Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Phil Samis: Marking the Occasion

It is always nice when someone from the Toronto NHL Oldtimers lunch is recognized by the media.

Phil Samis pictured with a copy of Lance Hornsby's piece on him from the Toronto Sun

Such was the case in late December of last year, when Lance Hornby wrote about former Leaf defenceman Phil Samis. For a Maple Leaf fan, Lance's 'This Day in Leafs History' is a must read. On December 28, Lance noted Phil Samis' birth in 1927 and gave a brief history of his time in Toronto.

While in the Leafs organization, Phil won a Memorial Cup (St. Mike's) in 1945 and a Stanley Cup (Toronto Maple Leafs) in 1948.

I snapped the photo of Phil holding the story when he made his first appearance of 2015 at Monday's lunch.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Bob Nevin: A Return Visit to Maple Leaf Gardens

On February 17, the Ontario Heritage Trust launched Heritage Week 2015. The event took place at the Ryerson Athletic Centre, which is located in the former Maple Leaf Gardens.

According to a media release, "Heritage Week - which runs from February 16 to 22 - is an annual celebration of Ontario's rich history and provides an opportunity to recognize the important work of heritage organizations and volunteers across the province. This year's theme - Play. Endure. Inspire. Ontario's sports heritage - explores the traditions, innovations and heroes of sport in Ontario."

On hand to take part in a question and answer session was two-time Stanley Cup champion Bob Nevin. Bob played his junior hockey at Maple Leaf Gardens with the Toronto Marlboros and won a Memorial Cup in 1955-56. He captured hockey's ultimate prize with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1962 and 1963.

During the Q&A, most of the inquiries came from students, who got time off school to join in the fun. In addition to Bob, several other athletes, including Olympian Perdita Felicien, were peppered with great questions from the youngsters. And it seems no matter the generation, hockey remains to be a hot topic. It was amazing to listen to the wide range of questions that were directed to Bob, who last skated in the National Hockey League in 1976 with the Los Angeles Kings. Of all the athletes, Bob appeared to be the favourite with those picking up the microphone to ask a question or make a comment. The most repeated phrase was, "this question is for Bob."

One girl told Bob she didn't have a question, but asked if it was okay if she could get a close look at his Stanley Cup ring. Another asked Bob to comment on the state of the current Maple Leafs. He responded by telling the crowd it may well be the right time for a rebuild. Also, Bob pointed out that he played several sports when he was a boy and encouraged his young audience to do the same. "You never know," Bob stated, "you may not like a sport, but until you've tried it, you won't know if you are good at it."

Bob made such a good impression that one student suggested that he join the 2014-15 edition of the Maple Leafs to help them get back on track! All Bob could do with that was smile as those piled into the basketball facility clearly understood that Bob and his fellow teammates from the 1960s knew what it took to be a Stanley Cup winner.

After the closing comments, Bob was swarmed by those requesting a picture or an autograph and he took part in several media interviews.

Bob Nevin wearing the Blue & White.

The Heritage Week launch was hosted by Anne-Marie Mediwake and Dwight Drummond from CBC  News.
Bob listens as wheelchair basketball player, Tyler Miller, answers a question.  Left to Right: Mandy Bujold  (boxer), Tyler Miller, Bob Nevin, Perdita Felicien, and CBC anchor Anne-Marie Mediwake.
A crowd favourite, Bob Nevin signs an autograph.
After taking questions from the students, Bob did the same for the CBC.
Last month, Bob attended an event hosted by Mike Wilson and Kevin Shea, honouring former Boston Bruin Derek Sanderson.

A trade on February 22, 1964, sent Bob Nevin to the New York Rangers, but 51 years later, it was great seeing him back at the grand old building situated at Carlton and Church.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Last Time it Happened

On January 29th and January 31st, 2015, the Montreal Canadiens won consecutive games by a score of 1-0. In victories over the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, Carey Price earned the shutouts and Montreal forward Max Pacioretty scored the winning goals.

The last time the same goalie and skater accomplished this in back-to-back 1-0 contests was in 1954.

Early in the 1954-55 season, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings met in home-and-away games. The first encounter took place at the Olympia in Detroit on November 11, 1954. Starting in goal for Toronto on the road was Harry Lumley. After a scoreless opening period, Toronto's Sid Smith beat Detroit goalie Terry Sawchuk in the middle frame. The Globe and Mail described Smith's goal as follows:

Smith grabbed a pass from skipper Ted Kennedy before letting go a short shot that struck the stick of Detroit defenceman Bob Goldham, and sipped off-course into the cage.

