A light, twinkling snow fell against the towered streets as I made my way to the rink last night, my first visit in two years. That this blog had such pull with the Leafs’ press office made me remember the means by which I’d crashed other media rows in past years: fudging credibility to sit in old Memorial Auditorium to watch the Sabres; an anthem-singing guest appearance at the Gardens on the eve of my wedding; and a plea to a novice university pop writer from Expos’ brass in the late 80s to cover a team that no one outside of Quebec wanted to cover. On this visit, however, it appeared as if I’d found legitimacy, passing easily through the glass doors of the rink to the tableclothed media desk in the guts of the Platinum Club, securing my card—my name on it and everything—from a nice woman in whom I confessed procedural unfamiliarity. “That’s okay,” she said, adding, “The elevator is just around the corner,” guiding me with the voice of a nursemaid and a flight attendant’s wave.
I found my ride, walked past P.J. Stock and secured my station—number 81—sitting on high across from the Sittler banner at the north end. Then two anthems, a Coke, a Leafite whispering team scratches into our ear from the press row speaker, and a stick save by James Reimer off an early Devils power play. Excited is too small a word to describe how I felt. So is old, for legitimacy rarely finds the young.
In the first period, the Devils scored two quick power play goals. If the Leafs were to celebrate my pressbox visit with a win, they’d have to come from behind, a not-unthinkable thought in this mostly good season, the first in years. After John-Michael Liles took a late-period penalty, the rink’s musical programmer played “Rat in a Cage” by Smashing Pumpkins, which made me wonder which team he was supporting. At the end of the period, there were announcements, and then Timbits hockey. The other writers went looking for popcorn, so I followed in kind.
In the corridors, I found Cliff Fletcher, Marc Crawford, Mark Osbourne, Ken Daneyko and Bob McGill; in the washrooms, Brian Burke and Lou Lamorello. Lou, a smallish man, was dressed in a black coat, while Burke, much taller, wore a blue dress shirt and tie. Standing near them at the urinals, I half-expected to discover news of an epic trade that would send Zach Parise to Toronto for Colton Orr, but, in the end, they just peed and left. Back in the corridor, I ran into two kids I used to know who now run the media, or at least corners of it: Bob Mackowytz of TSN and Dave Feschuk of the Toronto Star. I’d met them both through my old band; Bob being a trumpet player, Dave a young college writer. While talking, the thought might not have found them, but it found me: once we were in bars, and now, twenty years later, we were here: at the Leafs’ rink, standing just outside Joe Bowen’s play by play booth.
The buzzer sounded to begin the second period, and we parted ways, but I lingered a moment to listen to the voice that had returned me to hockey during a Canada Cup game that I’d heard on the radio in 1984 while driving stoned to a friend’s apartment. From inside his small room, the announcer shouted and sang into the microphone as Phillipe Dupuis nearly scored for the Leafs. Operagoers have described hearing Caruso’s voice without amplificaton. George Martin has talked about Paul McCartney warming up with shrieks and howls before singing “Oh Darling!” and “Helter Skelter.” This is how the announcer’s voice sounded to me in the doorframe: a command performance. I stood listening until the first whistle, then returned to my seat.
In the second period, Phil Kessel scored his 17th goal, and in the next, Matt Frattin scored his 3rd: 2-2. Because I was forced to observe press box protocol, I resisted cheering, choosing instead to point my finger at the celebrating Leafs and swearing quietly under my breath (“f—in’ A”). It was quite a comeback, more so when you consider that the Leafs’ had played a trying, workmanlike game the night before in New York after five days spent travelling around America with their fathers. Going into OT, they’d salvaged a single point—James Reimer had played well, too, in his first home appearance after the injury—but they lost the game when Mimico’s David Clarkson—in a lesser sense, he is to the Leafs what Joey Votto is to the Jays—broke the tie with a wristshot between Carl Gunnarson’s ankles. The crowd sighed a great sigh and the writers, at last, stood up from their chairs and tucked their laptops into their valises: it was time to go home. Back between the towers and under the snow outside the rink, I saw no glowering faces, heard no heavy, defeated steps. The way things are now, and the way they were last night, losing feels like winning when there’s a little bit of light on the horizon.