Do you remember your first NHL game?
I certainly do.
It was the first year of expansion, Los Angeles at Toronto, and I was 11 years old and went with my uncle, Bill Ainsworth.
Now, I had attended many hockey games in Hamilton, but this was the big leagues. If you are familiar with the old Hamilton Forum, where my beloved Junior A Red Wings played every Thursday night (and you could watch the game again Sunday morning on CHCH 11 with Norm Marshall and Sandy Hoyt calling the action), then you know it was an old barn with many obstructed seats.
As we walked into Maple Leaf Gardens my eyes lit up. Wow! What a beautiful building. The Leafs whizzing around the ice in their home blue and whites and the Kings in their gold and purples. Man alive, this is hockey!
I don’t recall the final outcome, but I know I was hooked. Yes, I still loved junior hockey, but now I had a better sense of what my favorite players – Red Wings’ captain Fred Speck being my all-time favorite – were playing for.
A few years later my Uncle Billy, as I always called him, took me to another NHL game, the Big Bad Boston Bruins at the Buffalo Sabres. This game was memorable for a couple of bench-clearing brawls. The first one started when Jim Schoenfeld (a former Hamilton Red Wing) rammed Wayne Cashman through the boards by the Zamboni entrance. Schoenfeld and Cashman started fighting in the hallway and soon both benches emptied.
After a wild 10 minutes or so of random fights, things began to settle down. Players were gathering their equipment that was scattered all over the ice, but as Bobby Orr skated past the Sabres bench, one of the Sabres trash-talked him. Orr dropped his gloves and started fighting a player on the bench. And just like that, it was Round 2 of the brawl.
Uncle Billy and I, being a couple of scrappers ourselves, loved it!
Uncle Billy was always a straight shooter who spoke his mind. I think I inherited that trait from him and the rest of the Ainsworths.
Once, many years later when I was an adult and coaching women’s slo-pitch in Lakefield, Ont., I got into a wee bit of an argument with an umpire. As we yapped to each other back-and-forth, a voice bellowed from the stands, “Aww, quit your whining!”
I turned and there was Uncle Billy sitting in the stands with a big grin on his face. He lived in Burlington, but he was camping in Lakefield at the time. I had no idea he was there.
I didn’t see a lot of my uncle the past few years, but he was always in my thoughts. I always felt we were kindred spirits.
I was deeply saddened when he passed away a few weeks ago, but I was also touched when my name was mentioned during a testimonial at his funeral. He was one of my biggest supporters when I was growing up playing sports.
Bill Ainsworth will be missed.
Mike Brophy, the co-author of the book Walking with Legends, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor on THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and his column, Double OT, appears Wednesday.
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