March 31, 1973. A day I will remember forever.
Just turned 15, I travel to Toronto from the west coast. Soon I will start at a local school as an exchange student.
I stay with a friend of our family. Together, the two of us ride the subway, all the way to the College Station stop. There, blue and white silhouettes adorn the walls, each of a player on the Maple Leafs roster.
We climb the stairs, empty onto Carlton Street. Maple Leaf Gardens, an ice hockey cathedral, looms above us. Little do I know what awaits.
I tingle with excitement and anticipation. An old man in an usher’s uniform takes our tickets, waves in the general direction of the lower bowl. Goes back to keenly watching the teams warmup. Still, not for us a ride on the cramped escalator up to one of the nosebleed sections. Rather, we cross the mezzanine in search of the rink side red seats.
The smell of the building hits me, a pungent mix of hotdogs, paint and popcorn. I look up, search for the gondola made famous by the legendary Foster Hewitt on his early play by play radio calls for Hockey Night in Canada. Catch a glimpse of the scoreboard, hanging high above the centre ice circle. Hear the booming baritone of PA announcer Paul Morris.
As has been the case ever since 1946, the game is a sellout. This despite a woeful Leafs team, years removed from its last championship success, mired in the league basement. Yet, hockey remains a religion in the city, tickets always hard to come by.
Boston provides the opposition. The Big, Bad Bruins, winners of two of the previous three Stanley Cups. Already victorious in some 50 games this season, they are quite rightly considered a hard-nosed, hard-hat, punch you in the mouth crew that doesn’t take crap from anyone.
One way traffic beckons.
It turns out to be anything but. The Leafs, with only pride at stake, produce an inspired performance, scoring early and often in what ends up a 7-3 decision. In contrast, the Boston team, awaiting the start of playoffs, appears disengaged. The players look tired and disheveled. Hungover almost, stuck in mud.
With one notable exception.
Already a revered performer with a laundry list of scoring and plus/minus records, All-Star selections, MVP and major trophy awards, the "exception" simply refuses to sink to the level of his teammates on the night. Literally a one-man band, he completely dominates those minutes he is on the ice.
Along with the other 16,000+ in attendance, I watch transfixed as a virtuoso applies his craft. He skates with both elegance and power, effortlessly speeding up as required to leave opponents trailing in his wake. Three exhilarating end to end rushes, one each period, are simply stunning. On each occasion Leaf defenders are literally reduced to the role of pylons, as he completes a hat trick of goals.
The jaw dropping skating is matched only by a heavy shot, singularly brilliant stick handling, exquisite passing, and unparalleled vision. And, though by every possible measure a superb defender, he instinctively knows that attack is the best line of defence. In this way, as is the case with the absolute elite in every athletic discipline, he revolutionizes the sport.
His third and final goal of the game, scored in the dying minutes, fittingly unassisted and fittingly his 100th point of the season, sees even the most hard-bitten Toronto fans on their feet applauding wildly. For me personally, it is a seminal moment, a privilege to observe live a performance of unmatched brilliance.
The game ends. I tightly clutch my torn ticket stub, join other spectators filing out onto the concourse. If up screaming and shouting just a short time ago, it is now an eerily quiet crowd, subdued almost. Everyone coming to terms with, or marveling at, the extraordinary array of skills just witnessed.
A few years later it is all over. In the final noteworthy achievement of a glorious career, he is named MVP at the 1976 Canada Cup international tournament. Though considered by many as better on one leg than anyone else on two, repeated injuries destroy his left knee. A brief free agency period with Chicago never pans out. Badly hobbled, he retires from the NHL, far too young, at age 30.
More time passes. The sport evolves, the Stanley Cup still the most difficult to win of all the major sports trophies. New stars emerge. Icons such as Gretzky, Ovechkin and Crosby join a pantheon already filled with the likes of Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard.
Still, I return without fail to the events of a spring evening nearly 50 years ago. When I close my eyes, I can make out clearly the imposing black Boston sweater, the stylized “B” front and centre. Feel the sense of exhilaration and wonder every time he takes possession of the puck.
Nothing I saw before or have seen in the interim will ever make me change my mind. He will always be the G.O.A.T.
The Greatest of All Time.
Boston’s #4. He is Bobby Orr.