Thursday, June 17, 2010

"The Missing Piece of the Puzzle"

It’s a magnificent Saturday afternoon, a beautiful day in my neighborhood. Blue sky bright. Temperature in the low seventies. A gentle breeze, ruffling through the trees.
The ocean sparkles. Sailboats gliding by.

It’s a perfect day for a walk or a swim. Or simply relaxing in the sun, luxuriating in a glorious late spring afternoon in Southern California.

Where am I?

I’m in the house. Watching hockey.

But not just any hockey. I’m watching a game from a series called Classic NHL on the official NHL hockey network.

And not just any game. It’s the deciding game of the 1967 Stanley Cup finals. You remember that one, don’t you? The Montreal Canadiens versus the Toronto Maple Leafs?

Toronto-Montreal is hockey’s marquis match-up. In basketball terms, that’s Celtics-Lakers. In baseball, it’s Yankees-Red Sox. For people uninterested in sports, it’s entirely meaningless. Though there must be some counterpart in your sports deprived universe. Otherwise, how do you live?

For me, the game I had chanced upon held even greater significance. In 1967, I was living in London. There was no televised hockey in England. We got televised cricket.

The most important sporting event of the year, and I was thousands of miles away.

I had never seen that game.

And now, there it was. I’d been glued to my television as the Leafs took consecutive Cups in 1962, ’63 and ’64. How could I not watch this? I know it’s a nice day. But it’s California. It’s nice every day.

The video was in black-and-white, though time had degraded the quality into gray-and-white. The game’s announcer was the capable, though hardly colorful Bill Hewitt, who’d inherited the announcing duties from his arguably less capable but indisputably more colorful father, Foster.

You could see the fans in the background, “Lucky Hot Dogs”, sitting in the Mecca of Hockey, Maple Leaf Gardens, all the men wearing jackets and ties. It was totally appropriate. The Gardens was on Church Street.

From my darkened bedroom, I heard the names of my hockey heroes of yesteryear come raining down – defenseman Tim Horton, immortalized after his death by a hugely successful chain of donut shops, tenacious Bob Pulford, scrappy Davey Keon, Leonard “Red” Kelly, who simultaneously served as a member of the Canadian parliament, slow-moving but reliable Allan Stanley, and, of course, the magnificent “Big M” himself, Frank Mahovlich.

The 1967 game was different from the hockey that’s played today. The players of old were more fundamentally sound, excelling at puck handling, vigorous defence and coordinated team play. Today’s players are bigger and faster. One of the speedier Montrealers, Yvan Cournoyer, was announced as being five-foot seven and weighing one hundred and sixty-five pounds. Those are not the proportions of a contemporary athlete. That’s what I am.

The first half of the game was scoreless. As it progressed, the tension increased. Despite the fact that I was aware of the outcome. (There was this building in London’s Trafalgar Square called “Canada House”, which I visited regularly for hockey updates from often week-old, Canadian newspapers.)

The Leafs broke through, first with one goal, and then another. I waited eagerly for the replays, then remembering that this technology had not yet been invented. I felt deprived to only be able to see the goal when it happened.

It was 2-0, Leafs. In those more defensive minded days, this was considered a nearly insurmountable lead. Refusing to surrender, however, Montreal’s Dick Duff, a former Leaf, cut the lead in half, flashily dipsy-doodling around Horton and wristing the puck into the net.

It was now 2 to1.

Facing the younger, faster Canadiens, the Leafs clung to their one-goal advantage with ferocious fore-checking and game-saving goaltending by the venerable Terry Sawchuck. The game clock snailed along, oblivious to the prayers of Toronto hopefuls.

Now there was one minute to go. We knew that, because the Gardens’ announcer sonorously intoned:

“Last minute of play in this period.”

A tie would mean sudden-death overtime, a disadvantage to the older, more leg weary Leaf players. It was do or die. The exhausted veterans would have to hold off the Canadiens onslaught, and win the game in regulation time.

Heading up ice, Montreal immediately pulled their goalie, exchanging him for a sixth attacker, in a last-ditch effort to tie the game. Shots whistled in from all directions. But the Leaf defense, and especially the grizzled Sawchuck, held firm.

With only seconds remaining, the Leafs captured the puck, feeding it, to George Armstrong, a full-blooded Indian and, for years, the Leaf captain, as he lumbered up the ice. Crossing into the Canadiens’ zone, “Army” flipped the puck into the undefended net.

Toronto 3; Montreal 1.

And that’s how it ended.

After scoring the series-clinching goal, George Armstrong retired. So did “Red” Kelly. In manner of speaking, so did the entire Leaf franchise. 1967 was the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs ever won the Stanley Cup.

And I finally got to see it.

Forty-three years later.


cjdahl60 said...

I am a hockey fan here in the Pacific Northwest. Although the Vancouver Canucks are just a couple of hours away, hockey doesn't get much coverage locally.

However, our local cable channel lineup includes CBUT from Vancouver. And each Saturday during the season I get to watch the "Hockey Night in Canada" doubleheader beginning at 4pm. It's quite the treat to experience Don Cherry in all his sartorial glory.

It's also pretty neat to see the broadcast as Canadians experience it. It really gives you an appreciation for how much hockey permeates the Canadian culture.

There's an annual competition between towns all across Canada sponsored by Kraft to try to be named "Hockeytown." Towns must prove how strongly they support youth hockey in their area. And the winning town gets local rink upgrades and an NHL preseason exhibition played in their town.

Too cool. Makes me wish I were Canadian.

PG said...

I was teaching at a Junior High in Toronto the year of the first Canada/Russia game. The wise Principal cancelled all classes and herded the kids into the cafetorium to watch that last game on TV. The roar that went up when the winning goal was scored by Paul Henderson is still ringing in my old ears.
I also had a cousin who had 'end blues' and not much else in life. But she felt more than compensated.

Anonymous said...

With the Hawks success this year, does that leave Toronto with the longest drought at 43 years?

Anonymous said...

I was at a conference here in Toronto recently. Nearly all the attendees were Torontonians. Of course, the Stanley Cup finals were must-see TV, even though no Canadian teams had made the finals.

Chicago was the sentimental favorite for nearly everyone there, partly because they held the record for the longest streak without a Cup win (1961 was their last), and in large part because the Black Hawks were one of the "original six" teams.

Even though there was a sentimental attachment to Chicago, there were a few hockey diehards rooting boisterously for Philadelphia. When I asked why, given the Flyers more recent Cup wins in '74 and '75, I was told in no uncertain terms that if Chicago won, Toronto would inherit the dubious honor of having the longest streak without a Cup victory. They'd love to see Chicago win, but not at the expense of owning this not-so-glorious record.

One of the headlines in the Toronto Sun the day after Chicago's victory was, "Hawks Win, But We're Number One!"

Gotta love hockey fans.