Friday, October 10, 2008

Hockey Den makes the Newspaper

This week myself and my collection were featured in the North Shore Outlook community newspaper. Kelly, the writer did a great job on the write-up. There were various photos included in the article, including my mug on the front page of the paper.

If the link doesn't work for some reason, here is the text of the story.....
North Shore Outlook
A Leaf among wolves
By Kelly McManus - North Shore OutlookPublished: October 08, 2008 4:00 PM Updated: October 09, 2008 10:15 AM
It was a blustery October evening at the corner of Church and Carleton Streets, almost 27 years ago to the day, when Chris Mizzoni stepped through the doors at Maple Leaf Gardens for the very first time.
That same year AC/DC and Bruce Springsteen rocked and wailed for gelled out, ankle-zippered crowds at the Toronto venue. That year, 1981, also marked the 50th anniversary of the Gardens, the holy temple of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This was cause for celebration for Mizzoni – a skinny little wide-eyed kid with an almost supernatural ability to spout obscure hockey stats. He was 11 years old, a breathless atom centre who idolized Wayne Gretzky, who owned an old hockey stick signed by the entire Leafs team circa 1963. Come winter, he diligently watered his backyard skating rink (built by his father Pat) with the gardening hose each evening.
In his mittened hand, Mizzoni clutched a small point-and-shoot camera. The flash bulb proved so powerful the Gardens usher bustled over in the first period, warning that the light was blinding the Maple Leafs players as they took shots on Chicago Black Hawks goaltender, the legendary Tony Esposito.
Mizzoni and his dad sat just two rows up from the net. Pappa Mizzoni, hockey dad and busy coach, had scored the tickets through his Burger King franchise in Newmarket, Ont.
“He was just in awe of Maple Leaf Gardens,” remembers Pat Mizzoni of his breathless son. “Sitting that close up – with that he became a die-hard Leafs fan.”
“Die-hard” might be putting it lightly. After that day at the Gardens, Mizzoni launched a fevered hockey collecting career that would eventually fill his basement, his attic, a storage locker, and his office. It would spill over into his kitchen, living room, his bedroom even. It would eventually become the inspiration for his first children’s book Clancy with the Puck – a nostalgic hockey rebrand of the famous baseball ballad of Casey at the Bat – published last year with Raincoast.
Over three decades, Mizzoni acquired somewhere in the area of 20,000 hockey and baseball cards, hundreds of books about stats and team histories, countless old oddities: calendars from the Leafs teams dating back to the 1930s, collectors statues and figurines, autographs, even a seat from the Maple Leaf Gardens that he shipped to Vancouver five years ago.
“It’s basically a historical hockey collection,” he explains. “It’s gotta be old, 1970s or older. And I’d call it pretty comprehensive.”
Mizzoni keeps most of the stuff in his North Vancouver basement den – any sports guy’s dream, a leather-chaired enclave devoted to the passion of the puck.
His artifacts chronicle the big moments in retro hockey. Picture Slap Shot: The Movie posters (the seminal hockey flick starring Paul Newman), Canada-Russia hockey series memorabilia circa 1972, Wayne Gretzky collectibles, endless Leafs gear, photos, calendars, and stats books, displayed in a rich, dark wood case, all waiting at the ready to be accessed in any friendly dispute among hockey-watching friends. Those happen often down in this space, where two, three, or 10 friends might gather to watch Leafs or Blue Jays games on the TV set.
Do they watch Canucks games? Only when the Leafs are playing, teases Mizzoni.
You can find Mizzoni down here a few nights each week, watching hockey games and chilling with his buds, who, as it happens, also play with him in a North Vancouver beer league called the Duffers.
Tonight, watching the Boston Red Sox and L.A. Angels baseball game with friends Olaf Miller and Geoff Kehrig, Mizzoni wears his father’s old hockey jersey, white and baby blue, thin, tight-weave wool, far too short at the wrists. It reads “St. Claire,” and dates back to the ’60s, when Pat played with the Catholic Youth Organization back in Ontario. Mizzoni also wears a replica Toronto Maple Leafs hat in homage to the obscure AAA Minor League baseball team from Toronto that ceased to be after the 60s.
“I paid 40 bucks for it,” he laughs. “It’s too much, I know. But I had to have it.”
Vintage sports, as evidenced by the 50-plus-years -old Leafs photos framed on the walls, get Mizzoni all fired up, ready to rhyme off little-known facts, stats and play-by-plays from as far back as the 1930s.
“But I tune him out for the most part,” explains Miller, friend and compatriot, but not a full-fledged hockey fan. Miller humours Mizzoni and company through some games, laughing as they joust and boast, comparing knowledge of obscure sports stats.
