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This week, First Person looks at the ups and downs of love.
On Feb. 13, 1999, I paid tribute to an organization that played a central role in my life when I went to the last Toronto Maple Leafs game at Maple Leaf Gardens. I was 9 when my dad took me to my first Leafs game, a 5-1 drubbing of the Flyers on an evening where I marvelled at velvet curtains, the labyrinth of catwalks and wires suspended from the ceiling and the colours that burst to life when the TV lights turned on. My unrequited love for the team truly began that evening. Since then, that love has been both a bane and joy.
I’m the son of South Asian immigrants who arrived at the University of Toronto as graduate students in the 1950s. Due to the encouragement of friends, they settled, raised a couple of boys and eventually did their PhDs. My Toronto of the 1960s and ’70s would seem unrecognizable today. English and Scottish culture permeated many corners of the city, including my own, Don Mills. My family was considered exotic. Locals treated us in a constantly inquisitive, National Geographic-like manner (“…that’s fascinating, you know my wife and I once travelled to London and tasted an Indian dish called "butter chicken.”).
I discovered hockey, during the 1968-69 season, when a friend in my kindergarten class introduced me to Shirriff Hockey Coins. We’d find them in bags of chips or boxes of Jello: Think of a plastic poker chip with a picture of a hockey player on one side, with stats on the back. Back then, the relationship kids had with hockey players was rather detached, as they seemed relatively anonymous – almost phantom-like. In an era before personal handlers and social-media feeds, players back then projected a wooden, down-home authenticity reminding you of one of your friends’ dads. Those coins struck a chord. I wanted in.
Over the next year, I took to collecting, but also to the game. In the days before liability concerns, it seemed most Toronto schoolyards had outdoor rinks. We spent hours on those rinks honing our skills and played house league on the weekend at the local arena. What we learned on those improvised frozen ponds provided us so much more than just the satisfaction of the game. Hockey was a magical gateway to a just and democratic land. When we hit the ice, we were judged simply by our skill or the way we fit onto a team. The lessons learned were profound.
And then there were our Maple Leafs. My first heroes were goalies Jacques Plante and Bernie Parent and the amazing Dave Keon. Paul Henderson would become part of Canadian lore. On the horizon, a new crop of youngsters named Sittler, Salming, McDonald and Turnbull, became our own. Eddie Shack lived around the corner from me, and I delivered newspapers to Tim Horton, but amidst this, one night in particular stands out. On a cold February evening, we were having dinner at my uncle’s place. In the splendid isolation of Pickering when the snow glistened by the moonlight and the winds blew cold across the abandoned fields, we huddled around an old Sony Trinitron as the fireplace roared and watched Leafs captain Darryl Sittler pot six goals and add four assists for a 10-point night. It was remarkable. The good vibes ended in late 1979, when management traded away Lanny McDonald. For my generation at least, it signalled the end of an era…
I left Toronto for the United States after high school and lost contact with the Leafs, but I returned in 1994 after grad school, sensing the Leafs would make it to the Cup final that year. When they lost, I moped, hung around and eventually landed a job. No matter how hard I tried, this team refused to loosen its grip on my imagination.
When the team announced plans to vacate the Gardens, I decided I had to attend the final game. Months ahead of time, I met a dubious reseller by a dumpster in the north end of the city and forked over $400. He handed me an envelope. Thankfully, inside were two beautiful tickets to Xanadu.
With five months before puck drop, I stuck them on the fridge at my parents’ place. It seemed a little exposed, but somehow safe next to my mom’s recipes that never moved.
On the morning of the game, I went to that fridge. My eyes bulged. The tickets were gone and a full-blown panic ensued. We turned the place upside down. My dad, the pragmatic engineer, donned a plastic bag around his torso, knee-high rain boots, a pair of rubber laundry gloves and grabbed a pen knife from his desk. He went to the garage, pulled out three filled garbage bags, slit them open and emptied the contents onto the floor. He began sifting and, in a pile of carrot shavings, uncovered the lost tickets.
Twenty years ago today, I entered the Gardens for that final game from the same entrance I used that first night with my dad and rode the same escalator. Minus the blue haze of cigarette smoke in the concourse, everything looked the same. I spent the night not so much watching the game (the Blackhawks thumped the Leafs), as I did reflecting on how much my devotion to that team and that beautiful hockey shrine were woven into my marrow. When the final horn sounded, everyone shared in the profound realization that something significant had ended.
Today, my kids follow the Raptors, not the Leafs. I still check in on my old love, but I try not to get caught up in the hype. I love Reilly, Kadri and Marleau, and consider Matthews, Marner and Tavares a joy to watch. But my relationship to the game, to the Leafs and to the Gardens has changed. Recently, I walked into the grocery store that’s been built within Toronto’s old hockey temple. A friend told me to pick up a certain brand of butter chicken cooking sauce, and I found the stuff in an aisle near a big red dot on the floor – marking the original location of centre ice.
The symbolism of the moment was not lost on me.
Tony Gill lives in Toronto.