Maple Leaf forever

JOE WARMINGTON, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:08 AM ET

"Whether the Maple Leaf on your chest is red or blue it will always be an honour and will always be worn with pride."

-- Maple Leafs public address announcer Andy Frost

Every once in a while it happens where everyone in the room agrees on something.

It happened at the Air Canada Centre last night. It was one of those moments that had every Canadian standing in unison -- Montreal Canadiens fans and Toronto Maple Leafs fans alike.

And about six bars into O Canada, longtime Maple Leafs organist Jimmy Holmstrom knew exactly what to do. He lifted his hands up and let the fans take over.

"The plan was if the whole crowd was going with it, I would just stop playing," says the veteran of 22 seasons.

It didn't take long and he quickly knew there was no need for the organ for this opening-night version of O Canada.

The capacity crowd took it from Holmstrom's cue and brought it home.

It was goosebumps time -- Leafs Nation saluting our nation.

"What a feeling," says Jimmy, who just stood there and sang with the capacity crowd.

What a Canadian moment.

Throw in the fact that the Maple Leafs season was once again opened up by the 48th Highlanders and what a Canadian night.

It didn't need any more highlights than it already had.

The Maple Leafs opening up against the rival Montreal Canadiens for the 2009-10 season is its own gem.

You had Team Canada hockey legends Cassie Campbell, Ron Ellis, Darryl Sittler, Paul Coffey, Mario Lemieux and Paul Henderson on the ice to drop the opening faceoff to commemorate the Winter Olympics coming to Canada in 2010.

You had a veteran of the Afghan war, Master Bombardier Peter Spanos of Richmond Hill.

And there were a lot of cheers.

People like pals Jason Lynch and Ryan Durnford who cheer for opposing teams but put that aside to be like so many swelling up with pride

Don Cherry, decked out in his Princess Patricia's ceremonial outfit, had tears in his eyes.

It's just one of those nights at the ACC. Not just the game but the whole experience. Breathtaking.

You could feel the buzz of this night from right after lunch. There was a bounce in the step of the whole town, it seemed.

Long parched for some hockey magic here, fans can sense a turnaround with this team and even carefully hint of their hope for a playoff spot.

Whatever happens, it all began last night.

And the season kicked off with a rousing tailgate party that set the tone for a special evening.

The first neat thing that happened was to Peter Dietrich and his seven-year-old son, Mason, who were approached by a staffer who said, "How would you like a hot dog?"

Turns out the guy serving the first hot dog was none other than Brian Burke at Burkie's Dog House.

They also set Peter and Mason up with Maple Leafs sweaters to be signed by the whole team.

Burke has made it clear that with this team -- this year and in the years to come -- it's all about the fans and all about a winning atmosphere.

"We were stunned but that was pretty exciting," says Peter.

The whole night was like that.

Perhaps the tone was set early when Leafs' Colton Orr and Habs tough guy Georges Laraque dropped the gloves and duked it out in what became a tight back-and-forth game.

"We are not going to be pushed around this year," says former captain Wendel Clark. "Teams will leave here black and blue and after a long night."

Music to Leaf Nation's ears.

"The thing is I start wearing my blue wig and Leaf sweater in August to get ready for the season," says the aptly named Mike Leaf. "I can't wait for the season and maybe one day seeing a Stanley Cup."

Ironically, the last time the Leafs won it, it was in Canada's centennial year. The quest is officially on once again.

So many fans come year after year, wearing that blue Maple Leaf on their chest and red Maple Leaf in their hearts and dream that just maybe, this will be the year.

There were a lot of people last night who would agree.

joe.warmington@sunmedia.ca


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