Friday, January 7, 2011

St. Louis Blues 5 at Toronto Maple Leafs 6 (SO) - January 6, 2011

After a 5-hour drive from Cleveland to Toronto, Sharpy and I found ourselves in front of the Air Canada Centre, home to our childhood heroes, the Toronto Maple Leafs. We had seen the Leafs on the road in ten different cities over the years (3-6-1) but never at home, so this would be a symbolic way to end the trip.

Air Canada Centre

Initially begun as a project for the Toronto Raptors of the NBA, the ACC was bought by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (along with the Raptors) during its construction. MLSE changed the design to make the arena acceptable for hockey and when it opened in 1999, it immediately replaced venerable Maple Leaf Gardens as the home of the Leafs. It is located along Bay Street, just south of Front Street in downtown Toronto and is connected to Union Station, so you can take the subway there and avoid going outside if it is cold. It's also connected to the PATH system of underground tunnels so you can walk from many spots in downtown without having to endure the cold or slush. If you prefer to drive, there are parking lots nearby for $10, or free street parking a bit further away, south of Lakeshore Blvd, if you arrive at 5:00.

The arena is located on the site of the Canada Post Delivery Building and still retains two of the outside walls from the old structure. There is a display just inside the Bay Street lobby entrance which details the history of building and how it was modified to house a new sports venue.

The ticket window is inside the large lobby that acts as the main entrance to the venue. Line ups at game time here can be long but there are several other gates around, so if you want to get in right away, I suggest you try those.

Tickets for the Leafs are very expensive yet can be difficult to get at the box office on game day. Seats are colour-coded, going from the insanely costly platinums near the ice to the upper-deck purples.

When we arrived about 3 hours before game time, there were two options: $155 for lower bowl reds in the ends or $95 for second row greens in the upper deck. There are cheaper options but most sections are sold out well before game time. Of course, there are many friendly scalpers who will be happy to do business with you, but being so early we didn't expect a deal so we chose the upper deck seats and then went over to the Real Sports Bar & Grill for dinner. ESPN voted it the best sports bar in North America which is not surprising as it is really just a copy of the ESPN Zone concept. It is owned by MLSE, who are brilliant at determining other revenue streams. I thought it was OK, but rather expensive, although apparently $10 pints (including tax and tip) are the norm in Canada.

Gates opened an hour before the game and once inside the arena, we moved to the upper bowl to explore. At one end lies the Ice Box, a full service bar with great views of the ice. It is open to the public and you can watch the game from here, which I'd like to try sometime.

The upper concourse had a couple of interesting displays, including one dedicated to James Naismith, the inventor of basketball who was born near Ottawa in 1861. Items shown here include a whistle that Naismith used as well as a copy of Spalding's basketball guide from early in the century.

For Leafs' fans, there's a captain's wall with pictures of each Leaf captain since the team's inception. Dion Phaneuf has yet to be added.

Finally, look into some of the stairwells for some old pictures. The shot below shows Borje Salming and Bill Flett behind Michel Plasse of the Kansas City Scouts, probably around 1979. There's a number of these around so take your time and check them out.

In general, I find the concourses here rather narrow (that's the upper concourse below) but such is the nature of an arena built within a limited downtown space. I tried walking around during the intermission and it was a bit slow in spots, particularly around concession stands, of which there are many. Dining options are Canadian standbys such as Pizza Pizza, Tim Horton's and Mr. Sub, although there are a few other options. Having just eaten, I didn't partake inside the ACC.

The Leafs have a storied history, at least until 1967, and there are 13 Stanley Cup banners in the rafters. I was born in 1966 and I'm really hoping they can add one more before I die but that's getting less and less likely now.

The Leafs don't retire numbers, rather they honour them. Thus you can see the same number hanging from the ceiling for different players. I like this idea, and agree that current players should build on the existing legacy. For example, Colby Armstrong is #9, he should be playing harder knowing that legends Charlie Conacher and Teeder Kennedy sported the same jersey years ago.

I really like the upper deck seats, there are railings in front of every row which encourage leaning and seem to provide more room. The view is quite good too, as you can see below.

The warmup generally starts about 25 minutes before the game, which really limits the amount of time I can tour the venue as I love watching NHL warmups from the glass where you can figure out the lines and get a rough idea of how the team is faring. This is the only sport where you can be so close to the players before the game. Below are a couple of pics of Phil Kessel and Jonas Gustavsson.

Overall, the ACC is a good facility and I always enjoy seeing games here. As a long-time Toronto fan I love the historical touches that can be found as you wander. Unfortunately, the popularity of hockey in the city has sent ticket prices soaring but if they are selling out, I can't complain. Leaf fans are passionate but stupid (myself included) and will gladly continue to pay top dollar for a mediocre product. That shouldn't detract from the venue itself though but if you want to get in cheaply, try a Raptors' game instead.

