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My first game at Maple Leaf Gardens in January 1965

During the 1963-’64 season, the Maple Leafs (though no one knew it at the time) were on their way to a third consecutive Stanley Cup.

But on that long and very competitive road, they ran into an unexpected result one night. It was a mid-January Saturday night in ‘64 and they hosted the then-lowly Boston Bruins in Toronto. When play-by-play man Bill Hewitt came on the TV that night to welcome the nation’s hockey fans on Hockey Night in Canada, the score was already 6-0—for the Bruins.

I remember sitting in my customary spot in my “hockey-watching” chair at home in what we called the “sun” room. Hewitt’s shocking announcement was disappointing for Leaf fans—and it was odd. The Bruins were generally a pushover in Toronto in the early ‘60s, and the game was essentially over before I—and millions of other Leafs fans across the country—had even begun to watch. (The games, in those days, started at 8pm, and the broadcast came on at 8:30—usually very near the end of the first period, because there weren’t all the commercial breaks we endure nowadays.)

The Leafs and Don Simmons, who was in goal that night, went into Chicago Stadium the very next night and shut out a very strong Hawks team 2-0 in quite a reversal of form. But that awful performance against the Bruins probably helped lead to the massive trade that brought Andy Bathgate to the Leafs from New York some weeks later.

In any event, earlier on in my young life I had had the opportunity on a couple of occasions to see the Leafs play at the wonderful old Olympia in Detroit when I was quite young. My Dad would buy us standing room tickets.

But the idea of actually watching a game live, in Toronto, at Maple Leaf Gardens, was something a kid from a small town like myself really only dreamed of.

It so happens that, during the 1964-’65 season, my oldest sister’s fiancée, Peter, somehow got a hold of two tickets for a game, and invited me to come to Toronto to attend the game with him.

It was January of 1965 and I was 11 years old at the time. I don’t even remember how I got to Toronto—I probably took the train with my mother. I do know that I was so excited, I barely spoke the entire night at the game. Peter was a lot older than me and was someone I kind of looked up to and was shy around. Earlier, he had taken me to the store inside the Gardens that sold sticks and team jerseys and such. Even that was unbelievable to me, just to be in Toronto, inside a part of Maple Leaf Gardens.

Once the game started, we sat in the green seats—between one of the blue lines and the net. While Dave Keon was my favorite leaf, I also liked Ronnie Ellis, who was a young 20-year old rookie with the Leafs that year. I recall Peter teasing me in a good-natured way whenever Ellis had the puck, because he knew Ellis was a bit of a favorite of mine. Ellis wore number 11 in his rookie season, though later in his fine career with the Leafs he wore number 8 and finally number 6.

Peter and I enjoyed the game together, I think he bought me a soft drink and snacks between periods but I was too nervous to eat. The Leafs won handily that night, something like 6-1. I don’t remember many details, just a feeling of awe being at the game.

What I’m not sure is true, but Peter at least told me at the time that it was, is that the game was on the one-year anniversary of the 11-0 whitewashing the Leafs had suffered at the hands of the Bruins the year before. It was mid-January, as I recall, so it may well have been exactly one year later.

That didn’t much matter to me. Just entering the building, seeing the majesty of the old Gardens, the old photos, the bright lights, the Leafs in their blue uniforms, was something. You couldn’t help but be aware, even as a kid, of the great teams and players that had performed there—everything, was overwhelming.

I don’t have the ticket stub from my first game at the Gardens. I may have an old program somewhere. But I remember Peter (who died many years ago) fondly, and appreciate to this day that he made the effort to take me to my first game in Toronto.

Like thousands and thousands of other Leaf fans, I’ll always remember my first game at the Gardens.

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