To say the Toronto Maple Leafs have been having a dry spell would be an understatement. Their performance in the last decade has been dreadful, but they still manage to sell out the Air Canada Centre despite some of the highest ticket prices in the league. Last season would have been a good time to save some money as season ticket holders were getting rid of their tickets to the last games of the season, but I couldn’t manage a trip on those dates.
So when I got their email newsletter touting on sale dates for pre-season games, I decided to go for it since: tickets were WAY cheaper (I got second row seats for less than the price of regular season nosebleeds), I love watching the rookies play, and the Habs would play there on a Saturday. Hey, when the stars align like that, I go with the flow. Toronto it is!
We flew in on Porter Airlines which is a great airline, and, most importantly, uses the Billy Bishop Airport located downtown, which meant that with a quick (free) shuttle ride, we’d be at Union Station, which is on the same block as the Air Canada Centre. We went as a family: my son and I wore Habs t-shirts, and I had my “Leafs Suck” hat in my bag. I fully expected some grief from Leafs fans, but as we exited the airport, one man looked at my son and said “Your parents are raising you right, buddy, rooting for the right team”. So much for the grief part. I’d later get applause from another Habs fan on the street.
We stayed at Le Germain Hotel which is right across the street from the arena. It’s an expensive hotel but it was pretty luxurious and was worth the money. The 30 second walk from the ACC to the hotel was great too! Our room wasn’t ready so we dropped our suitcase and went sightseeing. I had decided to travel light and didn’t grab my full camera bag, thinking I’d just carry a basic 18-55mm lens (The ACC prohibits anything over 70mm). But when I picked it up, the weight told me I’d messed up: the lens that was attached to my camera was a 35mm prime lens, which is more of a portrait lens. Great for close up shots, not great for larger shots. I toyed with the idea of finding a camera shop and buying something more suited but luckily for my wallet there were none in the area. But this will explain why I don’t have many pictures inside the ACC.
Our first stop (after having a bite) had to be the Hockey Hall of Fame. I’d visited it about 15 years ago and had been meaning to go back since, and obviously it had to be featured on this blog. The Hall of Fame is actually located in the basement of an office building, next to a food court (!). Admission is a little pricey (18$ for adults, 12$ for kids) but for a hockey nut, it’s totally worth the price of admission.
Before entering the Hall itself, a collection of goalie masks are displayed and act as teaser for the treasures contained inside. From the early masks of legends like Jacques Plante (the first goal tender to wear one in an NHL game), Johnny Bouwer and Terry Sawchuk to the elaborately painted masks of modern puck stoppers. One thing that struck me about these early masks is how banged up they are. Imagine their faces if they hadn’t worn them?
Inside the hall, two huge statues welcome visitors. One is famed goaltender Ken Dryden, in his famous pose leaning on his stick while his teammates spent considerable amounts of time in the opposing zone, while the other represents Cyclone Tower, one of the earliest pro hockey players (he played from 1905 to 1923). You then enter four “rows”, commemorating the greatest players of all time, from Maurice Richard to Mario Lemieux, as well as important events from hockey history. International and minor hockey are also represented by their own areas. The amount of significant artefacts contained therein is pretty impressive, with lots of pucks, sticks, jerseys and skates used for various milestones and records.
There’s also a replica of the Montreal Canadiens’ dressing room at the old Forum, where one can appreciate the evolution of equipment throughout the years, with stalls dedicated to some of their greatest stars from the team’s 100+ year history.
An interactive area also allows people to play trivia, step into a broadcast booth and try their hand a being a live reporter, or play against a computerized NHL player. For family members that would rather cheer on, an authentic section of bleachers from the old Maple Leaf Garden is adjacent to this area.
And then the finale is the Great Hall, home to the Stanley Cup and all NHL trophies. It’s very impressive to walk among these fabled trophies, although most of them suffer from close up scrutiny. They look like cheap silverware you’d find at a garage sale! (Considering their age, that’s not far from the truth.) Still we spent some time looking for our favourite players’ names, and got our photo taken with the Cup. What a great way to start our trip! The exhibits brought back tons of memories of watching hockey growing up.
I’ve been to Toronto often, so I wasn’t really looking at playing tourist (although one day I’d like to go to the top of the CN Tower). The CN Tower is right by the Rogers Centre and it makes for an impressive sight from pretty much anywhere downtown.
