T’was The Night Before Practice.

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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.