We parked the car in the Humane Society parking lot, like we had many times before. It was west of Yonge St and north of Carlton. My dad and I made our way along the side streets toward Yonge St. It was dusk and cold that 13th day of February 1999. The usual array of freaks, drug addicts and hookers were just starting to arrive in this seedy part of downtown Toronto. They looked to be getting ready for the usual night of activities, seemingly unaware of what was happening a few blocks away.
Our destination that early evening was Maple Leaf Gardens, for the final game in Maple Leaf history at the grand old building. Our routine was the same but we could both sense something special was about to happen over the next few hours. Making our way on to Yonge St. and heading south towards Carlton it was again the usual cast of characters filling the street with noises and activity. It wasn’t anything unfamiliar to us on our usual route to the Gardens. We over the years had attended hundreds of games together so we were immune to any of the antics taking place all around us we walked.
My first game at the Gardens was Dec 2 1961. My dad got the tickets from work. My parents didn’t inform me until the last minute for fear I’d be too excited and wouldn’t sleep the night before. They were right. The excitement was unbearable. We parked on Carlton, east of the Gardens. Walking towards the Gardens, I was only looking skyward trying to take it all in and thinking I must be dreaming. The same array of street characters may have been present but to a 7 year old seeing his first NHL game, who would notice?
Rounding the corner at Carlton I immediately sensed that this was no ordinary Saturday night game. The street was alive! Police stood in the middle of Carlton directing traffic away from the congested area. For all the years I have attended games, never had I experienced a scene such as this unfolding in front of me. Church St. that ran north south of the Gardens was shut down. Molson’s had erected a huge tent that required special passes to celebrate the final night. A band was playing rock music. Ticket scalpers moved quickly through the crowd.
“TICKETS WHOS SELLING HOCKEY TICKETS?” I’M BUYING, WHO’S SELLING?” “TICKETS.”
The homeless beggars lined the street holding out hope that tonight’s special game might encourage the patrons to be a little more giving. We kept walking. The candy apple cart that we passed hundreds of times over the years and operated by the same vendor, had competition tonight.
Walking west towards the Gardens holding my dad’s hand, I asked him a few times if we were going to be late. It was question after question as we walked briskly towards the entrance.
“Dad why’s that man asking for money?”
Without waiting for my dad’s answer I blurted out my next rapid question.
“Henry says they sell programs at the game, can I get one?”
My friend Henry lived on our street and had been to a game so he knew what he was talking about I assumed. We moved with the crowd as it funneled to the north side of Carleton, crossing at Church St. and quickly entered the building. Entering the front doors, I couldn’t help but notice the huge collage of past Maple Leaf teams that hung on the walls in front of me. Little did I realize at the time but close to forty years later I’d be bidding on those same collages at the Gardens auction.
“PROGRAMS GET YOUR PROGRAMS, LEAF LINEUPS, GET YOUR PROGRAMS”
Similar to humming the first song you hear to start your day; those simple words that echoed throughout the entranceway entering the Gardens that night, still gave me chills almost forty years later. If you were lucky enough to hear those words it could only mean one thing; you were attending a Leaf game.
Pushing through the turnstile my dad passed me my first game program.
“Dad let’s go in the side entrance, its too nuts out here”, I shouted, leading him that way.
The crowd didn’t move any faster as we shied away from the people enjoying the last night’s festivities on the street. I just wanted to see the game.
“Dad why are all the seats different colours?” I impatiently asked waiting for my first game to begin. My mind was like a sponge trying to take in all that was happening around us. The seats magically continued to fill, as I interrogated my dad.
“Were in the end reds tonight”
I said, while using my precious last game program as a pointer.
I’d given my dad a ticket to the last game for Christmas. The card with the ticket was an emotional moment for us both. I stated it was only fitting that since he had taken me to my first game, it seemed only right I reciprocate and take him to the last. More importantly I went on, everything good in my life came as a result of this great game of hockey. It was essential we share this last game together.
The Leafs won the first game I attended at the Gardens, 6-4 against the Chicago Black Hawks. I recall hugging my dad extra special and thanking him as he carried me to the car that night.
After the final buzzer and exiting the Gardens on to Carlton, I put my arm around my dad and said,
“I’m glad we got to see the last game together.”
Despite the fact the Leafs lost the final game at the Gardens 6-2 to the Chicago Black Hawks it’s a night I will remember forever.