It's a hollow feeling at the ACC

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:21 AM ET

The only thing visible was the sleeve of the blue blazer as the elevator door closed.

At the Air Canada Centre, the only way to the press box is by express elevator. For many years, the man who took you there was an octogenarian with a penchant for collector pins named Wilf Patey.

You'd ask him about his health and he would tell you he had beat the odds again. Wilf had seen cancer. He figured he was playing on house money.

Wilf died while the NHL owners and players still were dancing their peculiar dance.

Word had spread, but many of us did not remember and took it for granted that the old man would be the one taking you upstairs. And so when the door shut to whisk another member of the tribe to the press box and you saw just a sleeve, you assumed.

Have you ever mistakenly thought you saw a friend or an acquaintance, only to realize not only were you wrong, you would always be wrong?

Maybe they walked the way your friend did. Maybe you saw what you automatically interpreted as a familiar silhouette.

It's a hollow, stupefying feeling and it was taking hold pretty good when the elevator door opened again to show an employee named Michael Zaluski sitting on the folding chair.

"Do you know whose chair you're sitting in?"

"Sure do," he said. "Mine."

Michael Zaluski was one of Wilf Patey's best friends. He's proud to work the elevator. "He was a great guy," Zaluski said.

An amiable member of the public relations staff, 33-year-old Matt Frost didn't come back from the lockout, either. Cancer.

This is not to chronicle those that died too young or at an acceptable age. Instead, it's to remind that things never are the same after a lengthy parting like the 18 months that have passed since the Maple Leafs lost in six games to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Things are profoundly different. Everything is new, even the ice and the words 'Thank You Leafs Fans' painted inside both blue lines as an acknowledgement of the disdain with which the business and labor treated the patrons.

The league, to its credit, I think, has introduced a slate of rules that may showcase the brilliance of its players or the lack thereof.

"Maybe it's a game we'll end up liking," Leafs coach Pat Quinn said. "Maybe we won't. I don't know."

The same, of course, could be said for his team.

Now, Jason Allison and Eric Lindros, both excused from an exhibition game last night against the Buffalo Sabres, may be the answer to the pressing need at forward.

Kyle Wellwood may be a legitimate player and not the Bruce Boudreau of his generation. Staffan Kronwall may step nicely into the lineup on defence.

But what isn't certain is the great new world the Leafs will be a part of. If American fans greet the game's return with a collective yawn, the game's economics will prompt an even greater slashing of payroll and more change.

When last you saw them, the Maple Leafs, the real Maple Leafs, were darkhorses but nonetheless legitimate candidates for the Stanley Cup. The team you now see is a fragile patchwork of a roster and it would take a mammoth stretch for the most devoted fan to envision a championship.

So you come back to the rink or tune in on Saturday nights, be ready. You'll look to see someone, and a stranger will be sitting there. Who knows, maybe he'll be better. But like it or not, it's his seat now.


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