From Gretzky's memories to Ballard's bunker

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:45 AM ET

It is a drizzly grey February day in downtown Toronto and the one-time Countess of Carlton St., otherwise known as Maple Leaf Gardens, is looking as bleak as the weather.

Sheets of rain pelt against the doors, which are sealed shut. Streams of water trickle down the windows, which have been whited out so no one can see inside.

Weston Food, which purchased the building in 2003, recently announced that plans to turn the famous arena into a Loblaws store had been put on hold in these waning economic times while the company concentrates its efforts on its existing franchises.

As a result, a decade after the building hosted its final NHL game, the Gardens, one of Toronto's most historic landmarks, has become little more than an empty shell, a vacant box.

But it has not been forgotten.

Not by Doug Gilmour. Or Steve Thomas. Or Darryl Sittler.

And especially not by Wayne Gretzky.

For No. 99, the Gardens always will be a hockey shrine, one, perhaps, that should host the sport again.

"Honestly, I think they should just play hockey there because that is the best use you could have for that building," Gretzky said yesterday. "They want another team in Toronto, don't they?"

Gretzky's comments underscore this point: The Gardens remains a special place to many people, long after the pucks had been put away for good.

Tomorrow marks the 10-year anniversary of the official closing of the Gardens. On Feb. 13, 1999, a night full of ceremony culminated with a 6-2 Maple Leafs loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

While most of the seats having been auctioned off, the Gardens still has hosted a handful of activities since that historic evening. Many of the fight scenes from the Russell Crowe flick Cinderella Man were shot inside. Performers such as Cher and The Rolling Stones used it as a practice facility for coming tours. Last fall, actor Matt Damon hosted a charity event there.

And while the building pretty much sits idle these days, the memories inside are something players and fans alike always cherish.

"The first time I went there, I was six and my grandma took me," Gretzky recounted. "We sat in the very back row and I don't think I said a word. I soaked it all in. It was one of the most special times of my life."

When Gretzky moved from his native Brantford to Toronto as a young teen to play minor hockey, he would take the subway almost every Saturday to watch the Marlies play at the Gardens.

After turning professional, Gretzky recalled attending a Canada Cup training camp in Toronto. While many of his teammates would bolt after practice, Gretzky strolled around the building "for hours."

"I would walk through the place, looking at the photos, just soaking it all in," he said.

Almost as if he was touring a museum?

"Ya. Sort of."

In a cruel twist of fate for Leafs fans, it was Gretzky who prevented the Gardens from playing host to its first Stanley Cup final since 1967.

SPECIAL PLACE

With the Leafs and Gretzky's Los Angeles Kings locking horns for a seventh and deciding game in the 1993 Western Conference final, The Great One registered four points in a 5-4 victory by the visitors, a performance No. 99 would later say arguably was the best of his illustrious career.

Several weeks earlier, during Toronto's second-round series against the St. Louis Blues, Gilmour had scored one of the most memorable goals in Gardens history, bobbing and weaving behind the Blues net before his wraparound attempt beat Curtis Joseph for the winner in double overtime.

"It's a special place," Gilmour said this week. "It's too bad St. Mike's was not given permission to play there after the Leafs left. It would have been a good fit."

During his playing days as a Leaf, Gilmour quickly discovered many of the building's nuances.

"There was an underground passage in the dressing room near the trainers room that took you out through the kitchen of the Hot Stove Lounge," Gilmour said. "I could get out of there and on to the street with (relative anonymity)."

Gilmour played in that final game at the Gardens ten years ago. Only he was a Blackhawk by that time. And he rubbed salt into the wounds of the Leafs faithful, scoring the game-winner in the Hawks' four-goal victory. Gilmour's jersey from that night is in the Hockey Hall of Fame, a reminder of the night the Gardens closed its doors.

Days after the Leafs had vacated the Gardens, they played their first game at the sparkling new Air Canada Centre, with Thomas scoring the winning goal in overtime to give the hosts a 3-2 win over the rival Montreal Canadiens.

In honour of those heroics, Thomas will be on hand to drop the ceremonial opening puck prior to the game against the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 21, part of the festivities marking the ACC's 10th birthday.

Yet, like as is the case for so many of us who grew up in Toronto, the Gardens always will hold its own place in Thomas' heart.

It was here that he established himself as a Leaf. It was here that he played two years of junior hockey with the Marlies. And it was here that, as a boy, his father took him via subway to Leafs games.

"The walk from (the College subway station) to the building was always so cool," he said. "There was such a buzz on the street before a game. It was like any street in New York City during rush hour. It was so alive."

Remember that walk? Remember the delicious smell of peanuts and candy apples that wafted from the various push-carts operated by vendors out on the sidewalk?

Those carts were one of the things that made the Gardens so unique.

Just like the cups of pop that were sold inside, cola that often was flat because the clear plastic draped over the top proved to be a crappy air-tight seal.

Like the wonderful voice of P.A. announcer Paul Morris, whose familiar pipes made everyone feel at home.

Like the long metal urine troughs in the men's restrooms, the type of troughs you'd expect farmers to use to feed their pigs.

Like the old electronic signboards above the end blues, where the flashing messages always seemed to be missing letters because of a few burned-out bulbs.

And like Harold Ballard's bunker behind the north goal, where Pal Hal and buddy King Clancy often huddled for games.

Of all the historic hockey moments that occurred inside those walls, the greatest individual effort by a Leaf took place on Feb. 7, 1976. On that night, Sittler registered a single-game NHL record for points, compiling 10 against the Boston Bruins.

But that isn't his most endearing memory of the Countess of Carlton St.

"When I first signed with the organization, they took me to watch a game at the Gardens," he said yesterday. "I had never been there before. For a kid who grew up watching Hockey Night in Canada, it was a dream come true."

Hard to believe it has been 10 years already.


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