Toronto's game-winning-goal was scored at the 19:44 mark, resulting in the Red Wings having to wait until the final twenty-minutes for a prolonged stretch of time to try and score the equalizer. And they came out blasting. Detroit carried the play for most of the period and out shot Toronto 15-5. Harry Lumley, who was celebrating his birthday, kept the barn door shut and the Leafs departed the Motor City with a 1-0 win.

Two nights later, on November 13, 1954, Toronto hosted Detroit at Maple Leaf Gardens. Fresh off a brilliant performance on Thursday evening in Detroit, Lumley got the call to start at home. Once again, the two clubs played a tight defensive game with Lumley and Sawchuk not allowing a single shot to get past them. The lone goal of the game came early in the third period with Sid Smith finding a way to give his team the lead.

Writing in the Toronto Daily Star, Gordon Campbell noted:

But came the third, and at the 42-second mark Wings' Tony Leswick was doing penance for hooking Ted Kennedy at 19:52 of the second period when Sid Smith scored the game's only goal. He was in like a flash to fire (shooting) Kennedy's across-the-goal-mouth pass into the rigging. 

Right down to the final moments, the Red Wings attempted to tie the game. Detroit coach, Jimmy Skinner, pulled Sawchuk for the extra-attacker and as Al Nickleson observed in The Globe and Mail:

The Leafs, fighting bitterly, prevailed and Detroit's Johnny Wilson helped by missing the net when in alone, to climax a spine-tingler.

The next night at Boston Garden, Sid Smith continued to hold the hot-hand for Toronto. He scored two goals in the Leafs 3-1 win over the Bruins.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

An Afternoon with Derek Sanderson

He is considered to be one the most colourful and controversial players ever to play the game of hockey. Derek Sanderson burst onto the hockey scene in 1963-64 when he became a regular with his hometown junior team in the OHA, the Niagara Falls Flyers. On the ice, Derek took whatever measures were necessary to earn a victory. Off the ice, he didn't shy away from sharing an opinion or challenging the establishment.

On a recent visit to Toronto, Derek was the honoured guest at the first Sports Talk gathering for 2015. Hosted by Mike Wilson, the event took place on a dreary Sunday afternoon, but inside the bright lights switched on by a camera crew to record the festivities replaced the bleak skies.

Mike Wilson with Derek

Derek's appearance was made possible by author Kevin Shea. In 2012, Harper Collins published Derek and Kevin's joint effort, 'Crossing the Line'.  Now, they were ready to share the many stories from their highly successful book with a captive audience at Mike's Museum.

Kevin Shea with Derek

In a scenario similar to the early days of Hockey Night in Canada, Derek and Kevin sort of recreated the intermission feature called 'The Hot Stove League'. Back in the 1950s broadcast, a group of hockey men would sit around a set designed to resemble a country store. In addition to a pot-belly stove, the shelves were lined with canned and boxed goods. Nicely positioned in their rocking chairs, the likes of "Baldy" Cotton, Ted Kennedy and Syl Apps exchanged banter on all things hockey. With the advancement of time, the rustic country store is replaced with Mike's magnificent collection as the backdrop and Kevin took over the moderators role from Wes McKnight.

Keeping with this theme, there was no better way to begin than showing highlights of Derek on Hockey Night in Canada. Providing the moving images was hockey's top ranked video archivist, Paul  Patskou. Topping Paul's play list was Derek's first shift in the National Hockey League with the Boston Bruins. Called up from Niagara Falls, Derek skated on a line with Bob Dillabough on right wing and Bill Goldsworthy on the left flank.

On December 11, 1965, at Maple Leaf Gardens, Derek Sanderson's dream of playing in the NHL came true. It was a non-eventful shift for Derek, but there was one clue as to what the NHL could look forward to once he graduated from junior. On an icing call, Derek didn't let up when he heard the whistle. Instead, he muscled the puck away from Leaf defenceman Allan Stanley. To many, this could be interpreted as a brash move made by an upstart rookie.

