Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, I remember that, once a year on Hockey Night in Canada, the Leafs (and CBC) would sort of jointly host what I think was called “Young Canada Night”. For all I know it’s still going on, just in a slightly different format, perhaps. If it ended at some point (I’m guessing in the ‘70s but I don’t really know), I don’t honestly recall when or why the idea died.
In truth, I can’t really recall a lot of details. It was “Young Canada Night”, yes, and there were quite a number of young fans at Maple Leaf Gardens in attendance at the annual mid-season game. I seem to recall it was held in early December, but it might just as well have been January or February. My memory is pretty fuzzy on the details.
It was always, I believe, held on a Saturday night. One other little detail that stands out at this Bill Hewitt, son of the legendary Maple Leaf play-by-play man Foster Hewitt, would invite his son (Bruce?), who was maybe all of 10 years old or thereabouts, to call the game each year live for a couple of minutes in the second period. It was simple, old-fashioned stuff, but was kind of a nice touch—especially considering the Hewitts’ were the historic name in Leaf TV and radio broadcasting in those golden days.
There was always way more energy in the Gardens when all those kids were in the building. Let’s face it, Leaf home games have long had an opera-like feeling about them. I know that everyone got dressed up in the ‘50s. That wasn’t just the style, it was necessary if you sat in the lower bowel (originally the old “reds”, later transformed into “gold” seats when Harold Ballard owned the team in the ‘70s…) In the Conn Smythe and early Stafford Smythe (Stafford is seen at left) Maple Leaf ownership years years, the season-ticket holders and their guests had to wear a blazer and tie. If I’m not mistaken, it was part of the season-ticket holder agreement. Ushers wouldn’t let you in your seat if you weren’t appropriately dressed.
That’s not exactly the “standard” dress today, though the modern-day “platinum” seats still generally draw a rather lackluster crowd in terms of the noise they generate. (It’s hard to make noise when the seats are empty, eh?)
In any event, my point is that while the Leafs obviously have great fans that support this franchise—inside and outside of the building—our home games are not always the loudest. But “inside” the home building, it’s often too quiet a place. Oh, some fans get noisy when the Leafs score, of course. But generally speaking, if you eliminated the unnecessary (and blaring) music and loud announcements, people mostly watch the game. They don't always exactly inspire the home side to a better effort.
Maybe we are too analytical. Partly, it could be that fans were reserved because of the way the building was constructed in the old Gardens. The seats were built “up and out”, if you know what I mean. The further you went up, the further you were away from the play. I know buildings are pretty much all like that nowadays, but in the “old days”, (and I used to go to a fair number of games at the old Olympia in Detroit when I was a kid in the early and mid- '60s), some of the American venues had balconies that hung over the ice. It kept the fans close to the action, and the crowd at smaller rinks like Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden and the venerable Chicago Stadium, all smaller rinks (not to mention Detroit, which was the regulation 200 feet in length but still awfully noisy…), could really intimidate the opposition.
It was/is rarely that way in Toronto, where our crowds, while certainly supportive, would generally be much more subdued. We tend to sit back, watch and analyze (I admit I did when I went to a lot of games as a young man in the ‘70s…although, in fairness, I was usually waiting for something bad to happen). We aren’t exactly the “7th man” on the ice…
But let me shift to my real thought today. Maybe I’ve touched on this before (apologies if I have), but along with creating a bit more energy and noise at the ACC, what I have in mind would hopefully also be nice gesture on behalf of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. Here’s the thought (I’m not suggesting this is unique or has never been discussed by others before): why would the Leafs not have one game a season where, say, 5,000 kids under the age of 14 would get into a Leaf game for free?
It could be part of the season-ticket package. Regular season-ticket holders would give up their tickets (they wouldn’t have to pay for that game, the Leafs would pick up the cost) and those duckets could be distributed in an organized fashion to kids who would, say, perhaps otherwise never be able to afford such an experience. It could be arranged through Big Brothers and Big Sisters for example, or alternatively, tickets could go to families who entered a raffle, or something along those lines. The idea, in any event, would simply be to get a lot of kids into the building (for free, and MLSE could throw in some passes to ensure the youngsters would get a soft drink and a bit of food at no cost) either with their father/mother/guardian, or again, through some appropriate organization that would ensure deserving kids had a chance to go.
Over the course of a few years, a lot of kids would get to a game that might otherwise never get to an NHL game in Toronto. I realize that the Leafs, as a business entity, exist to make money. They are a for-profit organization. I have no idea what it would cost them, but hey, if you consider that they seem to have survived quite nicely financially (what did the franchise just get sold for?) all these years without even making the playoffs—not one playoff gate since 2004, eh—they could surely handle this bit of generosity. If they can easily absorb the loss of projected playoff revenue every spring as they have in recent years, couldn't they subsidize precisely this kind of undertaking, especially if they started making the playoffs?
I know the Leafs already do a lot of “good will” community stuff and I applaud them for that. The team has always done that as long as I can remember (Easter Seals was a major area of support when the Smythes' ran the team, as I recall) and will no doubt continue to give back. Individual players, like Curtis Joseph when he was with the Leafs, did a lot to help youngsters, too.
But this would be something truly special—and something above and beyond. It would create memories for a lifetime for kids who would surely love and appreciate the opportunity. And even the organization’s self-interest would be served. Can you imagine how much publicity they would generate and receive if they opened the entire building one game a year to kids and their families/guardians?
But in the absence of such corporate largesse, I’d settle for, as I mentioned above, say 5,000 seats being donated by MLSE. I’d be happy if the players also got together and did something similar, but I won't get greedy. If corporate Leaf partners, or corporate sponsors, etc. wanted to contribute as well, all the better. But this would have to come from MLSE. They can afford it, and I would argue they owe it to the community that has supported them.
It’s not only the wealthy or those with money, or hugely profitable banks and other sponsoring companies and advertisers that “pay” for the Leafs to operate. It is everyday fans, including all those kids all those years who listened to Leaf games on their old transistor radio tucked under their pillow when they were supposed to be in bed, in what I remember as the good old days. It’s those kids then and now who loved/love hockey and the Leafs—whether they contribute by “paying” for things are not- that help to keep Leaf pride alive and well.
Pay them back, MLSE. Do it.