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at Legends Row on Maple Leaf Square for some pictures while there was no crowd. Legends Row is an ongoing project to showcase 12 of the greatest Leafs players in statue form. A piece of board has been erected and players are added yearly behind or in front of those boards. So far, Ted Kennedy, Darryl Sitler, Johnny Bouwer, Mats Sundin and Borje Salming have found a spot in that elite group. I’ll have to come back when it’s completed.
We had dinner at E11even, on the same block as our hotel. Found was good but not spectacular, but kudos for having an authentic Peruvian Pisco Sour on the drinks menu. The crowd was mostly people in Leafs jerseys, with a few Habs here and there. Again, no one bothered us even with my Subban jersey on. I was starting to think that only the worst Leafs fans ever make the trip to Montreal for games…
After our meal, we went straight to the arena to have time to walk around the concourse, and catch the pre game warmup. As we took a selfie in front of the Air Canada Centre, I heard someone yell “Subban sucks!”, which is the only negative comment I drew for my entire stay. It’s so weird: I expected Toronto to be much more antagonistic. Have the team’s on ice problems taken the fight out of their fans? No insults, no taunts, not even a playful ribbing.
Entering the Air Canada Centre meant passing through metal detectors, as is now the norm in the NHL. It really sucks, but it was done professionally and efficiently. My camera was checked for zoom length, and we were in. We walked the entire length of the concourse to take in the scene. I attended two concerts at the ACC before, but the vibe during an NHL game is totally different. I was surprised at how little the Leafs play up their history, especially compared to the Canadiens. Could it be because they share the building with the Raptors? But the ACC is a clean, well designed building, and attending a game there is a very enjoyable experience.
Our seats were amazing, second row between the net and face off circle. We got on TV every time there was a face off in front of us! On our seats were concession menus and attendants took orders that would get delivered right to our seats. From the looks of it, that was the case in the entire lower bowl. It was a nice touch to have a person taking your order, although doing it with an app (like it is done here in Montreal) works just as well.
A brand new feature at the ACC are huge TV screens under the scoreboard to help people sitting low to see the screens. They sort of ruin the look but I must admit I used them often during the evening, so there must have been a good reason to install them. Pre-game presentation was quite modest, which is surprising for one of the richest franchise in the NHL.
This being a pre-season game, we needed to familiarize ourselves with half the rosters on the ice. For the Habs, rookie netminder Mike Condon was the underdog as the third ranking goalie on the team, but by the end of the night he would have earned his spot as Carey Price’s backup with an impressive shutout.
The match was pretty good, with the Leafs icing a superior team which lead to a hard fought match. The fans were clearly impatient and harsh with their team: it took almost half the game before a good “Go Leafs Go” chant got going, and halfway through the third, with the locals clearly unable to mount any meaningful offence, the chants changed into “Let’s Go Blue Jays!” And I thought Montreal crowds could be ruthless.
During commercial breaks, Ice Girls come in to sweep the ice (at least they’re not skimpily dressed). Team Mascot Carlton accompanied them once: he’s a white bear wearing a Leafs jersey and he just… stood there. Didn’t do anything. Most boring mascot we’ve seen so far. I know I harp a lot about Toronto but man, this city and its people are really bland. I guess Carlton is the mascot they deserve.
Despite the win for the visiting team, both teams had a trial of 3 on 3 overtime, a new rule the NHL enacted this year with the aim of lowering the number of games decided in a shootout. I never had a problem with the shootout, but the 3 on 3 is also exciting. One common criticism of the shootout is that it’s not representative of typical hockey; I’d suggest that neither is the 3 on 3, but you can’t argue that it’ll end a lot of games now. The Leafs took this one, which finally got a good reaction from the crowd. I guess Leafs fan are so rarely rewarded with wins that they have to celebrate unofficial ones.
Exiting the ACC was fairly efficient, and we were back in our room in a matter of minutes. I chatted with a couple of nice Leafs fans in the elevator; strangely, I was more optimistic about their rebuilding efforts than they were. You have to pity that fanbase who hasn’t had much reason to celebrate in years. 2016 will mark the team’s 100th anniversary, and 2017 will mark the 50th anniversary of their last Stanley Cup win. Can Mike Babcock, Lou Lamoriello and Brendan Shanahan turn things around? Maybe we’ll want to return in a few years.