The shining moment in Paul's line-up was Derek's first interview on Hockey Night in Canada. After being introduced by Ward Cornell, the intermission host began his questioning by asking Derek why he seemed to be cooling the rough play that he was noted for in Niagara Falls. "In junior," Derek replied, "the referees were allowed, I'd say, to be more severe with their calls and they'd call the cheaper things. If you get a penalty up here, you deserve it."

After several more inquiries, Cornell quizzed Derek as to what thrills he had experienced so far in his rookie campaign. "I got in a fight with Orland Kurtenbach, I guess that was one of them," Derek informed those watching the telecast. He also mentioned scoring a couple of goals against New York after the two teams entered the third period deadlocked on the scoreboard.

Near the end of the interview, Cornell asked Derek if he was still a bachelor. His response brought a huge laugh when he replied, with a grin on his face, "I am." The laughter came from knowing it would be a while before Derek was ready to settle down.

No video presentation involving Derek Sanderson would be complete without showing a clip from the movie Face-Off, which starred Art Hindle in the leading role. The plot centres on a hotshot rookie with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Billy Duke, who struggles with some off ice issues. Primarily, having a girlfriend (Trudy Young as Sherri Lee Nelson), who sings in a band and cannot come to grips with the violent nature of hockey.

In a bar scene, sitting with his agent and Billy Duke, Derek is introduced by Duke's girlfriend between songs. Enjoying a fine beverage and an Export "A", Derek stands and acknowledges the applause. In typical Sanderson style, he delivers this line when Duke is described as being one of the games future greats, "Maybe," he states without missing a beat.

The final Hockey Night in Canada clips showed that Derek still possessed his scoring touch in the waning years of his career. In this package, Derek scores a shorthanded goal for St. Louis, his first goal as a Vancouver Canuck and his second to last NHL goal while wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins uniform.

When the lights went on, it was time for Derek and Kevin to begin their conversation. Here are some highlights. They have been edited and condensed.

Advice from his dad early on...

"My dad said, 'son you have to work around the clock, think it, dream it, be it, everything you do should be towards hockey'."
And Derek used this to his advantage. When the time came to do chores around the house, young Derek would point out certain pitfalls to his dad. For example, when a snowstorm dropped a load of the white stuff on the roof, Derek told his dad a fall off the latter could result in an injury, which could end his pursuit of earning a living-playing hockey. Upon hearing this, the elder Sanderson immediately turned the job of removing the snow off the roof to his daughter Karen.

On being scouted by Harold "Baldy" Cotton...

"One night in Paris, Ontario, I scored four goals...and "Baldy" asked my dad if I'd been signed by anyone. My dad said no and he ("Baldy") asks 'how about a hundred-bucks for your son?' 'Sure' (replied Mr. Sanderson) and I didn't find this out until I was 32. Bobby (Orr) got $800. and not just stopping there, he got a blue suite and they put stucco on his dad's house."

On getting the nickname "Turk"...

"We were playing a very close game in bantam...and I curled outside a guy and I heard 'hey Derek'...and I drop the puck to him and it was their guy. They started giving names to the sounds (to identify another teammate in order to safely drop the puck) and mine was a turkey. I had to say 'Gobble, Gobble' (thus the nickname "Turk")."

On playing junior hockey in Niagara Falls...

"They had just moved out of Barrie (Ontario) and came to Niagara Falls. I was 15 and I use to pull the barrels in the rink (to clean the ice surface). Ronnie Schock and guys that were in the National Hockey League are all playing and I'm just a rink rat. I was shy and nervous and really didn't know what to do. I stayed on the bench for a good 30 games, but you learn a lot on the bench."

Getting called up by Boston...

"Hap Emms calls me into the dressing room and says, 'son I think you are playing pretty good, I want you to go up to (play) the Leafs tonight. Meet the bus line and Eddie Westfall, here is his number and give him a call.' So, I got my little junior blazer on and I got my skates. I asked Eddie if there is anything I should do? He said, 'just take your time and let it happen'."

Speaking about Bobby Orr...

"Bobby Orr was suppose to belong to the Niagara Falls Flyers, we owned him, but Wren Blair got him to Oshawa. He was like a fly-in-a-bottle. Gilles Marotte (a Flyers defenceman) got him one night and crossed checked him in front of the net. He drove him into the crossbar and lifted him up because he was so light. He was so humble."

More on playing in Niagara Falls...