“For instance,” notes Mizzoni, “Here’s one that stumps guys in just about all hockey dressing rooms. In Gretzky’s rookie year, there was a three-way tie for goal scoring. Three guys tied with 56 goals.” (Those players were Charlie Simmer, Danny Gare and Blaine Stoughton; these are the kinds of facts he revels in through his sports-nerd blog, Nitzy’s Hockey Den).
Miller rolls his eyes: “You know the smell of hockey equipment?” he asks.
It’s hard not to know it in this little room, as Mizzoni stashes his hockey gear in one of the adjacent closets. The distinct eau de dressing room wafts down the hallway at intervals.
“Well that stuff is like ambrosia to these guys,” Miller laughs, nodding toward Mizzoni and Kehrig, seated in the matching leather seats, Maple Leafs pint glasses at the ready.
This calls for a story.
“Once I had a hockey game,” remembers Kehrig. “And then I was going to meet my wife after at the opera.”
Mizzoni chuckles. He knows what’s coming.
“And we’re sitting there (at the opera) and Marlene (his wife) is going ‘something really stinks,’” Kehrig scrunches his nose, imitating his wife’s horror. “And I say is this it?” he holds out his hand.
It was: despite showering, he went to the opera stinking of hockey gear.
You have to wash your hands in Tide, Kehrig learned that night, to really cut the smell of mouldering, bacteria-coated hockey pads.
Next comes the subject of hockey hair; yes, Mizzoni has sported his fair share. His wife Nancy Mizzoni grins.
“Oh, you should have seen him in the 1990s,” she laughs.
Apparently it wasn’t so much of a mullet as it was “just shaggy all over,” says Mizzoni, who, under his hat today sports a fairly clean cut look.
But yes, he does have a Leafs tattoo. He lifts his jersey sleeve to show the old Leafs logo, “while they still showed the veins in the Leaf,” faded blue on his upper bicep.
As for playoff beards, Mizzoni grows at least one every year.
“I’ve been doing it for 20 years,” he says. “It doesn’t matter who’s playing.”
Nancy Mizzoni and Miller roll their eyes affectionately. “Chris, you’re such a nerd,” Miller says.
The nerdiness is a point of pride to Mizzoni, who recently joined the Society of International Hockey Research.
Some of the material packed into this little room a lesser fan might qualify as junk – as evidenced by the rumpled cocktail napkins Mizzoni collected from the Air Canada Centre a few years back. Some of the stuff is pure gold, either personally relevant or otherwise incredibly rare. The signed photo of his 11-year-old self with once-upon-a-time Leafs captain Darryl Sittler is an example of the first.
“He was the greatest Leaf at the time,” muses Mizzoni, a little misty.
An action figure of said captain sits next to the photo of a slightly grizzled Sittler circa 1981, accompanied by a grinning, stringy little boy who would become the high priest of this North Vancouver hockey shrine.
“You can’t even imagine his Gretzky stuff,” laughs Nancy Mizzoni. “He had some really ugly Gretzky stuff.”
“Hey!” Chris Mizzoni pipes, mocking a wounded heart.
She, however, doesn’t miss a beat. “He had so much. It was all exposed and collecting dust: plastic cards, pucks, trophies. All of his things were out (on display).”
Eventually she convinced him to display “only some of it; then to keep some of it filed away.”
They renovated the basement, putting in matching, floor to ceiling shelves, and some decent leather chairs, which is where, this evening, Mizzoni sits with his three-and-a-half-year-old, Dreya. She’s decked out in her flannel Leafs pajamas, reading a story with dad before she heads up to bed.
“This summer I took her to the SkyDome,” he explains. Dreya wore one of Chris’ peewee baseball jerseys from back in the days of Newmarket minor sports. Nancy, Chris and Chris’ parents took Dreya through the gates at the Dome together.
“I was trying to recreate that feeling of walking into Maple Leaf Gardens for the first time.”
For all the antics and the banter, hockey sustains Mizzoni. “It’s pretty much life,” he explains. “My lovely wife and my daughter, they’re number one. I need my job to pay the bills, and I need hockey. It’s a staple of life.”
For that reason, he’ll keep making kids books about hockey history. Some afternoons he sits at the kitchen table, flipping through photos of the old Leafs teams in action and firing out illustrations.
His 1970s hockey cards, or rather the artwork on the backs, were the inspiration for his Clancy with the Puck.
“It was about nostalgia,” he muses. “The whole book was about nostalgia, the memory of those old designs and uniforms.”
Also for the sake of nostalgia, he’ll take little Dreya up to Grouse in the winter, so they can glide around on the frozen pond together at the snowy peak.
“It reminds me of growing up,” he says. “It’s almost like cottage country back east, and a nice, crisp night with the fire going.”
He may be a Leafs fan in Canucks land, and his yard might be too warm and muddy for a homemade rink, but up there on the peak, he’ll have a little taste of home, memories of frosty breath and fresh blades slicing along the ice.
To visit Chris Mizzoni online, visit or

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