I grew up in the hockey mecca of Toronto, and even though we moved to the U.S. in 1981, I get back every few years to visit family and take in some games. Usually, I go in the summer, so I see Blue Jays games. But a few weeks ago, I flew up for a three-day, hockey-filled trip.
The main reason for the visit was to go to the Panthers-Leafs game at the Air Canada Centre with my cousin Dev, but I managed to pack a lot of puck-related activities into a short period of time. I flew into Toronto’s Pearson Airport on Sunday morning (2/19) and I immediately knew I was in a hockey-obsessed country because the baggage claim area had TVs playing hockey highlights.
The Winter Olympics were still in full swing at this point and after eating lunch at my uncle’s place in Mississauga (a city of 700,000 west of Toronto), Dev and I went to a bar for a few beers and watched the rebroadcast of that morning’s Canada-Finland men’s hockey game. Later that evening, we gathered around to watch the Leafs-Red Wings game on TV. Okay, it was me, Dev and his 6-year-old son; the 4-year-old was watching Peppa Pig on a computer and the ladies were watching the Olympics on the other TV. The game was pretty exciting, with Auston Matthews getting the winner with 31 seconds left in regulation.
The next day, I joined my cousin, his oldest son and my uncle at an Ontario Hockey League (OHL) game between the Mississauga Steelheads and the Flint Firebirds. The Canadian major junior leagues (the OHL, Quebec Major Junior and Western Hockey League) have been a major source of players for the professional leagues including the NHL. The Mississauga club had four players drafted by NHL teams, including RW Owen Tippett (drafted 10th overall by Florida last year) and C Michael McLeod (drafted by New Jersey in the first round in 2016). The Steelheads are having a .500 season while the Firebirds are stuck in last place in the OHL’s Western Division.
It was a Monday afternoon game on what’s known as Family Day in Canada, a holiday that was adopted in Ontario 10 years ago; the idea is to celebrate the importance of families (it just happens to coincide with Presidents Day in the U.S.). The game was pretty close for two periods, with Mississauga up 1-0 after 2 thanks to the efforts of Flint goalie Luke Cavallin. The Steelheads popped in three goals in the third to win the game 4-0. The stadium promo staff were busy throughout, popping up during breaks in the action to interview fans, leading contests and giving away pizza, so much pizza.
After the game, we took my 6-year-old nephew to his hockey practice. It was fun to watch him and his teammates go through their drills. There were a lot of wipeouts and mishaps as the kids, split up into three age groups, zipped around the ice. After going out to dinner, I came back and watched more Olympic hockey late into the night.
On Tuesday, Dev and I took the train into Toronto in the early afternoon. We went to the Hockey Hall of Fame, which I had last visited in the summer of 2013. It had been redesigned since then and had some cool newer displays, including a big one featuring the 100 Greatest NHL Players and another that had great goalie masks displayed.
We got some dinner and then headed over to the ACC. This was my first Leafs home game since 1998, when I flew up to catch one last game at the old Maple Leaf Gardens (where the Leafs played their final game a few months later). The mood was pretty excited in the rink; the Leafs were in the midst of a hot stretch and neck-and-neck with the Bruins and Lightning for the top spot in the East (they’ve since dropped back a bit). Our seats were up in the third level by one of the nets.
I had expected the Leafs to take it to the Panthers, but it was a pitched battle, with excellent goaltending from Florida’s Roberto Luongo and Leafs’ workhorse Frederik Andersen. James Van Riemsdyk popped in a goal in the first and that was it for scoring, but there was no shortage of chances.
The Leafs are on their way to their second straight playoff appearance, led by a trio of young superstars in Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Alas, Matthews would be injured a few days later thanks to the Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck, who caught him with a blind-side check that left Matthews with a shoulder injury. That was on Feb. 22 and he still hasn’t returned, although it’s expected he’ll be back later this week or early next week. Still, fans have good reason to be hopeful as the Leafs continue to grow into a contender. They’re not defensively ready yet, but they’ll get there. After decades of futility, the Leafs have finally given their obsessed fan base something to get excited about.
We went home after the game and I was set to leave the next morning, but my flight was delayed so I watched a little more Olympic hockey before heading out. Strangely enough, I left Toronto where it was 35 degrees and rainy and arrived in Boston to find it sunny and in the mid-70s. (We’ve reverted back into winter mode, though: as I write this, we’re in the midst of a blizzard and our third nor’easter in the last few weeks.) The puck theme continued as I went to play hockey that night. It’s not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle, right?