What a night! I couldn’t be classed as a sports fan by any stretch of the imagination, but as some of you know from yesterday’s post, Monday evening saw K and I brave the cold and take the GO train to Toronto for our first ever hockey game. Hockey is to Canada what oxygen is to living; winning Platinum tickets meant we had a chance to find out what all the fuss was about from some bloody good seats.
Hanging at the Hangar
We arrived early with plenty of time to take in the Air Canada Centre, the multi-sport venue known as the ACC or the Hangar, home to the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Raptors – Toronto’s basketball team. Used to the industrial concrete of British stadiums, we were impressed by the clean comfort of the ACC. Carpets, chrome and well-maintained washrooms made for a much more luxurious experience than any football game back home, and the variety of food available, everything from fresh fruit and Nova Scotia oysters to kosher hotdogs, sure beat the tepid Pukka pies that fuel sports fans across the pond. We picked up complimentary scarves, T-shirts and food and drink vouchers, so I got to experience a kosher Coney Island hotdog. Not being a beer drinker I gave the Molson a miss.
Impeccably mannered staff were on hand throughout the centre to direct visitors and handle enquiries. Finding our way around the 665,000 square foot structure was easy. Plentiful facilities kept washroom queues to a minimum – no more than five minutes even during intervals. Suitably dressed in our new apparel, we investigated the exclusive Platinum club, where Toronto’s well-heeled bright young things jostled CEO’s and their wives/mistresses as they traversed the halls between the restaurant and executive suites, Leaf jerseys clashing eclectically with designer couture. We enquired at the restaurant about a table and despite the online reservation service claiming to be fully booked earlier in the day, the maître d’ was able to accommodate us. Good to know in case the game didn’t hold our interest, though we needn’t have worried.
A puck-drop that was out of this world
After a short wait for the Zamboni to do its stuff we took our seats in the arena just as the 48th Highland regiment hit the ice in a blaze of tartan and tradition. In their wake, the climactic strains of a western showdown filled the air and the good, the bad and the ugly filed on for intros and applause (well, applause for the Leafs, boos for the Sabres). It was clear from the cheers that Lupul and Kessel had the hearts of the Leaf fans.
A ceremonial puck-drop from Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield in the International Space Station (follow him on Twitter for amazing tweets from space!) got the Leafs first game on home ice this season off to a flying start. The fast pace and relentless action had us spellbound, and Leafs mascot Carlton the Bear pounding on the “glass”. Thanks to seats on the forth row from the ice we flinched at the crack of the puck or the reverberating thud of players body-slamming into the five-foot safety screens just feet away. The sports photographers, with their long lenses trained through purpose-built holes, had a well-developed sixth sense and always managed to pull back in time. We were right on top of the action.
The good ‘ole hockey game
Never having seen a hockey game before, even on TV, it was amazing to watch players use the barriers to rebound the puck, like playing off the cushion in snooker. At one point it rolled around the curvature of the safety screen like a biker in the Wall of Death. Although ice hockey is divided into three 20-minute periods, the clock stopped every time there was an infraction; the terminology made us smile, familiar to teachers everywhere – players sat out in the penalty box for roughing, elbowing, tripping, fighting and interference. While the audience scrutinised the slo-mo replays on the big screen the auditorium filled with booming beats that cut out the minute play resumed.
I loved the speed and immediacy of the game and machismo of the players, but I couldn’t shake the “wrong” feeling when it came to cheering on a fight, something that seemed at odds with the national non-violent, anti-bullying stance. None of the punch-ups were particularly violent and I guess it all added to the “theatre” of the experience. Another remarkable feature was the black canopy that was pulled up to shield a player leaving the rink from any missiles fired by angry fans, not that anybody threw anything on this occasion.
Between intervals we were entertained with chaotic games of “barefoot hockey’, and goalie races where goalies pulled every dirty trick they could to win, tripping, hooking – basically all the penalties a regular game would punish. Even Carlton took to the ice to cause some mayhem with a well-placed bollard (pylon for you Canucks) or two!
Close but no cigar
In the end, the game went down to the wire. The Sabres led most of it 2-0, but Kadri scored with one minute forty-two remaining. Lupul appeared to tie it seconds later but the goal was disallowed. While I reckon Platinum tickets are over-priced (there were no complimentary extras that weren’t open to everyone else bar access to the “backstage” area), I would love to see another game from the cheap seats, if upwards of $100 can be considered cheap! A hockey game beats a football match any day – not that there’s any comparison: hockey players shake off prolonged contact agression. I lost count of the number of times players were body-checked and slammed up against the barrier. Hats off boys, you probably eat footballers for breakfast – go Leafs go!!!
Photography by K Ashraf/Photo-Editing by yours truly