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A Night in Toronto on Hockey's Hallowed Turf

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.

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.

A glass-enclosed display of goalie masks guards the entrance. One time I toured an aboriginal museum where a placard described the making and significance of First Nations masks. Same here. These masks were built to protect the wearer, to ward off evil spirits, to frighten foes.

Franchise Alley displays memorabilia and trivia on every NHL team. Some back stories are less than stellar. The Washington Capitals have been a franchise since 1974. They have yet to win the Stanley Cup.

In the Interactive Zone, I shoot at a virtual goalie in one display rink. On another rink, virtual players shoot at me.

Then there is the Great Hall, hockey's holy of holies. It was once the lobby of a 19th-century bank. Columns rise skyward to a cupola bedecked with stained-glass windows. A father and his two daughters approach.

"This is my birthday present," says Taylor Bertrim, sporting a pink Leaf sweater. Her sister, Lena, sports the traditional blue-and-white jersey. "They both play hockey," their father says. "We came down from Sudbury [in northern Ontario] to do the game and the Hall of Fame."

Taylor steps forward reverently. She reaches out a hand and touches the Stanley Cup.

"NHLers never touch it when they come here," says a staff member guarding the grail. "They believe it jinxes them."

I do touch it. No sparks fly, but deep inside I feel something. I hear myself whisper, "Go, Leafs, go."

Back at the ACC, the puck drops.

Postgame Wrap-Up

Leafs 4, Islanders 2.

Like a blue-and-white landslide, the crowd issues from the building. Some head home. Some head for hotels such as the Fairmont Royal York, one of the grande dames of Canadian hotels, where you can get to your room from the ACC without going outside.

"Most visiting teams stay at the Westin Harbour Castle," says Tourism Toronto's Sousie Tsotskos. "Perfect place to meet your heroes."

Her words prove prophetic. On game day we share the elevator with two muscle-bound men. One is Islanders winger Jon Sim.

Another great location for stargazing is the nearby Harbour Sixty Steakhouse. "You can do postgame dinner reservations if you want to splurge," Tsotskos says. "The guy next table over may be a hockey star; that's where many players eat after playing."

Our wrap-up is more democratic. Surrounded by a throng of fans, we march up University Avenue to Jack Astor's. It's packed, so we go with Plan B, the Loose Moose on Front Street.

A brick wall graces one side of the bar, punctuated by a stuffed moose head high above. An undulating chandelier made from empty beer and liquor bottles runs the length of the establishment.

The alcove where we sit has a TV set every five feet. In 10 minutes the bar is full.

A couple enters. They both sport Leaf jerseys. His face is painted in white with a blue maple leaf. She wears blue nail polish with white maple leaves.

Now packed, the bar is enveloped in a sudden silence as the game highlights appear like a kaleidoscope on the multitude of TV screens. They show the winning goal, and the place goes nuts.

I'm screaming "Go, Leafs, go!" with the best of them.

And then it hits me. It's Monday night, it's midnight and the place is rocking.

It's hockey night in Toronto.

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