On Sunday evening I went to the Air Canada Centre to see my first ever hockey game. Massive thanks to my brother Adrian for the brilliant Christmas gift idea!
Similarly to my first live baseball experience in NYC a few months ago, I barely knew a thing about the game of hockey and had never even gone as far as watching a match on TV before. I had absolutely no idea what to expect from Canada’s national winter sport.
I took some notes & photos throughout the match, and I present to you here a review in my (sports illiterate) eyes of the Toronto Maple Leafs vs the New Jersey Devils on Sunday 12th January, 2014.
I arrived at the Air Canada Centre around 15 minutes short of the 7pm face-off (I’m led to believe that’s the hockey-equivalent term for a ‘kick-off’). The venue is home to the Maple Leafs in the NHL, the Raptors in the NBA and the Rock in the NLL (Lacrosse), with a hockey capacity of just under 19,000. Judging by the sheer amount of people trying to get in, I figured there was a good chance that number would be reached.
One thing I love about downtown Toronto is that most buildings and public transport facilities are linked by an underground walkway called the PATH. The Air Canada Centre is no exception; it can be accessed via the subway without stepping foot in the chilly outdoors for even a second. However, as I’d spent most of the afternoon underground already taking part in the No Pants Subway Ride, I opted to take in some fresh air and walk my way to the arena along Bay St.
The hot dog
I was feeling pretty peckish and decided to grab a bite to eat before I found my spot inside. There were dozens of food options dotted around the arena; I knew I’d found the right place when I walked past a hot dog stand where they were frying up a bundle of bacon-covered sausages. Looking over the menu, they not only offered the bacon-covered dog, but a butter chicken dog, a poutine dog and a Ruben dog, amongst other varieties. I’d hit hot dog gold!
In the end I walked away with a footlong mac & cheese dog and a medium Molson lager for the princely sum of $22. Now to find my seat and tuck in.
The National Anthems
I could have sworn that when two countries take part in a sporting match, there are normally two different people from each of the represented countries in attendance to sing their respective national anthems. But not here at the hockey!
The US national anthem was sung first – and beautifully so, I might add. The majority of the crowd sang along with the Star Spangled Banner, including the Canadians. This surprised me. You’d never see Aussies sing God Defend New Zealand.
The Canadian national anthem followed, sung by the same girl. Perhaps she had duel citizenship?
A kid sitting next to me with a mini-vuvuzela decided to join in with a monotone squeal towards the climax of the anthem. It wasn’t to be the last I’d hear from him.
The first period
Vuvuzela kid squealed again with excitement to signify the face-off. And so the match began.
The first thing that struck me was that the referees are extremely agile. They ably dodged the speeding puck with precise accuracy every time it came hurtling their way, jumping over it or skating around it in the nick of time.
I loved the way the players ricochet the puck off the side of rink every now & then. They were also highly skilled at stopping the puck mid-air with their sticks, as well as at aiming the puck at the corner of the rink, curving it around behind the goal nets to the opposite side. It took me a while to get a gist of the general play of the game, but my attention was adequately garnered whenever a player performed one of these three impressive feats.
The crowd seemed fairly docile for much of the first period. The occasional “Go Leafs Go! Go Leafs Go!” chant would rise and fall, as would requests to “SHOOT!” from punters frustrated with the lack of pucks being hit towards the vicinity of the goals. We also vocalised our disappointment when a Maple Leafs player dribbled the puck halfway across the rink, only to go for a shot and miss the puck entirely.
The first of many time-outs was called. A group of people entered the rink during the break to choreographically sweep & shovel away the shards of ice dug up by the skates.
Vuvuzela kid let out a series of HONK-HONK-HONK, HOOOOOONK-HOOOOOONK-HOOOOOONK, HONK-HONK-HONKS, not dissimilar to the morse code distress signal.
The players would occasionally congregate around one of four circular markings around the rink where the ref would drop the puck for another face-off. I never quite picked up the hard & fast rules surrounding this activity.
Two more time-outs were called in quick succession. The time-outs were fast becoming my favourite aspect of the production thanks to the mini-presenations and shots of people in the crowd projected onto the big screen.
During the third time-out the camera cut to a man from Newfoundland whose name I recall was Geoffrey Randall. Upon announcement that he served as a marine in the Canadian forces, he received a standing ovation from the grateful crowd. It was very nice to see; he was clearly humbled by the gesture.
Finally, with 4 mins 7 seconds left in the first period, #42 Tyler Bozac scored a goal for the Maple Leafs! The action centred very close to the goals on the opposite end of the rink so it was difficult to see exactly how it eventuated, but the crowd went wild.