"We had a real good team. We had some defencemen that were really talented and we had goalies - Doug Favell and Bernie Parent. We had Goldsworthy (Bill) and Tommy Webster; there were a lot of guys that played in Niagara Falls, who could play anywhere."

Fighting while in junior...

" I never really liked starting (a fight) because I liked to mouth my way through it. It is exhausting to stand up and do that. It is a very difficult task. I only weighed 175-pounds. I use to put cotton-batten in my shin guards to make them look bigger."

On playing with the OHA Junior All-Stars against the Czechs in December of 1966...

"They were playing real well, so I thought I would go in and start something. I charged Jiri Holik. (At this point, Mike Wilson showed Derek a program from that game) I hit him and gave him a little jab, which nobody sees. I try to upset him, but he spits in my face. Now, I'm going to try and kill him! They didn't want to fight, they didn't want to use the stick, they'd shoot the puck at you and kick. To them, you've lost it if you want to fight."

Harry Sinden...

" I think he was the smartest guy to ever understand the game. He would come by and kick your shin pad and whisper in your ear and nobody heard it. He'd try new things and keep everybody up. He was the best."

On being a faceoff specialist...

"We didn't have the marks on the ice and then they tried to put the players feet apart with the markings. That really hampered hockey. I wasn't afraid to pull myself out of the draw if I didn't feel it or the other guy had beaten me a couple of times. My dad use to say you had win every draw all over the building. If you get each centre winning every faceoff you're going to have the puck 7 or 8-minutes more than the other guys."

Making the Bruins a team...

"Bobby Orr started a two-drink rule, meaning you got to come out for two-drinks (any beverage would do beer, milk whatever) and after that you can leave. And I never saw anyone leave after two. We stayed together and went places together. We got to know each other. It was a team that had fun and we all liked each other."

Winning the Stanley Cup in 1970...

"It was close against St. Louis, they didn't have a lot of name guys, but they did have Red Berenson and they had some pretty good goalkeepers. I'm glad Bobby scored the goal and flew through the air, but I'm behind the net (Derek passed the puck to Orr for the Stanley Cup winning goal) and out of view in the picture. Every time I sign a picture of that goal I draw an arrow and sign the back. People try to make comparisons, but Bobby was different. He had a speed and overdrive that I don't think a lot of people can see and I don't think he even knew he had it. He knew at one certain point he would go straight instead of cutting in. He'd go straight first, then cut in. He was just a great hockey player and a great guy."

After winning another Stanley Cup in 1972, the WHA came calling...

"The only time you can win any negotiation, at any level, is when you have the ability, power and guts to walk away. If you don't walk away you've lost all your power. I met this guy, Bernie Brown, who owns 50% of the WHA Philadelphia Blazers. His partner, who is a lawyer, only came in with 50% of the franchise fee, which was nothing. So, he was giving me Bernie Brown's money. We went back and forth, but I just didn't want to go. We had Andre Lacroix and Bernie Parent, but I just didn't want to go the WHA. When me met, they offered me $2.3-million dollars. I was absolutely stunned. I told them to give me five banking days to make a decision. Then, I came back with more demands - a two-bedroom suite on the road and a driver for my girlfriend. They agreed and I thought when are they going to say no to me? Then, I realized the lawyer was giving me Brown's money. I took it and it turned out to be $2.6-million dollars. At one point, I said if you put $50,000 more in there, I would be the highest paid athlete in the world, beating the soccer player Pele. They said 'okay'. The number looks like a telephone number."

Going back to the NHL...

"Bobby said in front of the guys, 'I think you were an asshole for leaving us,' but if he hadn't done that, it would have been untenable. The Boston Bruins didn't protect me because I had a fight in the dressing room. Ultimately, I was traded to the New York Rangers. Then, it was off to St. Louis, Vancouver and Pittsburgh. The coach in Pittsburgh, Johnny Wilson, told me that I still had the head and hands, but when the knees go that is it. So, Pittsburgh didn't resign me."

` ` `
Besides talking about his hockey career, Derek spoke about his battle against alcohol and drugs. "I was a full-fledged alcoholic and addicted to seven drugs," Derek stated. "I should be dead, but there is a lot of great people in the world, that seem to help us all. I would have been nothing without them, the people who took me in and edged me along." He also provided this insight, "Nobody ever gets sober without some kind of an awakening, understanding or higher power."

