Standing Room Only

Maple Leaf Gardens

Maple Leaf GardensDuring the 1980s, years before cellphones and the Internet would make hockey news and highlights easily accessible to all, when newspapers and shows such as Sportsline would provide the fans their worth of NHL news, for many the only Maple Leafs action they would see would come via Hockey Night in Canada on CBC, or MolStar Communications during the week.

Living in a rural area with no cable access, a couple hours away from Toronto, the majority of my own fandom as a youth was experienced via the grainy picture of antenna television.   My family didn’t have a lot of money, which meant that attending actual live games was a rare event.   Which, in retrospect, made the event all the more special of an experience.

Usually, my father could only afford two tickets at a time; ‘standing room only’ was the norm.   Fortunately for me, my brother never was all that into the NHL, at least certainly not to the degree that I was.   I can’t even tell you what colour my bedroom walls were as a kid, that’s how many posters I had up!

I remember those rare trips to the city, to take in the event that was NHL hockey in Toronto, like it was yesterday.   The drive out of the countryside, the approaching glow of the city lights.   Dad driving around for an extra 45 minutes to save 5 bucks on parking (even though he probably spent that in gas looking for the best rate, it was a matter of principle).   Walking to Maple Leaf Gardens with the crowd, feeding off their anticipation, the excitement in their voices.   That sign over the main entrance.   The escalator.  The combined smell of hot dogs, popcorn and spilt beer that I would later learn permeates every arena.    And the standing room, where I first learned what being a fan is all about.

In my earliest memories of the standing room games, I recall barely being able to see over the rail.   But see over it I did.  I’m sure the two hours spent on my tip-toes did irreparable damage to my ankles in some way shape or form, but it was worth it to see the heroes of the day:  Clark, Courtnall, and Inhacek.  And besides, I didn’t care — I was at an actual game!

That first game, I found myself in awe of not only the players on the ice but the fans themselves.   Like Dad and I, these guys were in standing room because the actual seats, while not expensive by league standards at the time, were simply too much money.   These guys knew the game they were at might be the only one they would attend all year, and they made sure to make the most of it.   To this day, never have I seen such enjoyment of a game — regardless of the score — as I saw in the standing room as a youth.   And through it I learned one of the great lessons in sports:  it’s not a matter of whether your team wins or loses, it’s a matter of whether you, as a fan, enjoy the show.    And what you get out of the experience has far less to do with the team’s performance than you might at first imagine.

What was it that made standing room so special?    Certainly it wasn’t the fact that I had to stand, or push my way to the front to get an actual view.   And it definitely wasn’t the view, which while not terrible only afforded a bird’s eye view of one end of the ice.   No, it was the people.   In the seats, how often do you interact with the strangers around you?   High five when the Leafs score a goal, maybe, and that’s really about it.   But that standing room was something else — it was a party, full of people who rarely got to experience live NHL games the way a season-ticket holder, or regular ticket purchaser would.

In-game, stories would be swapped about the greats of the Leafs‘ past: Sittler, MacDonald, Armstrong, Baun, and (of course) the legend of Bill Barilko.   Clutch victories and near misses were described in exquisite detail, each tale told with relentless and undying passion, interrupted only by a goal celebration or a quick time out to berate the referee (I might add that it was here where I first learned how to swear; the fine details about what each curse word in the English language meant and exactly how and when to use them — important stuff).

But it was more than that, which made the experience what it was.   In that standing room, for that one game, everyone was family, akin to a tight-knit community.   First-name basis with all five minutes into the game.  High fives after every goal.   A pat on the back for a great catcall to the referee.   All the kids busting their best moves to the tunes of the original mashup artist, organist Jimmy Holmstrom, while a group of adults would invariably try to outdo each other with their best impersonations of PA announcer Paul Morris.   Random strangers hugging each other in victory, as though they had just won the game themselves, and consoling each other during the (frequent) losses with upbeat discussions of the game’s more exciting moments (of which there were plenty – those ’80s teams were fun to watch).    The thing is, no matter the result, we all left with a smile, knowing full well it might be the only game we’d be able to attend all year and making sure to savor every single moment.

On the long drive back home, Dad and I would listen to the post-game radio show until the station faded to static as we got further from the city.   Halfway home, Dad would have to stop the car and get out to jog around it a bit to wake himself up. I was not so fortunate; try as I might, I never did make it home without falling asleep in the front seat, dreaming of the game I just saw, hopeful that the next one would not be too far off in the future.

I don’t fully know why I wanted to tell this story; on the surface it seems odd to pick the standing room experience as something indicative of what being a fan is all about.   But in other ways, it seems exactly right.   As the years passed by I would see many games from the seats, but it was never quite the same.  Not that those in the seats were any less passionate of fans — far from it — but rather that sense of camraderie, of family among complete strangers, wasn’t there to the same extent.   I miss that old standing room at the Gardens; the way the people told the stories, the energy and excitement exhibited with every play, the sheer joy of actually being able to attend a game in person that all of us shared.

And that, to me, is what being a fan is all about.   Forget for a moment the wins, the losses, the individual stat lines, which player needs to be shipped out and who needs to be brought in and for what price.   All of that is an extension of a love and a passion for the team, for the game itself.   But it is that very passion that is the essence of what being a fan is all about.    The sense of anticipation that carries through the crowd, the rush of adrenaline that accompanies a big hit or a fight, the skip of a heartbeat at the moment of a great save, the thrill of a goal, the sweet sensation of victory, all those feelings shared together by those fortunate enough to be a part of the live event.   Win or lose, did you enjoy the show?   That is the lesson I learned from those nights spent on my tip-toes in the standing room at the Gardens.

Every time I see the Maple Leafs‘ tagline, “The Passion That Unites Us All”, I am taken back to those memories of youthful evenings spent at the Gardens, learning what it means to be a fan, discovering the value of holding onto the passion for the sport, and for my team, regardless of the final outcome.   I can still close my eyes and see those sights, smell those smells, hear the stories and remember the feeling of it all.   No hindsight-based books indicting the team’s failure to win, or errors of the past, can ever take that away.

I guess what I’m saying is, it is a worthwhile venture for every fan to take a step back sometimes and ask themselves, what was it that brought me to love this sport, to love this team, in the first place?   For me, it was those nights in the standing room, where in a way everyone in the place was a kid again.  For others, it may be something entirely different, but no less valuable of an experience.   Those experiences, those first moments where we develop a love for our team, are what shape us as fans, and what carry us through the highs and lows of cheering our team on, uniting us all in a shared enthusiam, a common passion.

Maybe one day we will get to experience the penultimate victory we’ve all dreamed about, that glory that has been imagined for the past 42 going on 43 years.   One day, we will get there.   And when we do, if I should be so fortunate to have seats to that game, I’d like to think I would trade those tickets straight up for standing room only, to experience that moment where the passion first truly took hold.   That’s where I want to be when we win it all.  Maybe I’ll be telling the kids standing on their tip-toes to see over the rail stories of guys named Wendel, Felix, Dougie and Mats during breaks in the play.   Maybe I’ll do my best Andy Frost impersonation with the other guys my age.  And maybe I’ll stop on the way home to take a jog around the car to wake myself up for the rest of the ride (it really does work).

Regardless of all the dreams, the hopes, the maybes and the inevitable naysayers, there is one thing I do know for sure:  the passion that was first fostered all those years ago in the cramped, beer-stained confines of the standing room at Maple Leaf Gardens remains as strong as ever, and will never waver for so long as the memories remain.

And it is my hope that your memories of when you first truly experienced that passion will continue to fuel your fandom, your fire and your excitement for this team, in the same manner.

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