The Game

The St. Louis Blues were in town in what was termed "Rivalry Night". It is true that these two teams used to be Norris Division rivals and had some heated playoff series in the 1980's but they are in different conferences now and this would be their only meeting this season. Interestingly, it was also the Leafs' 3000th home game in their history.

Gustavsson started for Toronto against Jaroslav Halak for the Blues. It didn't take long for a goal as Colby Armstrong scored just 15 seconds after the opening face-off, deflecting a Kris Versteeg shot off his jersey and behind a surprised Halak.

St. Louis shook off the early setback and tied it when David Backes forced Francois Beauchemin into a defensive zone turnover and ex-Leaf Alex Steen picked up the puck and beat Gustavsson low to the stick side. Backes added his own goal, popping in a rebound midway through the period and the Blues held the 2-1 lead at the break.

The Leafs started the second poorly but Gustavsson kept the puck out and eventually his offense tied it when Mikhail Grabovski (#84 below) scored on a beautiful feed from Clarke MacArthur. Just over two minutes later, Versteeg gave the Leafs the lead, scoring from the crease on a perfect pass from Armstrong behind the net. Ninety seconds later, Kessel received a perfect giveaway pass from St. Louis defenseman Vladimir Sobotka and skated in alone on Halak, beating him easily and sending him to the showers. All three goals were scored in the net just beneath us and it was pure elation, doubtless the best Leaf moment in years for us.

In the third, Kessel added another, coming off the bench to pick up a loose puck, skating in alone on replacement keeper Ty Conklin, and scoring short side. With the 5-2 lead, you might think we could relax, but after Canada blew a 3-goal lead the night before, we were not ready to celebrate yet.

Sure enough, Brad Winchester bounced one in off the post and Gustavsson's rear to make it 5-3. Winchester also pushed Gustavsson into the net but the puck had already crossed the line as we could see clearly from our location. The play went to review and the goal was upheld, and it seemed to deflate the Leafs, who promptly allowed another marker by Eric Brewer (#4 below picking up his stick) to make it a one-goal affair.

With less than seven minutes left, Matt D'Agostini was sent alone by Sobotka and deked Gustavsson, putting the puck high and tying the game. Yep, another 3-goal lead blown by a team wearing the maple leaf.

The Blues continued to put pressure on Toronto and came alarmingly close to scoring on several occasions but the puck stayed out and we went to overtime. Well, the Leafs had saved a point at least.

Not much happened in the extra period and a shootout was required. For me, it would be the 6th shootout in the 11 hockey games I had seen on this six-week journey. Toronto went first and Kessel missed. Steen followed with a deke that easily beat Gustavsson (below) and things looked grim.

But then Grabovski made the shootout goal of the year and completely changed the complexion of the game. An impossible to describe spin move, I've put four pictures to try to show it, but if you haven't seen it, here's a link.

There was a second of silence because it seemed like his was out of room, but he beat Conklin and the place exploded.

Brad Boyes followed for the Blues and scored. Versteeg was next for Toronto, needing to score to keep it going. He did, beating Conklin 5-hole and when D'Agostini was saved on his attempt, the shootout was now in overtime.

Tyler Bozak was poked by Ron Wilson and jumped over the bench. Could he be the hero? He skated in and beat Conklin with a laser off the post and suddenly the Leafs had a chance to win it. Patrick Berglund, who had not had a shootout attempt all season, was St. Louis' choice and he skated in, lost control, and the puck slid wide. Huh? OMG!!!! The Leafs won?!?!?! YES!

Sharpy and I jumped around for a while to celebrate what turned out to be an exciting, entertaining, and ecstatic game for Toronto and a great way to end our short 4-day journey.


Leafs win! The proof is above! Finally a great game that ends with a Leafs' victory. A fantastic experience, and thanks to the nice lady who gave me her commemorative ticket (below, with Ken Wregget pictured). Eight of the ten goals were scored in the net below us, which added to the enjoyment.

You have to feel for Ty Conklin who comes in down 4-2, plays well, and gets saddled with the shootout loss although Halak gave up 4 of the 5 goals.

Toronto teams won the last three games of the trip (including the NLL's Rock taking their season opener over Edmonton, which I saw a couple of days later). Such a rare occurrence requires me to rest from roadtripping, so I'll be taking a few months off to recharge here in Japan. I'll post more on my plans in a few days, but for now, I'm going to savor the win.



1 comment:

  1. Sean -- enjoy your time off from roadtripping and plan something good for your next outing. We really enjoy reading about your experiences...and are glad your Leafs won for you!

    Jack in Kansas City