Back in the day, Derek's lifestyle was often chronicled in newspaper and magazine articles. Pictorial spreads showed Derek clutching a drink in one hand and an attractive lady in the other. Away from the rink, Derek's part-time job exposed him to all sorts of temptations.

"I was contacted by Joe Namath and he asked me if I would like to be his partner in another Bachelors 111," Derek recalled of his conversation with the New York Jets QB. Bachelors 111 was a nightclub Namath owned in the Big Apple. At the time, Namath was being pressured by the National Football League to give up his interest in the club. He contacted Derek to counter the NFL and open up shop away from New York City. "I was making $11,000 a year playing hockey and Joe offered me a new Lincoln and $30,000 to run the club in Boston. Also, he offered me the power-of-the-pen. This meant that  friends could come in and I'd sign their cheque. It was all on the club. Unless you've ever owned a bar, you wouldn't believe the magnet that was."

Down the road, Derek opened his own place in Boston, Daisy Buchanan's, and developed a routine during the hockey season. "Practice finished around noon and I would have 5 or 6 beers in the afternoon. It was then time for dinner at the club and I would take a lady home. It was off the charts. That wasn't me. My mother didn't raise me that way."

Following Derek and Kevin's chat, the floor was open for questions and answers.

To read Derek Sanderson's more spicier stories, I suggest dishing out the coin to purchase a copy of "Crossing the Line'. As the movie ads state, "It is well worth the price of admission."

In the Acknowledgements for his book, Derek wrote, "Through family, friendships and faith - discovering there is something stronger than all of us - I was able to reconstruct my life. The people who really cared gave me the strength to get back on my feet, and I am eternally grateful."

On a Sunday afternoon when the NFL crowned their conference champions, Derek Sanderson talked about what it takes to be a champion both on and off the ice.

Photo credits: The author / Paul Cookson (http://www.adarmygroup.com) & Mike Wilson (http://www.ultimateleafsfan.com).

Friday, January 9, 2015

The First Step

It all has to start somewhere, that first step which hopefully, leads to a career in the National Hockey League. For some the dream comes true, but for many like myself we never got to skate in a pro game.

In the case of Sid Smith, his journey to the National Hockey League began in early 1943. Born and raised in the city of Toronto, Sid signed-up to play another season in the Toronto Hockey League. The 1943 hockey year was of particular importance, as it marked Sid's last season before being considered for junior.

Courtesy of Blaine Smith

As the above T.H.L. certificate documents, Sid registered on January 6, 1943, to participate in the Juvenile Series. He was returning for another campaign with Carmen Bush's Columbus Boys' Club.

Carmen Bush was born in 1912 and started organizing sports leagues when he was only 10 years old. His first venture involved street leagues. As the name indicates, Bush would take community street teams and incorporate them into a league.

Eventually, Bush became associated with the Columbus Boys' Club in the 1930s. Starting as a volunteer, Bush made his way through the ranks and was appointed club director. The Columbus Boys' Club offered a variety of sports for youngsters residing near Christie Pits in Toronto.

Sid Smith, front row-left, wearing his Columbus Boys' sweater in the early 1940s. Courtesy of Blaine Smith

Carmen Bush's influence on young Sid Smith remained with the future Toronto Maple Leaf for his entire life.

"Carmen Bush started me in hockey," Sid Smith told author Jack Batten. "He ran the Columbus Boy's Club in a barnstorming old clubhouse over Bellwoods Avenue, and he taught us baseball, hockey, football, everything. He taught the fundamentals. After I'd started in Christie Pits, I went with Carmen's teams in the Toronto Hockey League from the time I was thirteen until I was seventeen, and I never forgot his lessons."

In 1943-44, after sharpening his hockey skills with the Columbus Boys' Club, Sid made the jump to Junior "B" with a local high school, Toronto De La Salle Oaklands. Over the next two seasons, Sid played Junior "A" in Oshawa and Senior "A" with the Toronto Staffords.

Courtesy of Blaine Smith

Then, in 1946-47, Sid Smith took one final step to reach his goal of playing in the National Hockey League. In February of 1947, Sid was called-up from the Pittsburgh Hornets by Conn Smythe's Toronto Maple Leafs. He would go on to wear the Blue and White for his entire career - 601 regular season encounters -  in the NHL. In addition to capturing several Stanley Cups and being a First Team All-Star left-winger, Sid was a two-time Lady Byng winner and served as team captain.

