Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Saturday Night at The Gardens, 25 years ago.

“We were bullied. They outplayed us in every department. We were only in the game for the first three of four minutes.” Detroit Red Wings coach Jacques Demers cut right to the point after a 6-0 shellacking at the hands of Toronto. The game was played Saturday night, November 15, 1986 at Maple Leaf Gardens and I was there as a guest of my buddy Ross.

Saturday night at The Gardens, even as a 15 year old kid I knew it was a special place. You entered the building usually at one of the smaller entrances at the western corner of the building on Carlton Street or the eastern side on Church Street. The doors themselves were very un-ceremonial. Merely a pair of plain double doors that were propped open by turnstiles but they opened up to another world, especially on a Saturday night.

The throngs of patrons nearly pushed you back out the second you gained entry. A little dodging and weaving sprung you out of the crowd near the entrance into the main concourse of the Gardens. Once here, I always made my way first to the souvenir booth on the south side of the building to pick up a Leaf calendar, program, postcard or whatever my allowance could afford. There always was a din of noise in the concourse which was cut regularly by the shouting of the sellers.

One program vendor I recall vividly as he also worked during summers at Blue Jays games at Exhibition Stadium. He was distinct mainly for his look. The guy was about 6’2”, had a close brush-cut and thick black horn-rimmed glasses. I remember seeing him at Jays games with my Dad since the early ‘80s and always noticed him as he reminded me of an abstract version of photos that I’d seen of my father from the 1960’s. This guy would eventually move with the Jays to SkyDome in 1989 and amazingly, my last time at a Jays game in 2009 I saw him once again. Some things never change, and that’s good.

After picking up my program, my over-steamed, wet hot dog, and warm soda with cellophane for a lid it was time to make our way to the seats. If you were sitting in the Greys at the upper part of the rink, the trip to your seat involved a ride on an extremely narrow escalator. This was a bit of a respite from the hustle bustle of the main floor before you were dumped into a similar scene upstairs. Perhaps before hitting your seat you needed to make a pit stop. The washrooms at the Gardens were famous for one thing, The Trough. There were no urinals in the Gardens washrooms, simply a long wall against which you did your urinating standing shoulder to shoulder with about ten other men. Literally, it was a trough on a wall. Needless to say, for a young man like myself, this was quite a disconcerting activity. You would get your business done as quickly as possible, usually whilst holding your wet hot dog in the other hand, then up the stairs to your seat you headed.

On this night, Ross and I had seats in the upper Greys while his dad and little brother got the pair of Gold seats at ice-level. These weren’t your average Gold seats, these were Rail Seats first row right against the glass in the corner. Luckily, and surprising to Ross and I, his dad traded seats with us allowing us to sit in the Rails for the third period.

The game itself was about as eventful as you could get. Toronto came into the game in first place in the Norris Division with a record of 8-5-3 while Detroit was 7-9-1, 4 points back of first. Two weeks before, the Leafs and goalie Allan Bester had shutout the Wings 2-0. In that game centre Dan Daoust fought Gerard Gallant, and broke his leg when he fell backwards. Perhaps as some sort of retribution, when the teams met again on this Saturday night Toronto’s Brad Smith fought Gallant three seconds after the opening faceoff. “Motor City” Smitty would later fight Shawn Burr as well as Basil McRae before finally being tossed by referee Dave Newell.

Toronto took a 2-0 lead after one period on goals by Tom Fergus and Vincent Damphousse. They both scored again by 6:09 of the second to stretch the lead to 4-0. By the end of the second, Smith had been in his second scrap and there had been five fights total. Then we got to move down to the rail seats for the final period.

Making our way through the crowded concourse and back down the narrow escalator to the main level was not an easy walk. The building was designed and built in 1931 with a seating capacity of about 13,500 seats. By the mid-1980’s, due to renovations there were almost 3,000 additional people jammed into the rink. The halls of the arena were not made to accommodate that many folks comfortably.

Having usually sat higher up at the Gardens, the view from the front row Golds was almost overwhelming. The only other time I had sat in the Golds was five years earlier when I was a few rows directly behind the opposition net, tonight’s Gold seats were first row right in the corner. From our vantage point the interior of the Gardens loomed up, encompassing your entire field of vision. Although the building itself was relatively small compared to today’s hockey arenas it felt simply cavernous from that Rail seat. It was quite awe-inspiring. Sitting right on the goal line 40 feet to the left of Allan Bester we really did feel like we were on the ice, which on this night was not a safe place to be.

Wendel Clark and Russ Courtnall scored in the third to make it 6-0 Toronto and things certainly got out of hand. Brad Smith had his third fight of the evening against Basil McRae and Detroit’s Tim Higgins felt inclined to join the tussle as third-man in the fight. Needless to say all of these combatants were thrown to the showers. All this happened within ten feet of Ross and I in our prime seats.

Exactly 14 seconds after this fracas, Red Wing Harold Snepsts was called for spearing Steve Thomas. Both of them as well as Leaf Todd Gill were tossed for the meeting that ensued. At this point things settled down, for five minutes. Lee Norwood and Wendel Clark fought, right in front of us impressionable youngsters in the front row. It was a truly frightening yet inspiring sight being that close to a Wendel Clark punch-up. Still, the fighting continued. Gerard Gallant paid his final Dan Daoust debt of the evening by fighting Bob McGill with five minutes left in the game. All told, four different fights occurred in the third period, most within shouting distance of our seats.

Bester stopped all five measly shots Detroit put his way in the third to wrap up his second shutout of the Wings in two weeks. During one of the third period melees Leaf coach John Brophy started yelling at Demers and later denied using any profanity. “I was just asking him where he was going to have a beer after the game,” Brophy said later.

Thusly we wrapped up another eventful trip to the Gardens.


Anonymous said...

Boy that brings back great memories! I remember going to the Leaf practices followed by the Marlies game at the Gardens on weekend afternoons. I would have been about 12 '81-'82ish.. I remember meeting Gary Nylund who was a touted rookie defenceman who seemed larger than life! Funny, he was probably 19... Anyway, awesome story Chris, really enjoyed reading that! Snepts made me think of Vic!! :)

James MacDonald

Anonymous said...

all those fights.Did anyone really get hurt seriously in these altercations.There were some pretty fair battlers involved.I still beleive that fighting is not the main problem in hockey.

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