A broadcast executive once described watching a Maple Leafs' game on television as "the perfect little Canadian theatre."
Well, the Leafs hit the big time last night in a major movie house, on a screen 6.5-metres high and almost 12 across, in front of more than 200 hard-core fans at Silver City Yonge and Eglinton. It was one of 25 Cineplex Odeon theatres in southern Ontario that began showing Leafs TV broadcasts in high definition.
The Leafs and Florida Panthers shared marquee billing with Stranger Than Fiction, Night Of The Living Dead and the horror flick Saw III, all movies which could have described the team's 3-1 loss. Ex-Leaf Ed Belfour was well-cast as the villain, but no Leaf hero emerged before the closing credits.
From a technical standpoint, the HD was only effective from low angles, but the crowd ( $10.95 adult admission , $8.95 for kids), seemed just as happy to get a Darryl Sittler autograph, high-five mascot Carlton the Bear, remove their hats and sing O Canada and boo a steady stream of fast-food commercials. Oh yes, and get comfy seats with a drink holder and free popcorn refills.
"It was nice to watch a game with a lot more fans all around you," said Tyler Corlett, 12, of Toronto, decked out in a Leafs' sweatshirt. "It made it more fun and more realistic."
The patrons started the night with a Go Leafs Go chant, cheered every hit, groaned at the Florida goals and went wild when Bryan McCabe finally scored in the third period and Joe Bowen and Harry Neale did a shout-out to the theatre from the Sunshine State.
For Mel Douglas, 61, last evening brought back memories of watching the Leafs' road games on the first closed circuit TV systems in the Carlton Theatre, down the street from Maple Leaf Gardens.
"I worked at the main Canadian Tire store on Yonge St. and on my Sunday night off, I'd watch the Leafs at the Carlton for $3.75," Douglas said. "That was 1964 and there were only six teams in the National Hockey League."
The Leafs are trying to get their TV station's HD games a wider audience, but this new project is also a chance for far-flung fans with little chance of getting a ticket a taste of what a night at the Air Canada Centre would be like.
Ex-captain Sittler and other Leaf alumni such as Wendel Clark are to be special guests at selected theatres throughout the big screen run. Born in St. Jacobs, Sittler never saw a Leaf game until he came to the Gardens as a junior with the London Knights.
"Our family lived from paycheque to paycheque and we certainly couldn't come to Toronto for a game," Sittler said. "And there weren't any movie theatres in St. Jacobs."
One dollar from each ticket will go to the Captain's Fund, overseen by Sittler and Clark, which provides bursaries for minor hockey players from disadvantaged backgrounds.