Eric Zweig’s expertise in matters concerning hockey history is shared out, along with his enthusiasm, through a score of books. His first was a novel, Hockey Night in the Dominion of Canada (1992), about the Renfrew Millionaires. In recent years he’s published a deep-delving biography, Art Ross: The Hockey Legend Who Built the Bruins (2015), and, this fall, the comprehensive Toronto Maple Leafs: The Complete Oral History.
Zweig, who lives in Owen Sound, Ontario, is a member of the Society for International Hockey Research, and has been one of the editorial forces helping to shape the NHL’s Official Guide & Record Book. You can find his work in the pages of The New York Times and elsewhere, as well as on his lively blog at http://www.ericzweig.com. Today, as part of Puckstruck’s ongoing series, he weighs in with memories of his earliest first-hand encounters of big-league hockey.
I grew up in Toronto and attended my first NHL game when I was seven years old. The date was December 30, 1970. It was a Wednesday night during the Christmas holidays. The Maple Leafs always seemed to play at home on Wednesdays and Saturdays when I was a kid. This night, they were playing the California Golden Seals. The Leafs won 3–1.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that all the players who would become my early favourites did something good for the Leaf that night. Dave Keon scored just 33 seconds after the opening face-off. Garry Monahan (he autographed my cast when I broke my arm in the summer of 1973) got the second. Norm Ullman set up Paul Henderson for the third. But goalie Jacques Plante became my favourite of them all. The Toronto Star reported that the Leafs’ goalie was “excellent” that night. “Plante had his moments…” said the Star, “and the youngsters in attendance because of the school holidays rocked the Gardens with their applause.”
I was one of those youngsters!
Now, I’ve always been a person with a great memory for places and dates (though, sadly, that’s not quite as true as it used to be on the other side of 50). That being said, I have realized over the years that I don’t actually have a great memory for visual details. All I really remember about that first game was the score, the teams, and the fact that Plante played so well. (Also, the troughs for urinals in the men’s washroom. Gross!) I had to look up the rest. Even so, I would have to say that, before that game, I have no memories of hockey whatsoever. Since that game, I have been a lifelong fan.
I wish I could remember more from that night, but really, I was lucky enough to attend many games in Maple Leaf Gardens over the years (Leafs, Marlies, Toros) and most of those from my younger days blur together. I’m pretty sure the next Leafs game I attended was December 26, 1973. Another Wednesday night during the Christmas holidays: Toronto beat Montreal 9-2. I was there with my brother, David, who had turned eight the day before. I was 10. We went together, by ourselves, on the subway. Imagine anyone letting children do something like that today.
It was Norm Ullman’s birthday, and David and I carried a homemade sign that read “Leafs Win For Norm” using a team logo for “Leafs” and the number 4 for “For.” I remember the older kids who sat next to us saying that would have been a lot smarter of us if Ullman wore #4 instead of #9 … but that didn’t stop them from leaning in and trying to get on television every time we held up our sign.
My other memories from that night include just how amazed we were to see the Leafs score nine goals and so thoroughly dominate the Canadiens. I also remember a fantastic save by Doug Favell (I always liked the goalies) and the fact that rookie Bob Neely played a very strong game. I have no idea why that stands out. (Looking up this one, I find that Ullman had an assist on the goal Neely scored. Maybe that has something to do with it?)
Among my most vivid memories over the years was seeing Gordie Howe in the stands at a Marlies game during the 1972-73 season. He was watching his sons, Mark and Marty. Two years later, I saw all three Howes at the Gardens again, this time playing together for the Houston Aeros against the Toronto Toros. But one thing that lingers most strongly in my memories of Maple Leaf Gardens has nothing to do with the action on the ice. It’s of an ancient-looking woman working in the concession stands using her bare hands to place a hot dog I’d ordered into a bun. It was a long time before I ate a hot dog at the Gardens after that.
(Ullman: hockeyMedia & The Want List on flickr; Zweig: Stephen Smith)