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16th of November 2018

International



Hitting the road with the Ultimate Leafs Fan

BY MIKE WILSON, Special to the Sun

Approaching U.S. Customs at Pearson last Sunday morning, it dawned on me that this was no Florida vacation I’d be declaring.

These customs officers can be ornery at the best of times and the last thing I needed was this guy to give me a hard time.

“I’m off to Chicago, but it gets tricky,” I ventured, “because I’m also headed to Dallas, Detroit and Washington.”

His serious look needed no explanation, except for me to keep talking — and it had better be good.

“I’m actually following the Leafs for every game this year.”

“You getting paid for this?” he probed.

“I wish.”

That softened him slightly and after firing a few subtle questions to try and trip up my story, he eventually sent me on my way.

My journey’s official launch, however, was a few nights earlier for the season opener against the Habs at the newly named Scotiabank Arena.

Our train paused between TTC stops headed to Union Station and I thought for a moment: ‘What if the train broke down and I missed my first game?’

But I was soon at the pre-game party in the Square amongst a few thousand enthusiastic Leafs fans in what was already a playoff-type atmosphere.

My partner Deb joined me for this significant first of 82 games (and hopefully playoffs) and after speaking with well-wishers, we headed inside.

We’ve attended many home openers here and at the Gardens and while the excitement surrounding the team is probably the highest in its modern history, there was definitely a sense of nervousness in the rink that night. I could relate to that anxiety because after months of talk it’s ‘show me’ time regarding my bold endeavour.

Conversing with fans in the hallways, we touched on some of the themes I hope to explore with Sun readers in the coming months — about families watching or listening years ago to Hockey Night in Canada, or Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour for many in the 35-45 age bracket. For diehard Greg Hale, it’s Nikolai Borschevsky’s Game 7 overtime winner against Detroit in 1993 that turned the 49-year-old into a lifelong fan.

What compels Leafs fans to go on the road and see their team!

MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum has heard of my project and invited Deb and I to the directors lounge between periods. Yes, this room is a step up from sitting in the purples, with comfy chairs, fully stocked bar, a buffet table and flat screen TVs piping in the intermission highlights. Larry introduced us to some of his associates, who were interested in my plan.

One was Police Superintendent Scott Baptist, who shared a story of his aunt gifting him a team-signed stick from the 1950-51 Leafs that was his pride and joy.He sold it about 15 years ago, regretting it every day since, judging by his pained expression.

I once had 2,000 Leafs items in my collection and suggested it’s the memory of the artifact that will bond him for life with his aunt and the Leafs, which made him feel a lot better.

Finally on the road for the Leafs’ first away game in Chicago, I landed at O’Hare early Sunday and headed to Woodstock, Ill., made famous by Bill Murray’s movie Groundhog Day, doubling as Punxsutawney. It was a long-standing invite from Erik Blome, the Legends Row sculptor.

Woodstock is a charming place with lots of sites related to the film though townsfolk prefer to be known for more than a comedy movie.

Erik’s studio is compact, but strategically laid out for all his materials, casts and a glowing orange furnace. Overlooking the workshop are half a dozen busts from Legends Row, including the original designs of Johnny Bower, Darryl Sittler and Mats Sundin. Erik showed me the changes as the exhibit became reality.

He’s currently working on a monument to the inventor of the cowboy hat, John B. Stetson. In Dallas, I planned to see his tribute to Rosa Parks near the American Airlines Center. I also suggested to him that Conn Smythe would be a logical candidate for the next stage of Legends Row.

I made my way to the United Center with the opening ceremonies paying homage to the late Stan Mikita. En route, I met some Leafs fans who’d driven from Toronto earlier in the day, taking advantage of Thanksgiving, joined by their Chicago friend who’d agreed to change loyalties for a night. Wandering the hallways, I noticed a chap wearing a Garret Sparks jersey and Marlies cap for the local kid who was starting in goal for Toronto that night. He quickly motioned to the woman beside him.

“You’d want to talk to her. She’s Sparks’ sister,” he said.

Marisa Sparks was there with her boyfriend Frank, and Garret’s best friend Joey, who knew him since they were 15 years old and attended the Vladislav Tretiak goalie school in Scarborough. My son Ryan went there as well.

After a thrilling OT Toronto victory, I was back in my room watching the game highlights.

At O’Hare the next morning, I was on the same Dallas flight with the Leafs Nation Network crew — Paul Hendrick, Joe Bowen and Jim Ralph. A family friend, Scott Vincent, had offered me a couch for the Leafs’ stay in the Lone Star State and kindly picked me up at the airport.

Former goalkeeper Marty Turco gave us a tour of the new Dallas Stars Alumni museum, lounge, and dressing room in the suburb of Farmers Branch, open to alumni who played all the way back to Minnesota, Cleveland and Oakland. Turco is proud that it’s the first of its kind for ex-players and pointed out pro hockey arrived there before any other sport in 1941, including the Cowboys.

The Dallas Black Hawks were the minor-league affiliate of the Leafs from 1976-81, whose ranks includes John Anderson, Bruce Boudreau, Mike Palmateer and Bill Derlago.

The AAC, while a beautiful building, had none of the United Center atmosphere. However, there was a reminder of how far the Leafs have come when I spotted two guys wearing Joffrey Lupul and Dion Phaneuf sweaters.

The near capacity crowd had to tolerate a group of loud and annoying Leafs fans who consumed a few too many pops, taunting the home side. I chuckled to myself thinking how many times I’ve been on the receiving end.

♦ Mike Wilson, the Ultimate Leafs Fan, is travelling to all 41 road games as part of his quest to attend each of the team’s 82 this season. Follow the Ultimate Road Trip in the Sun, on Twitter and Facebook at #ultimatefanroadtrip, and at ultimateleafsfan.com

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