Some time was set aside in the break between first and second period for the Tim Hortons Timbits Minor Hockey. Two junior league teams made their way onto the rink to give a mini hockey game a shot. Despite the fact they only played for five minutes, it turned out to be the most engaging junior match out of any sport I’ve seen. Mostly because it was hilarious to see the kids lose their balance on the ice and fall over.
The second period
The Devils caught up very early on, scoring with 18:21 remaining in the period. A single NJ fan cheered loudly in the row in front of me.
A clumsy Devils players dropped his stick mid-play. He never went back to pick it up; one of the refs kicked it off the field and the poor guy played stickless for a few minutes until he was called off.
Another score to the Maple Leafs with 14:04 left! Vuvuzela kid let us all know about it.
A second point went to the Devils at the 13:37 mark, but I missed the action. To be honest, my interest in the game was beginning to wane by now and I was busy consulting Google to find out how many 20 minute periods make up a full match. I could tell I was gonna be hockeyed out by the end of the third period and I was worried there might be a fourth. Thankfully there are only three.
The Michael Hill Jeweller Kiss Cam was fired up during one of the time-outs. The camera focused on various couples throughout the crowd hoping to capture a kiss for everyone to see. Highlights included kisses from a sweet elderly couple, a guy kissing a horse, and two girls going in for a pash. The biggest laugh came from a guy who had nobody sitting next to him; a girl in the row behind came to his rescue and planted one on his lips. That got a massive cheer.
During another time-out the camera again panned around the crowd to find whoever had the craziest reaction to being on screen. The guy chosen as the craziest won himself a Blackberry.
By the end of the second period the scores were level at 2-all.
Brian from Ajax was called onto the rink in the break between the second and third period. It was his 24th birthday and he was the lucky fan chosen for a chance at $1,000, plus tickets to an upcoming match and a Maple Leafs jersey. 50 pucks were lined up along the centre of the rink and he had to hit 20 of them into the goals to win. He won the prize around 30 shots in – not a bad way at all to spend a birthday.
I took a quick break from the arena and grabbed a delicious Häagen-Dazs caramel almond ice cream from the snack bar.
The third period
One of the players rebounded the puck off the plastic guards above the rink – that was a bit dangerous, I thought. A little higher up and someone in the crowd would have ended up in hospital.
Vuvuzela kid realised his pipe was capable of producing a melody; not just a single note.
I noticed a bunch of banners hanging from the ceiling, dating 1918 through to 1967. I assumed these were the years Toronto came out on top of the league. Wikipedia indeed confirms this for me – the Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967 🙁
A montage of the top 10 ‘game faces’ showed on the screen during a time-out. The most bloodied & gruesome looking faces of course received the most enthusiastic cheers from the crowd. Börje Salming came out on top.
Vuvuzela kid was quite proficient at the Las Chiapanecas Mexican hand-clapping tune by now.
The third period came to an end at 2-all so overtime was called. Both teams played a 4-per-side sudden death match for 5 minutes. The Devils came exceptionally close to scoring with 2.2 seconds remaining but the Maple Leafs goalie was too good. Nobody scored.
Hey, Mike Myers was in the house!
The failure to score during overtime resulted in a shootout to decide the winner, which if you ask me, is a total waste of a game. They may as well have not wasted their energy playing the three periods and just gone straight to shootouts to begin with. Anyway, rules are rules, and each team had three shots each to score.
The first shot was a SCORE by the Maple Leafs #21!
The Devils missed…
The Maple Leafs missed…
The Devils Missed…
The Maple Leafs missed…
And finally, the Devils missed again, resulting in the Toronto Maple Leafs winning their first game of the year, 3-2!
Conclusion & post-match
It was fantastic to tick off another entry on my Canadian bucket list: seeing a hockey game in Canada, made even better by Toronto coming out on top. But you know what I’ve come to realise? When you enjoy the food, junior league and time-out presentations more than the main event itself, it’s a pretty good indication that perhaps sport just isn’t for you. I think I’ll leave my sports-watching endeavours on hold for the time being.
As I was leaving the arena I heard a guy calling people over to his stall for a free Maple Leafs t-shirt. I wanted to get in on some of this action so I lined up for my gift. He asked me for my size and was about to hand over my Medium when he asked to check my ID – ultimately denying me of my free shirt because I’m not Canadian. Dammit!
But I did manage to pick up a free Kraft mac & cheese dinner at the door on the way out 🙂
Thanks again Adrian for the ticket!