I saw my first game at Maple Leaf Gardens as a six year old kid in 1996. As someone who was unfortunately born into the sado-masochistic cult known as Leafs fans — Thanks Dad! Great taste! We’ll discuss the Buffalo Bills later! — this was a big moment in my life. February 24, 1996. The Dallas Stars rolled into town and the big storyline was recently acquired winger Dave Gagner was playing his first game against his former team. It also turned out to be Pat Burns’ last ever home game as Leafs head coach because that team was definitely his fault and had nothing to do with an utter lack of depth.
The Leafs lost that game by a 3-2 score because of course they did. Andy Moog narrowly outdueled Felix Potvin but hey, Dave Gagner scored so take that Dallas. I will say though, one thing I recall much more vividly than the soul-sucking way the Toronto Maple Leafs continued to do what they do was the awe I had at six years old for this arena. The banners, the pictures, the scoreboard, even the way the rink was painted. It was an opiate well before I knew the term and it came courtesy of Maple Leaf Gardens.
That rink closed, we thought, for good a little under three years later. But, as it turns out, hockey came back to MLG courtesy of the Ryerson Rams this past Friday night.
We can’t call it Maple Leaf Gardens anymore because MLSE will sue the pants off of you — unfortunately “lawsuit proof a blogpost” didn’t turn up much in the way of help on Google, so I throw myself at the mercy of the forthcoming deposition — so I should be clear that it was, in fact, the inaugural home opener at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre this past Friday which just happened to take place in that glorious dome on top of Maple Leaf Gardens.
Unfortunately Ryerson dropped a 5-3 decision to the Queen’s Golden Gaels (Woot!) but one thing is ever apparent after the festivities: it’s good to have hockey back in at Carlton and Church once again.
Prior to the announcement that Ryerson would be a dropping their new athletic center in the building, all we knew was that there would be a grocery store appearing in a hockey shrine. Ryerson’s arrival has taken some of the sting out of the supermarket living there, but I still vividly recall the first time I saw it — much like my first game.
I was on a dawn bus from Toronto to Kingston after pulling one of my patented graveyard shifts on theScore’s web desk — those who know me know exactly what I’m referring to and are likely laughing or weeping at my expense. My bus took a detour to get to the Don Valley Parkway, and stopped right in front of the Gardens. I looked over and felt my soul forcibly removing itself from my body. I began to wonder if there was anything left to live for as I gazed into space, under the immoral glow of a Loblaws sign which had been fixated to the shrine where my heroes once resided.
To their credit, this appears to be a rather nice store. However, a cathartic experience this was not. This was very much my catastrophe in the Greek sense of the word.
Now, as I venture forward into a world without NHL hockey — very much with the same apathetic sentiment held by Mr. Cam Charron — I have to say that the rebirth of hockey in MLG is a very exciting development. I’ve know this was coming for some time, as I’m sure many of you are familiar with my OUA love, but for it all to come about and unfold it real time is a truly different experience. To know I can hop on a subway and catch a hockey game at the Mattamy Athletic Centre is reality. To know that perhaps I can recapture some of that high I felt at a time in my life where velcro shoes were still an acceptable thing to wear, is truly spectacular.
The Ryerson Rams got that middle-in fastball when they had the opportunity to stake their place in one of Toronto’s most historic landmarks, and they did Giancarlo Stanton calibre things to that fastball when it entered the strikezone. A beautiful facility forever tied to the genesis of a city is something most institutions can only dream of when they lay out their future. They did the hockey world a solid here, and I encourage every one of you to make a pilgrimage.
When I saw my first game, I sat fairly high up. I’m a normal human being, and in Toronto, that’s what human beings too. They sit far away from the ice because money. The new rink at Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre hangs out at roughly that height and perhaps that altitude will make the nostalgia and catharsis that much more poignant.
If you’re ever at Maple Leaf Gardens watching hockey, be happy. There was a time when we thought we had lost it forever. Also, don’t be a stranger. Say hi. I’ll be hanging around somewhere up there.