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The Long Weekend - Hockey Night With the Maple Leafs in Toronto

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By Mark Stevens
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 4, 2009

A sign painted on center ice at Joe Louis Arena claims Detroit is "Hockeytown." The Red Wings may be the league's winningest team in recent history, but that is an outright lie. There is only one hockey town: Toronto.

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It's home to one of the Original Six (the six teams that made up the National Hockey League from 1942 until the 1967 expansion) as well as the Hockey Hall of Fame. And the Maple Leafs don't even have to win to pack their arena; they just have to play.

Canada's biggest city does have other charms: a revitalized Frank Gehry-designed Art Gallery of Ontario, the new Royal Ontario Museum addition, a theater district in line after New York and London.

But only one experience is worthy of a quest: hockey night in Toronto.

Pregame Warmup

While the Leafs and visiting New York Islanders suit up for their warmup down the street at the Air Canada Centre (ACC in hockey vernacular), we make our preparations at Wayne Gretzky's.

Like all sports celebrities worth their salt, Wayne Gretzky, the Great One, owns a restaurant. It's a must-do for the true believer. The door handles are skate blades. A mural inside evokes such hockey memories as pond hockey, backyard rinks and makeshift nets. My own memories assail me as I stroll past a glass case of hockey sticks: my big brother teaching me to skate, my ankles skimming the ice of our backyard rink. Those reflections, and the fact that it's 1,000 degrees below zero outside, dictate my menu choices: Grandma's homemade pirogi and the advertised family recipe of meat loaf.

The Puck Drops Here

And the crowd roars.

Sticks clash; bodies clad in armor race toward a puck skittering across the ice. It bounces into the corner, onto the blade of a Maple Leaf who slaps it to a comrade-in-arms, who smashes it toward the net. The goalie stops it. The crowd moans in dismay, a sound like a wave on a beach.

A lone voice cries, "Go, Leafs, go!" It is echoed from across the arena. The crowd chants as one. "Go, Leafs, go!" And they do.

A Leaf named Nikolai Kulemin gets the puck. He shoots. He scores. The roar hits 1,002 decibels.

Up in the nosebleed seats we pound one another on our backs. Our millionaires are beating their millionaires.

Intermission

Frigid beer in hand, I reflect on my pilgrimage to the Hockey Hall of Fame earlier in the day.


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