Friday will mark the 10-year anniversary of the last NHL game held at Maple Leaf Gardens – and 10 years since one of the most magical hockey-themed nights of my life.
Fate smiled on me right from the beginning of the end of the Carlton Street Cashbox: The Leafs held a lottery for the last block of unsold tickets for the game on closing night and one of the 10 postcards I mailed in got picked.
So on Feb. 13, 1999, my good friend Keith Hightower and I put on blazers and jeans and headed down to the rink to sit in the second- last row of the greys – completely appropriate, given that most of my previous visits were in the same vicinity – to watch the Buds take on the Chicago Blackhawks.
I’d been to the Gardens dozens of times before that night – to Leafs and Marlies games and Easter Seals skate-a-thons with Bobby Orr as a kid; to pro wrestling matches and Eddie Murphy comedy shows as a teenager; to concerts headlined by Oasis and Radiohead as a twentysomething.
To me, the building itself was no aesthetic marvel. It was unfailingly grimy and sticky and cramped, and it harkened back to a more, er, rustic era (who knew horse troughs could both hydrate horses as well as dehydrate hosers?). But it had an odd charm that shone through despite the voodoo lockdown Leafs owner and possible crazed sorcerer Harold Ballard put on the team’s contention chances when I watched them in the ’70s and ’80s.
The final game itself was a letdown – again, probably apt considering the team’s history of disappointment and disarray during my childhood – as the Hawks cruised to a 6-2 win.
Little did we know, the game’s end was when the real fun would begin.
Before I continue, allow me a brief comment on the many evils of overzealous alcohol consumption. Sure, there’s the initial lessening of inhibitions and easy laughs when you start out; however, sooner or later, you’re bound to turn into Will Ferrell in Old School, streaking down a street somewhere as the world around you starts to spin wildly. Beware, kids.
Back to the tale: I wouldn’t say Keith and I got a wee bit drunk during the game, but I’d bet all who saw us would say so, as would a properly administered blood-alcohol test. But we weren’t obscenely inebriated – just enough to exude that heightened sense of confidence that’s led to countless last-minute marriages and the majority of big-haired metal albums.
That confidence was crucial as the post-game celebrations unfolded. Brimming with liquid courage as we were, we set out to meet a friend working as an usher behind the end blues section of the Gardens.
The usher was nowhere to be found after the game, but she wasn’t alone in her absence. In fact, there wasn’t a trace of security anywhere and anything that wasn’t completely nailed down was being pulled off the walls as if people were searching for hidden safe compartments behind them.
We settled on commemorating our first and last visit to the private box area by helping ourselves to a six-pack of Blue Light beer each, which we gently placed in our plastic white-and-purple Toronto Raptors bags before venturing on.
Quickly, we came across a sign that pointed toward the catwalk leading to the famous gondola where the dulcet voices of the Hewitt clan once cried out.
Keith and I looked at each other and – and I cannot stress this enough – buoyed on by our altered state, decided the gondola was where we wanted to be.
Astoundingly, nobody gave us so much as a second look as we wandered around the press box. So, sufficiently stoked by our initial trespassing episode, we traveled down to the Gardens’ main level, which by now had been cleared of most of the hoi polloi.
Former Maple Leafs GM Gord Stellick was hanging around the gold seats and kindly signed my program, but other than that, the joint was virtually deserted except for a steady stream of people we watched walk under the gold seats, make a sharp right and disappear into a room I couldn’t quite see.
Naturally, that was our new target destination. By this point, we had figured out the golden rule of moving unmolested among society’s blue-blooded and upper crust: Always look like you’re supposed to be there and nobody will presume you’re not.
You see, 95 percent of the time, the security people in playgrounds of the wealthy are abjectly petrified of challenging anyone with an aura of belonging, just in case that someone turns out to be a child of privilege slumming it in blazers and jeans. (The other five percent of the time, they’re daydreaming of being the ones guarded.)
With that knowledge in tow, a look of calm assertion – which also works wonders for Cesar ‘The Dog Whisperer’ Millan – was all over my mug as I walked down and prepared to enter the mystery room.
Only as I was turning into it and pushing down on the massive mahogany door did I flinch. Because the room I was turning into was clearly marked as the “Director’s Lounge.” And though my heart skipped a beat as I marched on, I still felt like I owed it to myself to push all the way through and smell the rarefied air for a second or two before I was tackled by clandestine security ninjas and dragged onto Wood St. to be beaten senseless.
To my surprise, there was nary a nunchuck nor a ninja to be found. Instead, as Keith nudged me forward, the first person I laid eyes on was then-Ontario premier Mike Harris. The second person I saw was miniature Toronto mayor Mel Lastman. The third person I saw was Hilary Weston, lieutenant-governor of the province.
Without doubt, this was no ordinary neighborhood clambake. But after Keith and I stood there for five seconds and didn’t faint or burst out laughing, everyone in the room returned to their conversations and left us – a couple goofy-looking dudes holding white plastic Raptors bags filled with beer (and light beer, at that) – to ourselves.
We ditched our bags of beer in the coatroom, where believe it or not, between the mink coats and game-worn Tim Horton sweater, was the silver bowl from what looked to be a retired version of the Art Ross Trophy.
If I told you I didn’t try to forecast the effect on my health if I swallowed the bowl whole and walked out with it inside my distended stomach, I’d be lying.
I decided against that, but was more than happy to socialize with a bunch of filthy rich gents as long as possible. Keith and I had quietly made up our minds we were staying until some authority figure called us on our ruse.
Even the crack security setup for the party Canadian brewery giant Molson’s threw on the Gardens floor after the game couldn’t keep us out. And again, it was fate that played a large role in our continuing escapade.
Just as we were walking toward the entrance to the Molson party, the matronly old lady in line in front of us threw up her hands in exasperation and asked the security guard checking for tickets if she really had to return to the directors’ lounge and retrieve hers.
Of course not, the usher told her apologetically. And when Keith and I made motions towards returning to the lounge to retrieve tickets we didn’t have, the usher said there was no need to inconvenience ourselves, either.
So there we were – two schleps who started in the nose-bleeding-est of the nosebleeds, now on the Gardens floor hobnobbing with NHL legends like Lanny McDonald and Al Arbour. The adventure couldn’t have ended any better, especially when a friend wandered in off the street – I told you security was lax – looked at ice level and saw us reveling in the midst of it all.
Since its closure, the Gardens has remained the undeveloped property of a grocery chain, used only sparingly in recent years for charity events. It is at best a shame (and at worst a disgrace) no one has stepped forward to claim it and salvage a setting that should stay on to serve as the backdrop for generations of hockey fans to come.
But on that one night, on its last night, Maple Leaf Gardens showed it still had enough tricks up its yellow-bricked sleeves to make a pair of Toronto boys happy beyond their wildest dreams.
I can only imagine the stories and memories it provided for the millions of hockey fans who passed through its doors before us.
This column also appeared in the Feb. 9 edition of The Hockey News magazine.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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