I grew up in Toronto, where hockey is king. In the 1960’s, I went to four Stanley Cup parades, all ending on the steps of City Hall, where my heroes gave speeches and held the cup high. The huge crowd cheered.
The official Hockey Hall of Fame is downtown on Front Street. Each year, many thousands of fans walk by the memorabilia of the National Hockey League. But hidden in a back alley in the Weston neighbourhood of the city is a more informal shrine, featuring all things Toronto Maple Leafs. To find this gem, walk along Weston Road to John Street. Turn east and watch for the sign pointing to Peter’s Barber Shop. Pantelis Kalamaris started cutting hair just around the corner in 1961. As an immigrant from Greece, he decided to change in name to Peter and to embrace the sport of his new country.
On Saturday morning, I reached for the sliding glass door and walked into history. Hardly a square inch of wall space was available … the rest trumpeted the Leafs in posters, pennants, newspaper articles, pucks and hockey sticks. I stood there transfixed. Seeing my wonder, Peter the Younger barber smiled. He was busy putting the finishing touches on the do of an older gentleman. The two of them were fully engaged in the merits of the Leafs’ current star – Auston Matthews.
I sat down amid a row of blue folding seats … originals from Maple Leaf Gardens, the team’s home until 1999. As a kid, I too had occasionally sat on such seats, although we couldn’t afford the blues.
To go from waiting area to barber’s chair, you had to pass through a Gardens turnstile, again just like I had done decades ago. The floor was covered with various hues of hair. I asked Peter if any of that was from the Leafs’ stars of the 1960’s. “No, but I do have some in plastic bags.” Cool.
Here was one of Johnny Bower’s goalie sticks. Here was a poster showing the Leafs’ 100 best players of all time, photoshopped into a team photo. Here was a board hockey game that Peter sometimes plays with his customers. Of course the barber always plays as the Leafs.
And here was a framed letter from Roger Neilson, a beloved coach of the Leafs and other NHL teams. Peter the Older had invited him to come to Weston and sign the wall, alongside such luminaries as Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau and Red Kelly. In the letter, Roger said that his doctor wasn’t letting him travel long distances but sometime he’d get to Toronto and sign his John Henry. But Roger died before that could happen.
It felt that my time was up at Peter’s Barber Shop. The host and his customers were all friendly (as long as I assured them I wasn’t a fan of the hated Ottawa Senators!) Like Roger, I vowed to return. Hopefully unlike Roger, I will.
From Pantelis Kalamaris Lane, it was only a ten-minute walk to the Weston Lions Arena. It was constructed in 1949 (just like me!) and hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs for many practices in the 50’s and 60’s. Many of the players strolled over to the barber shop for a cut afterwards.
What I had read a few weeks ago was that the arena had the world’s best fries, and who was I to turn down an opportunity like that? I approached a door that had a back door feel to it but it turned out to be the main entrance. Then I was in front of the snack bar, with the ice surface beyond, full of boys skating hard and fans shouting encouragement. I was tempted by the “Not so famous hot dogs” sign but settled for the world-renowned treat. Pouring on the malt vinegar, I took my French fries and Diet Coke into the stands.
Spectators sat on five rows of wooden benches, some sections red and some blue. The walls of the arena were two tone blue – robin’s egg contrasted with royal. It was a lovely assault on the eyes.
- The kids, maybe 12, were giving ‘er on the ice. Some flew over the blue line. Some fell unaided on their tushes. Goalies stretched for the save. Forwards dipsydoodled by defensemen, with few passes to be seen. Coached yelled. Fans screamed. I ate. Gosh, those fries are yummy!
The roof was a curve of bare beams, spotted with metal plates and inch thick cables. The same as in 1949. I imagined my Leafs heroes doing their drills on the ice. Maybe some of these boys in front of me knew the history and were inspired by Dave Keon and Frank Mahovlich. More likely, the names of current Leafs heroes will adorn their backs … Matthews and Marner jerseys.
So hockey has been played here on cold Saturdays for 69 years. Oh, how a sport can seep into our souls. Whether the seat is a barber chair or a hard bench, we live the game.