Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hamming it Up

With Victoria Day having come and gone, my memory filters back to the holiday weekend in 1971.

Unlike today's NHL, the Stanley Cup playoffs for 1971 had already come to a conclusion. On May 18th the Montreal Canadiens were crowned Stanley Cup champions. In Toronto, Maple Leaf fans were disappointed with their teams failure to advance beyond the quarter-finals. On April 15th, Toronto was eliminated by New York. The Rangers defeated Toronto 2-1 (overtime) in Maple Leaf Gardens, to take the best-of-seven series 4-2.

Despite the Leafs season being over, there were National Hockey League players skating on Gardens ice come late May. Included in the mix were members from the Maple Leafs roster. Sounds like an oldtimers or charity game - right? Good guess, but if this were a TV game show, the buzzer would be blaring, indicating an incorrect answer!

On Monday May 24, 1971, Victoria Day, it was no ordinary holiday for this youngster. Usually, the big event of the day would take place after the sun had gone down in the west. Following a spread of goodies prepared on the barbecue, everyone was ready to chill-out and enjoy the sights and sounds of firecrackers and flares.

My fireworks actually started about 12 hours earlier. As the clock struck 8:00am, I was on my way to Maple Leaf Gardens. Deserted streets, vacant of cars and pedestrians, being the first clue it was indeed a holiday Monday. Approaching the shrine on Carlton Street, a strange feeling hit me. It seemed odd to be at Maple Leaf Gardens in the early morning. The hustle and bustle of attending an NHL game was missing. No staff were on hand selling programs nor was there any discussion on how well the local heroes were doing.

These thoughts quickly vanished once I entered the majestic art deco entrance. My hope of making a mad-dash for a decent seat suffered a serious blow. Strolling along the Gardens numerous hallways and corridors, my eyes kept wandering upward. They were met by framed photographs hanging on the walls. You couldn't miss these large images which seemed to capture the entire Maple Leaf history. In one photo, the lens captured Rocket Richard in action surrounded by Leaf players. The Caption read, "ROCKET RICHARD GETS SET TO FIRE PUCK AT HARRY LUMLEY." The play is just starting to develop, so the outcome is left to the imagination. I'm sure "Apple Cheeks" made a huge kick-save on Number Nine of Habs fame. Home for this glorious black & white print was the west golds hallway.

As flocks of people passed by, I decided to make my move. The purpose of this venture to downtown Toronto, came into focus as I took my seat. The interior of Maple Leaf Gardens was front and centre, as a production company (Agincourt Productions) took over the facility. I was about to witness the filming of a hockey movie - Face Off.

Over the next several hours, I watched as movie-making equipment was shifted into place and lighting angles were checked in order to record the action scenes. Many of these shots involved Leafs defenceman Jim McKenny, who served as a "hockey-double" for the main character.

The storyline of Face Off revolves around two young characters. Billy Duke, portrayed by Art Hindle, is a hotshot rookie blueliner with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Sherry Nelson, played by Trudy Young, is a pop-rock singer. The plot thickens when the couple are exposed to each others work and social environment. The cultural differences become a point of contention. Billy has trouble accepting Sherry's show business friends and the use of narcotics. Sherry doesn't care much for the sports scene and the violent nature of hockey.

From a hockey perspective, there was a ton to observe while taking in the action at Maple Leaf Gardens. The "hockey cast" assembled for the day of filming was amazing. Representing the NHL were...Garry Monahan, George Armstrong, Jim Harrison, Paul Henderson, Ron Ellis, Jacques Plante, Brian Glennie, Brad Selwood, Rickey Lee, Bob Baun, Jim Dorey, Mike Pelyk and McKenny (Toronto) Rosaire Paiement, Gary Doak, Murray Hall, Ray Cullen and Dale Tallon (Vancouver) Fred Stanfield, Mike Walton, Don Marcotte, Don Awrey, Derek Sanderson and Gerry Cheevers (Boston) Doug Jarrett, Jim Pappin, Lou Angotti and Eric Nesterenko (Chicago) Noel Price and Bob Pulford (Los Angeles) Rod Seiling and Ed Giacomin (New York).

When I viewed the finished product, it was an eye-opener to see Leaf players "acting" on the silver screen. From Harold Ballard to George Armstrong, it was a jolt to the system when they popped-up on screen. To a hockey fan, there presence seemed so out of place. We were familiar with seeing them interviewed on Hockey Night in Canada, not in our local movie houses as actors. I wasn't ready for George Armstrong playing George Armstrong.

The world premiere of Face Off occurred on November 12, 1971. The event took place at Toronto's Odeon Theatre, which just happened to be a Tim Horton to Dave Keon pass away from Maple Leaf Gardens. Of note, the Gardens was celebrating it's 40th anniversary on November 12th. The guest list included players from Toronto and the Vancouver Canucks. In total, 500 guests were invited and 1500 seats were made available to the general public.

It was a magnificent Victoria Day back in 1971. The type of occasion where memories are created and stored forever. Like the story in Face Off, the blending of sports and entertainment made it a unique experience. The next day, however, it was back to reality.

Gone was the trip to Maple Leaf Gardens, hockey players impersonating actors, steaks off the barbecue and fireworks. They were replaced by a classroom, Mr. Smith's zany science projects, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch and there certainly wasn't any fireworks. Unless, Mr. Smith crossed-up his test tubes and provided the class with an unexpected show.

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