As some of you who follow this site may know, I was raised in southwestern Ontario. While my Dad would on occasion take us across the river to watch the Red Wings play at the classic old Olympia Stadium (usually when the Habs or Leafs were visiting…my Dad got into more than a few minor incidents with rabid Red Wing fans in those days), I was only able to get to one Leaf game (in Toronto) in person as a youngster in the 1960s. That was when my now late brother-in-law Peter was kind enough to take me to see the Leafs and the Bruins during the 1964-’65 season. (I remember vividly that I was so excited at the prospect of travelling all the way to Toronto and going to a Leaf game…) I believe we went on the anniversary of the rather infamous 11-0 game—when the defending Stanley Cup champion Leafs lost to the then lowly Boston Bruins by a score of 11-0 on a Saturday night at Maple Leaf Gardens—on national television, no less. Despite that loss, the Leafs beat a tough Blackhawk team right in Chicago the very next night, 2-0, and went on to win their third Stanley Cup in a row in the spring of '64.
To see the Leafs in action, in person, at the Gardens for the first time (in their home blue uniforms, which I had never got to see when they played in Detroit) was such a thrill—not to mention seeing the building itself for the first time, with all the beautiful photos in the halls of the Gardens. When my brother-in-law offered to buy me some food or get something to drink that night, I was so in awe I couldn’t really eat anything.
Years later, in the fall of 1972, I had the opportunity to leave home and attend St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. For someone who had been raised in a farming community (though I attended high school in nearby Windsor, Ontario), Toronto was a pretty daunting place. The combination of freedom, new friends and living in the big smoke didn’t help my academic focus as it should have (I did graduate, but not exactly with “honours”), but there were other perks, for sure.
Within the next couple of years, a friend and I saw an ad in the Globe & Mail or Toronto Star. I can’t remember which. A limited number of Maple Leaf season-tickets were apparently available up in the old nose-bleed "grey" section. We had moved out of residence (which was only about a 20 minute walk to the Gardens; less when you ran) and were living with some of our buddies in the King and Jamieson area of Toronto. We hopped on the streetcar and hustled into the Gardens with what money, I don’t know—but we walked out with a pair of “grey” section season-tickets.
That was pretty exciting, too.
We went to a ton of games, as you would expect, in the weeks ahead, and for the next couple of years- until a job up in northern Ontario took me away from Toronto.
But before all that happened, something else almost magical (in my mind) happened. At least it felt that way for me as a young person who had been a Maple Leaf fan for as long as I could remember (about 1958, to be precise).
To provide some context, single seats up in the greys in those days cost exactly $4. That’s $4 to see an NHL game from basically great (albeit awfully high) seats between the blueline and center ice at the old Gardens up in the greys. One day when we were at the Gardens, I dropped into the hallowed “Hot Stove Lounge”. Now keep in mind that I was maybe all of 21 years of age, and still a university student. On a lark (and on a wing and a prayer), I thought I would ask how much it cost to join the Hot Stove Club, just in case, I guess, that I somehow thought it could conceivably be in my “price” range.
As a university student who relied on summer jobs and my parents’ good will to pay for my schooling (I had no job during the school year—I had a hard enough time just getting to classes, which, frankly, I did less and less as my four undergrad years rolled by…) I didn’t exactly have extra cash just lying around. Like most students back then, I lived frugally. At least I thought I did. So the notion of joining any kind of “club”, much less one that sounded pretty exclusive, was rather a stretch on my part—and just a bit silly.
A gentleman (I think it was “Nick”, who I came to understand kind of ran things in the Hot Stove Club and had, I believe, for a number of years) explained how one became a member. I thought it would be hugely expensive, thousands or at least hundreds of dollars just to join.
He informed me that the cost was $150 to become a member, and $50 a year in annual “dues”.
I was shocked, to say the least. Now, understand, it’s not like I had money lying around, but I scrounged up some of what I had to live on for food and such and turned it into a membership at the Hot Stove. I think I maybe signed a form of some kind, but essentially, “joining” was not much more complicated than that.
I had to pinch myself. I remember thinking: why doesn’t every Leaf fan in Toronto belong to this “Club”. Maybe they did. I have no idea. But it—and I—felt a bit special.
You have to remember that when I was a kid in the late 1950s, Hockey Night in Canada on CBC did not come on television until the second period (games on Saturday nights in those days began at the Gardens at 8pm). However, you could start listening to the games on the radio (CBC, I think) at 8:30 in the area that I lived.
At the end of the first period (I'm pretty sure it was after the first period) there was the old radio “Hot Stove League” round-table discussion. That usually meant some well-known hockey writers and commentators of the day (Bob Hesketh, Jim Coleman, Jack Dennett and names that go back before my time), along with former NHL players, sat in a studio and discussed what had happened in the first period of the game at the Gardens that night. It was so much fun listening to these “experts” just talk about the game.
(To this day, I’m not sure, but I assume they set up microphones in a broadcast area in the Gardens, but for all I know, they were actually at a studio somewhere else in Toronto and listening to the game on the radio and then sharing observations in-between periods. I honestly don’t know for sure.)
My point is that I had heard about the Hot Stove League for years, and was aware that there was also a “Hot Stove” in the building where fans could go before and after games.
So, to be able to “run a tab” in the Gardens as a 21 year old was, excuse the dated expression, pretty darn cool. I believe I had to wear a blazer, as I seem to recall there was some kind of dress code. But I could bring friends to the game (with my other season ticket, when my buddy didn’t want to go) and I’d make sure to get there before 7pm so I could get a seat in the Hot Stove Lounge. (The Hot Stove facility was made up of about three or four different sections. I normally went to the basic area where you could order beer or mixed drinks, but there was another section for meals and a banquet hall upstairs, etc.) All we had to do was ask, and they would put up a “Reserved” sign at “my” table and we would head down between periods and also after the games. If the game was boring and you didn't want to go back to your seat right away, you could watch the game on one of the televisions in the lounge.
You had your hand stamped when you left and then whenever you wanted to get back into the Hot Stove lounge, you just put your hand out and some machine lit up your hand ( I don’t know how else to explain it) and you were back in. There would be free popcorn or pretzels waiting for us. My goodness it was fun.
A lot of players and other “famous” folks and dignitaries would stroll by after games. My friends were always duly impressed, and wondered how the heck I had access to this ritzy and exclusive section of the Gardens to begin with. They all knew I had no money.
I think I kept the entry “fee” my only little (and selfish) secret.
Again, reality (I needed a job) crept into my life and ultimately I had to give up my Hot Stove membership. It wasn’t realistic to spend the money when I wasn’t even living in Toronto, and by the time I was married in 1978 and we then moved back to the Toronto area for what turned out to be for good in the early ‘80s, we had children and, well, many of you know the rest of that story.
We weren’t swimming in money (still aren’t, after 35 years…) so Leaf tickets and belonging to the Hot Stove was beyond my reality. And in truth, with a young and growing family, it just wasn’t a priority any longer.
I was also on the waiting list in the late ‘70s or earl;y '80s for season’s tickets in the greens (one section lower than the greys) and my name did come up at one point. But I passed on that opportunity, again, because there was just no way that I could really rationalize the time and money it would take to make it worth my while,
When I look back now, I do not regret passing on the “greens”, or giving up my Hot Stove membership. I just appreciate that I had a truly memorable experience when I was at a time in my life that it was a genuine blast—and something I really appreciated.
It’s a memory I cherish to this day.