough.
Leaside was so much more than any of the other rinks I visited at that age. My dad would watch the other games when his was finished. So I would see four games every Sunday. Toronto Maple Leaf star forward Frank Mahovlich’s dad was the skate sharpener at Leaside. I would hang around his tiny booth just to look at Frank’s dad. I gave Mr. Mahovlich a colour poster of Frank that he hung in his shop. It stayed there until the day he retired. His grandson recently told me he has a picture of his grandfather in front of his shop and that poster is in the background.
That same poster hung in my bedroom for years and little did I know, that gift from my uncle in the early 60’s would lead to a lifetime of collecting. Now 50+ years later, I have what is considered the largest collection of Toronto Maple Leaf artifacts in existence.
Ryan seemed more interested in what NHL player he was going to see that night rather than me recount the historical significance the arena had on my life.
Entering the rink it still had the magical feel I felt every time I entered it as a young boy. Even though the rink was only 10 years old at the time, it seemed so much older.
As a young boy I had played and practiced at Leaside many times. Now 40 years later walking into the same arena with my 10-year-old son, time seemed to stand still. The good “rink smell” was very familiar. The dressing rooms were still located in the bowels of the arena. The snack bar looked the same. The skate-sharpening booth was still in tact, minus Mr. Mahovlich of course. The rink itself looked the same although the wooden seats were gone. So was the massive picture of the Queen. I tried to bring Ryan back in time and visualize what those Sunday mornings were like. Hunting for broken sticks, pucks, rolling up used tape into balls, the makeshift pick up games under the picture of the Queen, the snack bar, Mr. Mahovlich, his grandfather playing with no shoulder pads or a helmet. He politely listened as I excitedly went on about how great this place was back in the 60’s and now I was able to share it all with him. But as a 10-year-olds attention span is pretty short, he was soon more interested in comparing the treats at the snack bar than how to avoid the rink attendant from breaking up a game of shots.
Leaside also circled back into my life in another form. For a few years they held a weekly sports memorabilia show in the community room. I attended those shows frequently and at the time did smile at the fact that one of my first pieces of memorabilia came as a result of Leaside.
That night of the charity game as I skated around in the warm-up, I caught eyes with Ryan. Immediately all those images of the past flashed through my head. I did wonder what Ryan was thinking as he sat their with his treat playing his Gameboy.
Today Leaside is still standing. A second rink has been added and the rink has been modernized. However, that one cold wintery night in 2005 took me back to a time that helped shape my life forever. I never dreamt that one day I would be reminiscing about things that seemed so natural and pure in those days. It had an element of deceit because we had to hide from the rink attendant a lot of the time. So it wasn’t something we would talk about, but we just did it.
Sharing that moment with my son is something I hope he will always remember and as he gets older even share with his son one day.
I did catch him pump his fist at one point during the game. He later explained he had beaten level two on his Gameboy and was advancing to a higher challenge.