Remembering Maple Leaf Gardens in its Glory Days
It is said that once something is on the Internet it is there forever well here is an example of something that is in the category of “that ain’t necessarily so”. When I first started writing online I wrote a blog format in Wordpress that got posted on some site whose name I can’t remember. You got paid once a month if you got sufficient hits. They at first allowed designing your own layout and later they went to a singular layout. They had a strict quota on monthly submissions and if didn't meet it you were axed from the program. If anyone remembers the site and its name please share that in the comments below. (I found it in a blog that I used to write (and may resurrect). It was called Today.com and no longer exists for good reasons).
The important thing was there was a story in there that I titled MLG1 which was a title that was intended to have a double meaning—Maple Leaf Gardens One and the number 1 which was Johnny Bower’s jersey number. It was written from the unique perspective that I had as the Professional Team Sales Representative for the Cooper Sporting Goods Company who happened to be the dominant manufacturer of hockey equipment for North America and possibly the world in the mid-1970’s.
I respect the policy that is often stated to one as a possible contributor to Internet Stories that get managed on sites like Hubpages.com and many of the others that I have been listed as the contributor (most of them resulted in some sort of remuneration and that helps pay the mouse battery bills). So I very seldom try to write a story twice because I don’t believe that plagiarism is an acceptable practice just to get a few more batteries paid off.
This is also a testimonial to choosing a bad title. You can get too cute and lose the readership and, like in this case, the whole story. The lesson here is that you should carefully pick a title that has a high probability of reaching page one on Google which the original story did. MLG1 happens to be an acronym for several things that include an Xbox game, Cessna aircraft, various electronic devices and a slew of other things so there is a valuable message buried in all of that.
OK so the setup to the important story is done here and we can go on with the meat of the story and get to the details that you want to see.
The story begins
There is no doubt the building had character and was also full of characters. When I called on the teams there, Maple Leaf Gardens had three primary tenants and all in hockey—the Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL), the Toronto Toros (WHA) and the Toronto Marlboros who were a major contender in the Ontario Hockey League (or Association). In fact, they played in the Memorial Cup at that time in Kitchener.
With three major teams resident that meant that there was also frequent arrivals of visiting teams from all three leagues which meant that I was usually at the Gardens 4 of 5 business days every week during hockey season so you saw a lot of blue and fading white paint on a regular basis.
The timing was generally in the morning when the visiting team would also practice and my role was to visit each team and help out with equipment issues and obviously promote our product. Access to dressing rooms was almost unlimited and especially when I was visiting teams in their home rink outside of Toronto. Sadly, the Maple Leafs dressing room was off-limits to any visitor which was due entirely to the influence of Harold Ballard who will go down in history as the architect of the temporary demise of the most respected (or at least equal with the Montreal Canadiens) franchise in NHL history. He was a major control freak and it showed in every square inch of the building except for some areas that he never traveled. Those were where some of the unspeakable goings-on took place in this hallowed building. I will get into that much later in the article. For now I would like to focus on the positive side of what Maple Leaf Gardens was all about.
The only other restriction I remember was the Los Angeles Kings who were coached by Bob Pulford at the time, who was of course a former Toronto Maple Leaf.
True the seats were uncomfortable and the ceiling leaked horribly. You couldn’t sit in the end blues if you were over six feet without getting railings jammed into your knees. There was a maintenance guy that had the job of using a long pole to drain out the large drop sheets of rain water that accumulated in large quantities on game day so the patrons wouldn’t get an unwelcome surprise that seemed to come out of nowhere.
The Gardens was also the sight of many truly incredible concerts. I saw the Rolling Stones (twice), James Brown, Patti Labelle (she had the ability to sing to the entire audience without a microphone) and a myriad of other acts including a lot of good local music groups. Tickets for the Stones I think cost under $20 for 18th row on the floor and you could go to a Leafs game and sit in the grays for like $2. Those were the days for sure.
So Maple Gardens could easily be considered the number one entertainment venue for Toronto and probably for the entire province (some would argue for the whole country).
A typical practice would see helmet-less players going about their business and some skating by themselves. I have a strong memory of Dave Keon (still had the C) in one of his last practices. It was one of those optional practices so all the young guys (Sittler, McDonald, Thompson, Turnbull) were playing a game of shinny with one goalie or maybe none. Thomas, Larocque and McRae had just left, Wilson and Favell were on their way out and Palmateer was just about to arrive on the scene and stop the “turnstyle” approach to that position. Undoubtedly, that was just another indication of the Harold Ballard influence put into practice. It was a disease that worked its way from the top and fed on down the ladder.
The Leafs had no less than 86 goalies in their history according to http://www.goaliesarchive.com/leafs/
Favell was a good lacrosse player so he would skate up and down the ice and flip pucks from blade-to-blade with Lanny McDonald (his moustache barely covered his lip). That is when Favell was there and Wilson also was often missing in action so that sometimes meant that the all-time greatest goalie in Maple Leaf history (in my opinion) Johnny Bower would suit up in his old garb that had to date back to his days in Cleveland.
The one exception is the Cooper SK600 helmet with the wire mask (HM30 often referred to as the Tretiak mask) that I guess Johnny got from the Leaf dressing room that neither Wilson nor Favell would wear. Ron Low of the Washington Capitals was the first NHL goalie to wear it in a game because he suffered a major cookie-cutter facial cut wearing the form-fitting flush mounted pie plate that was a minor upgrade to the one that Jacques Plante first wore way back in the day.
