Friday, April 15, 2011

A Special time of Year

The Stanley Cup playoffs truly are the beginning to a new hockey season. The pretenders have been unmasked. Their hockey sticks replaced by golf clubs. The ultimate prize awaits a team who out maneuvers their opponents. To accomplish this, players and coaches must be at the top of their game and willing to pay whatever price is necessary to advance.

With the passage of time, from winter to spring, there is an obvious change in the air. Slowly, winter coats are exchanged for lighter gear. The changing of the clocks to Daylight Saving Time produces longer days. This provides more time to play road hockey after dinner. The National Hockey League schedule dwindles down, with fans eagerly awaiting the playoffs.

I recall the escalating feelings of anticipation which would engulf my whole being back when I was a youngster. My earliest memories of playoff action go back to 1964. The Toronto Maple Leafs were my heroes and no other team was going to prevent them from lifting Lord Stanley. Certainly not the New York Rangers, Chicago Black Hawks or Boston Bruins. The Detroit Red Wings were a worthy opponent, but no match for the boys in Blue and White. The team causing a degree of panic to set in were the Montreal Canadiens. If Toronto showed the skill, grit and passion to advance past Montreal, other teams would be a push-over.

At playoff time, hockey would consume my entire day. Sure, my physical presence was mandatory at school, however, my state of mind was somewhere else. Would Johnny Bower be sharp for tonight's game? How many goals will Frank Mahovlich score? At recess, I would transform into Dave Keon for the foot-hockey game. I pursued the green tennis ball as though it were the puck in play at Maple Leaf Gardens or the Montreal Forum. In spirit, Keon was providing the guidance for me to excel.

Unfortunately, school didn't cease with the closing bell. Homework assignments became a royal pain. On most nights, there was plenty of time to hit the books and tackle those math equations. When the playoffs rolled around, time was at a premium. The usual routine was put out to pasture. Instead of lingering about and watching Superman on television, the pages in my school books would be flipping at an excessive rate of speed. There was no time for baloney or peanut butter sandwiches. The glass of Nestles Quick chocolate milk would take way too long to make. Then, I started to sound like mom. I would tell myself "no problem, I don't want to spoil my supper." Why did it have another meaning when mom said it?

Before sitting down to my pre-game meal, there was another matter to focus on. The daily newspaper. I looked upon the broadsheet as my scouting report. It contained all the vital information - quotes from the players/coaches, statistical data and line-up details. Was Tim Horton still suffering from a knee injury? How will Punch Imlach try to limit the Habs scoring opportunities?

On occasion, disaster would strike. In the spring of 1964, mom and dad were exploring the possibility of purchasing a new house. With dad working during the day, this meant viewings must occur in the evening. Of course, this activity included yours truly. I was too young to be left on my own. The whole process sent me on an emotional roller coaster. Why me? What did I do, to deserve this treatment? I couldn't care less about moving. The TV worked in our current home and that was sufficient. Especially at playoff time. I would only budge off my stance of resistance after explicit guarantees were secured that not a single moment of hockey would be missed.

How could I miss one minute of play? The contest in question was game 7 of the 1964 semi-final. Toronto versus Montreal in the Forum. The winner advancing to the big show. How could I explain to my buddies that I missed the opening goal or, perhaps, the latest encounter between Eddie Shack and John Ferguson? It was a close battle from the opening faceoff right through the third period. Toronto held a one goal lead, 2-1, when Montreal coach Toe Blake pulled goalie Charlie Hodge. With an open net, Dave Keon scored his third goal of the game giving him his first NHL hat-trick. Was this an omen I would score 3 goals in the next road hockey game?

Looking back, it is amazing I survived. I put my heart and soul behind the Maple Leafs. A loss would hit me like a ton of bricks. They might as well have taken my dog and thrown him off a bridge. I could feel the players pain. They weren't responsible for the lead disappearing, it was the terrible calls by the referee. He let the Canadiens get back into the contest. Tomorrow couldn't arrive any sooner.

When the mighty Leafs were victorious, all was right in the world. Another win meant we were closer to hoisting the Stanley Cup. I could picture the newspaper headlines and enjoy pasting the bold lettering  and photographs in my scrapbook. The mood in the city appeared to be more upbeat. As a kid, there seemed to be more talk when Toronto won. You really didn't want to discuss a loss. It was too painful. As an adult, it is the opposite. A loss can result in non-stop bitching from morning to night. Have you listened to sports talk radio recently?

In 1962,1963 and 1964, my team won three straight Stanley Cups. As a youngster, this had a huge impact. The playoffs meant something. Not one, but as many as four games would be televised in the span of a week. Bill Hewitt handling the chores in Toronto and Danny Gallivan taking over when play shifted to Montreal. It was no nonsense time. Games were telecast from start to finish. There was none of this "joined in progress" routine. Players who didn't qualify for post-season action or who were eliminated, appeared on Hockey Night In Canada as intermission guests. It was so strange seeing Bobby Hull and Gump Worsley in their street clothes.

Although this period of time has passed, the rituals of spring remain the same. Seeds planted long ago continue to produce new life each year. Images of the past forever locked in the thought process. Each new playoff season adding to the inventory.

A special time of year.

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