Decades later, my first significant step came in 1966. After being registered in a House League, I donned the  goalie pads to play between the pipes.

 Like Sid Smith, I progressed to the Juvenile level, but didn't advance any further. Still, I enjoyed playing the game and it showed me how difficult it was for guys like Sid Smith to take that next step and how truly gifted one has to be to make a living playing hockey.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year!

Last week, I posted a story about the number of games played over Christmas at Maple Leaf Gardens in December of 1966. One of those involved an international matchup between the Czechs and Junior Stars.

While the Toronto Maple Leafs no longer skate at the Gardens, the tradition of their home rink hosting international competitions continues in 2014.

On Boxing Day, I had the pleasure of attending the opening game of the 2015 World Junior Championship at the Air Canada Centre. The preliminary round contest saw Team Russia face Team Denmark. On paper, Russia appeared to be a heavy favourite, but as we all know, it-aint-over-until-the-fat-lady-sings.

Right from the start, Russia dominated the play, however, they weren't able to finish on offence. Late in the middle frame, Denmark held a 2-0 lead, but Russia fought back to force overtime. When 5-minutes of extra time failed to produce a winner, the game went to a shootout. In the penalty shot format, Denmark failed to score and Russia took advantage of their opportunities to win the game. Sergei Tolchinski and Nikolai Goldobin scored for Russia in the shootout.

Despite not being able to fend off their opponent, Team Denmark, gave their all and this helped to make a close and entertaining game. Much of the credit for this goes to their goalie, George Sorensen.     Back in Denmark, he defends the net for his hometown team, the Herning Blue Fox.

In Canada, the World Junior Championship has become the prime hockey tradition over the holiday season. The fact it is happening on our home soil enhances the overall interest. A crowd of 12,412 gathered at the ACC for the Russia-Denmark encounter.  It is a treat to see these games in-person, as opposed to being restricted to viewing them only on television. The junior aged players, now performing for their homeland, rev-up their game and this results in some pretty good hockey.

As we begin a new calendar year, lets hope there is plenty more exciting hockey in store for us in 2015!


Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas Past: The Joy of Attending a Leaf Practice

In my first year of year playing house league hockey, my coach put me between the pipes and told me not leave the crease under any circumstances. The explanation for these instructions was easy to understand, as I couldn't skate without falling down. Thus, I was given the goalie pads and watched the action unfold before me. My skating was so bad, it caused me to have nightmares. In my dream, the goalie for the other team would claim the net closest to the gate (about 6-feet away). When this happened, I would have to make my way to the other end of the rink. While slowly travelling down the ice, I would be hugging the boards for support in an attempt to remain on my skates. Every inch of the way, I could feel the eyes of everyone in the arena watching my adventure.

During the Christmas vacation, something happened to make my nightmares disappear. The week between Christmas and New Years, my coach invited our team to a skating party held at a pond located north of Toronto. Looking back, I think he knew this was just the tonic I needed. Unlike the arena where we played, there were no nets and just open ice. There were no crowds to contend with or worries about making it to the net by the gate. Away from the usual environment, I concentrated solely on my skating. If I fell down, I would brush off the snow and continue straight ahead. By the end of the afternoon, I could manoeuvre around the pond without doing a face-plant.

When our next game took place, I lead our team out of the dressing room and was the first person to reach the gate. As I watched the final moments of the contest before our game, I was determined to show everyone that I could now handle myself on the ice. As the gate flung open, I skated around the net and made a beeline to the net furthest away.

The next year, I made the switch from goalie to forward and my strongest asset became my skating ability.

Also, during the school break that Christmas, our coach arranged for us to attend a Leaf practice at Maple Leaf Gardens.

It was a real eye-opener to watch the Leafs during their workout. For the most part, they completed their drills in a precise and competitive manner. I remember our coach telling us to soak in what we were watching. He stressed that we could learn what it took to remain the National Hockey League. He pointed out how hard the players were working and their ability to concentrate on the task at hand.

A week later, it was back to school and the regular routine. That Christmas, however, was magical. I learnt how to properly skate and got to watch my first Toronto Maple Leafs practice. What more could a kid wish for at Christmas?