Saturday, June 16, 2018

Texas Stars 1 at Toronto Marlies 6 (AHL Calder Cup Final, Game 7) - June 14, 2018


I've seen each of the Big 4 championships won exactly once (1995 Stanley Cup, 2001 World Series, 2012 NBA Championship, 2014 Super Bowl, plus the Memorial Cup (1990), Japanese baseball championship (1997), Olympic Hockey Gold Medal game (1998 in Nagano), World Cup (Japan in 2002), AAA National Championship (2013), Grey Cup (2015), and a few other minor titles. To me, they are the ultimate viewing experience for a sports fan: to see a team crowned champions with a trophy presentation is something that you will never forget. So when the Toronto Marlies made the AHL's Calder Cup Finals a couple of weeks ago, the idea of visiting Toronto for the final game began to germinate. The Marlies had the best winning percentage in the league at 0.737 (112 points in 76 games) and would be hosting the final two games against the Texas Stars if it went that far. When they took a 3-2 lead in the series by winning Game 5 in Cedar Park, I had to decide if I would go to Game 6 on Tuesday and risk a loss or wait for Game 7 on Thursday to see the Calder Cup in person. That decision was made easier when I looked at flights - mileage tickets were only available for Thursday. I didn't particularly want the Marlies to lose Game 6 but when they fell behind 3-0, I began to plan for the trip.



First, I bought a ticket to Game 7 online, beating the rush that occurred later that evening. By the next morning, the game was sold out, though tickets were available on the secondary market for a premium. I picked up a seat at the blue line for $50 CAD plus $5 in fees, a bargain. The view is below.



When Game 6 ended 5-2 in favour of Texas, I booked a round trip mileage flight, arriving at Toronto's downtown airport via Montreal and returning via Pearson Friday morning. I also picked up a hotel near Union Station, which would allow me to use the very convenient UP Express to get to Pearson without having to deal with Toronto traffic. With everything booked, I just had to wait a day before leaving. The concern with such a tight schedule is that a delayed flight will ruin everything, but it all went smoothly and I arrived in Toronto around 3 pm. After dropping off my stuff and grabbing a Harvey's burger, I planned to take the 509 streetcar over to Exhibition Place, but the TTC was operating like the MTA. I waited for over 10 minutes for a streetcar to arrive, and when it did, it was a shortened route that wouldn't even go all the way. So I decided to walk the 30 minutes, arriving at a festively decorated Ricoh Coliseum at around 6:30.



This was my fourth visit to the arena, and I reviewed it all the way back in 2010, when Braden Holtby played for Hershey. Since then, there have been some additions, such as a couple of historic displays with old and new jerseys.



There is also a collage of past players that went on to greatness with the Leafs, including many from the Toronto Marlboros junior team that now plays out of Guelph.



And the road trip map has been updated several times, and will be again next season with the arrival of the Colorado Eagles.



With the tour complete, I settled into my seat to see which team would take home the Calder Cup.

The Game

A record crowd of 8,818 was on hand for this one, and they were all given towels to wave, which they did as the team entered to a darkened arena. There wasn't a lot of tension in the arena though,



Garrett Sparks (below) started in goal for Toronto after being pulled in the Game 6 loss, while Mike McKenna manned the twine for Texas. I had seen McKenna twice before, including a playoff game in Manchester where he was terrible and so I hoped for a similar result.



Texas had an early chance when a giveaway led to a breakaway for Sheldon Dries, but he hit the post. Just past the midway point of the first, Andreas Johnsson, a 7th-round pick in 2013 and the leading scorer in the playoffs despite missing four games, combined with Carl Grundstrom (2nd, 2016) on a give-and-go with Johnsson lunging to put the puck past McKenna for the 1-0 lead. Toronto doubled their lead with just 17 seconds to go as Mason Marchment scored to finish off an impressive rush.

It was clear that Toronto was the better team, and the Stars spent much of the second period committing borderline penalties, a good strategy as the refs were clearly letting them play. Texas thought they had a goal at 10:23 after a goalmouth scramble, but a lengthy video review proved otherwise and Toronto maintained their two-goal advantage into the third.

Early on in the final frame, Texas turned the puck over at their blue line and Johnsson fed a beautiful pass to Grundstrom who slapped home an insurance marker. You could feel the fans relax after that, but controversy was to rear its ugly head. Again Texas celebrated after a goalmouth scramble, and again we went to a long review with the two referees examining a laptop in the penalty box area. Eventually the good goal signal was given, and two friends who were watching the game texted me simultaneously: "terrible review". Shortly thereafter the replay was shown on the scoreboard and the puck never went in, leading to a loud chorus of boos and "Ref, you suck" chants. With 9 minutes left, could this non-goal goal give the Stars some momentum? Thankfully, no. Texas pressed and had chances, but Sparks made a couple of huge stops to maintain the 2-goal advantage. Then a blocked shot in the Toronto zone fell to Johnsson, who passed off the boards to himself, skated in on McKenna, and shot. McKenna made the save but the puck bounced in off a Stars defender and there was no need for replay - it was 4-1 Marlies with just 3:46 left. McKenna was pulled immediately and Ben Smith added an empty netter to clinch it, with Marchment closing out the scoring in the final minute as the Marlies won 6-1 in a game that was much closer than the score indicated.



The Celebration

As the siren sounded, the players leapt over the boarded and skated to Sparks, surrounding him and the net while the fans cheered and waved their towels.



The vanquished Stars waited patiently at the other end for the handshakes, which were a bit warmer than what you usually see at the NHL level. There are a lot of career AHLers who move from team to team and know each other, and smiles were exchanged, with McKenna receiving much in the way of compliments as his stellar play kept Texas in the series.



Johnsson was given the Jack Butterfield Trophy as playoff MVP and then captain Ben Smith was handed the Calder Cup.



As the players began to pass the Cup to each other, confetti was released. Each player, coach, and staff member got to hold the Cup for a few seconds, with GM Kyle Dubas, now in that position with the Leafs, receiving a loud ovation.



As the ceremony continued, I moved to the walkway between the ice and dressing room, joining a few other diehards. We waited for about 30 minutes while the on-ice celebrations continued, and Brendan Shanahan appeared to a loud cheer. Eventually the Calder Cup was brought through the walkway, where fans were given a brief opportunity to touch it. Once it disappeared into the locker room, the night was over, and I grabbed a streetcar back downtown, ending a whirlwind trip.



There you have it - the first hockey championship in Toronto since 1967. Glad I was there to witness it.

Notes

This was my second Marlies playoff game this year as I also saw them in Syracuse when they completed their second-round sweep of the Crunch back on May 8. It was also my fourth time seeing them at Ricoh and they are 4-0 in those games.

The Calder Cup was won at Ricoh Coliseum in 2012 by the visiting Norfolk Admirals, who finished off a sweep, winning by the same 6-1 score.

Don't feel sad for Texas, they won the Calder Cup in 2014, taking all 3 games in St. John's in OT.

This was the fifth Toronto title in the last 14 months after the Raptors 905, Toronto Wolfpack, TFC, and Toronto Argonauts all won their respective league championship. Over to you Maple Leafs.

Next Up

I return to Canada in just over a week to add two more CFL venues to my total, as I will visit both Calgary and Edmonton before stopping in Toronto for the Mets and Jays. Check back for recaps then.

Best,

Sean

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