Basically, when a puck hits that type of mask it grabs the mask and takes the skin and tissue below and just tears it up so thus the cookie-cutter cut. It has that same appearance and it results in major swelling so the form fitting mask is impossible to wear and causes major discomfort. So Ron was receptive to it at first when Gump Embro and I fitted him up. Gump was the trainer for the Capitals at that time. Ron stopped wearing it after the swelling went down due to peer pressure.
I was the worlds’ worst goalie and mostly wore the Tretiak mask and helmet (SK600), have all my teeth and no stiches on my face. I never played in many games and certainly not in the NHL but I wouldn’t even think of setting foot on the ice without that combination if I was to play net. Today’s mask is in fact a hybrid of the form-fitting mask and the HM30 and the wonderful graphics were initially started by a gentleman named Greg Harrison who happened to be a terrific graphic artist and was also my successor at Cooper when I moved to take a sales position at Lange. I will get into some of that in a series I plan to write that will be entitled “Hockey Back in the Day” and likely written as 1, 2 ,3 etc. I have a lot of fond memories there that are worthwhile sharing.
But it’s time to go back to the Gardens and MLG1. I need to explain the other meaning of MLG1. Johnny wore #1 on his jersey back when he suited up for games but he is by far and away the nicest man I have ever met in professional sports. He is sometimes referred to as “everyone’s grandfather” since he is up there in the years but not in spirit.
I had the great honour one day of talking to Johnny about his equipment and that if he were to continue to suit up for the occasional practice that we could not allow him to do so in that ancient stuff. So he graciously let me take it back to the shop where I took it up to our Custom Pro Shop run by a creative gentleman named Norm Widdis. One of the major things we did back then at Cooper is we created a lot of the forerunners to today’s equipment as one-offs for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it was about the last place a guy took a puck hit or it was to help out an injured player and a lot of it was goalie related. They are a strange breed indeed since I can personally attest to that. Someone stopping a hard black piece of rubber screaming at you at over 100 miles per hour and enjoying it verges on the borderline of insanity.
Let me describe Johnny’s equipment. We used it as a template to design a more up to date version but didn't change the overall sizing and feel. I still wouldn't wear the new version for any amount of money! His chest protector was a piece of felt about ¾” thick with a large patch of leather sewn over it and it was quite compressed due to all the service it had seen. His arm pads were more like two shirt sleeves made out bed quilting material with absolutely no elbow caps or poly plates to protect the bones of the arms. His catching mitt is reminiscent of a first basemen’s glove that everybody used in your pick-up game that you played at say 11 or 12 years of age with a sort of small protective cuff that might have been good for road hockey.
When it was all said and done, Norm crafted a new set of arm pads, chest protector and catching glove and I marched off to my boss “Shelly” (Bob Shelston) to set the price that we would charge for the custom equipment. Back in that day, no team or player got equipment for free and there were no equipment contracts with players (that would soon change when CCM signed one with Sittler). Every order was billed to an authorized and credit approved Cooper dealer who would re-bill the team. So part of Shelly’s job as department boss was to charge a price for the custom equipment that would appear on the dealer’s bill. It never covered the actual costs because it is virtually impossible to put a price on the time and effort that went into making these one-offs and some of it could be chocked up to research and development. (The first of the series “Hockey Back in the Day” will be about the development of the short cuff on today’s hockey glove. It sounds boring at first until you get into all the side stories and details.)
Shelly started on the number and just stopped and said I can’t charge anything for this. Johnny’s a legend and has done so much for the sport. He just wrote a big zero on the bill. So I happily trucked back down to Maple Leaf Gardens and found Johnny lounging in the little room next to the Marlies dressing room after I finished my visit with Danny Lemyliyn, the Marlies trainer. That isn’t the right spelling of Danny’s name and you can’t find anything on him on the Internet despite the fact that he later was one of the trainers for the Maple Leafs before he passed away some years ago. The trainers in the NHL were often just referred to as the trainer in those days instead of the guy looking out for your best interests who was charged with ensuring that the physical assets of the team were well protected including the players.
Anyway Johnny ends up thanking me up and down like I just did him the world’s greatest favour and I’m embarrassed because this is all wrong. He was my hero growing up and I am supposed to be thanking him for the honour of presenting him with this gift for all that he has done for the sport (which I did) and we both sheepishly said oh OK and said thank you some more. It was quite humourous now that I think back to it.
And you know, I don't feel much like dwelling on the bad stuff that took place at the Gardens well after practice. It always made me wonder as to how easy it was for me to enter the building and go about what I was doing in the afternoons and there were always a lot of young kids running around in the building. The Gardens had a lot of a little rooms on the other side of the ice from the Leaf dressing room where I can only imagine what went on there and I take solace in the thought that there is probably a special place in hell for those individuals that lured those young boys into those places of horror. Enough said.
On the positive side, I haven’t talked much about a lot of other things that took place at the Gardens like the Toros, Jim McKenny, Eddie Shack's last hurrah, Bobby Hull with the Winnipeg Jets (WHA) and the sight of Phil Esposito standing on the visitor’s dressing room bench wearing just underwear, long dress socks and dress shoes. That last one is something I wouldn't wish on anyone. There’s a possibility of some more stories about MLG1 and some of them resurface at the golf course I used to work at since some of the players took part in tournaments there. I got to see Johnny again. He didn’t remember me but I didn’t expect him to do so. He’s the legend and still my hero.
And I have been to the Air Canada Centre and it's just like every other new professional hockey rink out there. It has no unique personality and is really just a series of advertising backdrops. If you ever watch The Leafs Channel they often show games from days gone by at the venerable old Gardens and there in glorious low definition black and white are the heroes of my youth playing in a rink with no advertising. It's just about the game and there is Johnny poke checking the puck from some adversary from one of the other 5 teams in the league.
Number one in your program and number 1 in your hearts--for sure!!!