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Historic Maple Leaf Gardens to host its final game
Posted: Friday February 12, 1999 11:23 PM
TORONTO (CNN/SI) -- It is the oldest home in hockey, a cornerstone of NHL history. But after one more home game, Saturday night against the same Chicago Blackhawks who helped open the arena on November 12, 1931, the lights will go out in Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens -- forever.
"Those old buildings had character, and some of that character and tradition will never, ever be replaced, and shouldn't be," says Lanny McDonald, a right wing with Toronto from 1973 through 1980.
"I played two years of my junior career here, " says Steve Thomas, a Maple Leafs left wing. "This is my fourth year in the NHL playing for the Leafs. Just growing up with the building itself, it feels like so much a part of my life."
Darryl Sittler scored the most goals at Maple Leaf Gardens. "This is the last of the old original six teams' buildings, so that in itself will be missed. As a player who played there, closing night will be a very emotional evening."
The Old Barn at the corner of Church and Carlton saw it all in its 68 years.
The NBA played its first game there. Ali fought there. The Beatles played there. The Pope prayed there. But its primary tenant has always been hockey and such legends as King Clancy; "The Kid Line" of Joe Primeau, Charlie Conacher and Busher Jackson; and the legendary Conn Smythe, who commissioned the building's construction for the bargain price of $1.5 million.
Tom Gaston, 83, attended the first game in Maple Leaf Gardens. "The grandeur of the place, it was just overwhelming to see such a building. For about 14,000 people to be in one building? This was unheard of."
For the last 57 years, Gaston's had the same seat to watch his beloved Leafs.
"I think people were more interested in this beautiful, big Maple Leaf Gardens than they were the hockey team. Then to cap it all, we won the Cup that year," recalls Gaston.
The one blot on the building came when police determined two years ago that garden workers had lured dozens of boys into sex with offers of free tickets and other inducements during the '70s and '80s.
But the highlights far outweigh the scandals. As the years rolled on, the Gardens hardly changed. Hard-core hockey fans continued to pack the cramped, unpadded seats even though the Maple Leafs haven't won a Cup since 1967.
Their bond with the community has remained resilient, thanks in part to the fan-friendly layout of the Gardens.
"Fans sat right beside you," said Detroit Red Wings Center Steve Yzerman, "and to get into the seats behind you, they walked right through the bench. That's something that really only happened in the Gardens."
McDonald recalls this story: "We're losing a game one time and Gordon Lightfoot, a famous Canadian singer, comes down, puts his arm around Darryl and I and tells us we gotta get in and forecheck better. Our coach, Red Kelly at the time, is telling the trainers, 'Get this guy out of here,' and everyone on the bench is laughing."
Of course, loyalty for the home team usually equates to hell for the visitors.
Recalls Gordie Howe, who scored the most goals by a visiting player at Maple Leafs Garden: "Ted Lindsay and I were warned that we would be shot if we went in there. And so we won that game, won it in overtime, Lindsay did. And so coming off the ice, Ted turns his stick upside down and, bang, bang, bang. I rapped him in the back of the head: 'Get off the ice before somebody's serious.'"
No matter what mayhem was taking place on the ice, the Gardens maintained a constant dignity, mandated by owner Smythe's unwavering dress code.
"It was unheard of to see anybody sitting there in a windbreaker or a sweater, or whatever," says Gaston. "You had your shirt and tie. It was an event. It was like going to church; you were all dressed up."
The sanctity of the gardens is being replaced by the $265 million Air Canada Centre, which hopes to make up in comfort and convenience what it will lack in tradition.
Hall of Fame center Phil Esposito, who played with the Bruins and Rangers, says the arena has seen its better days. "That's just progress. The building is over with, and that building was outdated 10 years ago."
New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur agrees: "I think it's a lot more fun for us to go out and be in a nice building with nice, cozy dressing rooms and all. Its always the history of the game that's taking a beating when a rink like that closes down."
Sittler says it's time for a change, although it's not easy to let go of the past. "Yes, you go into new buildings, and there's gonna be a new tradition started here at Air Canada Centre. But every kid growing up knows what Maple Leaf Gardens meant to them, and when it's closed and gone, we'll miss it."
Says Gaston, who has lived longer than the arena: "I really think the people of Toronto are quite excited about the new arena. We're a little sad about the Gardens, but remember this -- it's not coming down. It's still gonna be the shrine of hockey and the Grand Old Lady of Carlton Street."
Last week, Maple Leaf Gardens opened its gates to the public for one last general admission skating session. One 70-year-old fan bought a brand new pair of skates just so he could participate in that final 20-minute session.
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