Hometown Hockey

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.

Johnny Bower

Johnny died yesterday at 93.  He was my hero in the 1960’s as the goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs.  I loved hockey and I loved watching this 40-year-old make spectacular saves on TV.

In those days, the first period of Saturday night hockey games wasn’t telecast.  Mom and dad let me soak in the tub with my radio nearby, cheering on Johnny and the Leafs.  I was so happy, and even more so when I got to come downstairs, all scrubbed clean, to watch the rest of the game.

For so long, I wanted to meet Johnny.  I read that he’d walk out of his house most mornings and pick up the garbage that showed up in nearby Johnny Bower Park.   I made plans to show up there sometime to thank my hero for making me a happy kid.  Sadly, I never did that.

For the past couple of years, I’ve walked past Johnny’s statue in downtown Toronto on my way to concerts on the island.  I put my hand on his forearm and say “Thank you, Johnny.”  And I’ll keep doing that.

I wonder if I’m a hero to any kid in Belmont.  It’s possible.  So I get to be the best Bruce possible when I’m in the presence of those marvelous young people.

Passing it on.

Island Thoughts

Yesterday was brunch-and-concert day on Toronto Island, at St. Andrew-by-the-Lake Church.  It’s another world, only a ten-minute ferry ride from downtown.

As I walked from the docks, I heard a familiar sound.  I’m used to the scrape of skates on ice during telecasts of Hockey Night In Canada.  Go you Maple Leafs!  But this was classic.  Up ahead, a hockey game was breaking out on the channel between islands.  I stopped and marvelled.  So deep in Canada’s roots, doing stuff outdoors.  I thought of David Francey’s song:

The music from the skating rink
Drifts across the town
The stars of heaven high above
Forever looking down
I stand here looking upward,
And I’m listening to the sound
Of the village in the lonely heart of winter

Here were ten women flowing on their blades, some very skilled, a few not so.  There was one grey hair and several teens.  Plus ten smiles.  For goals, they had laid two six-foot beams on the ice.  If you wanted to score, you couldn’t raise the puck.  And no bodychecking.  I stared some more.  It was so simple and so beautiful.

On to the church.  Pews were turned around and tables placed between.  I sat with local folks, steeped in the history of the Ward’s Island and Algonquin Island communities.  An Algonquiner praised her land as “The Heights”, clearly superior to the Ward’s accommodation.  Jabs in the ribs and more happy faces.

And then … tofu with a sweet-and-sour sauce, bok choy, exotic mushrooms, a nest of rice noodles, and cucumber.  Not to mention a dark cake drizzled with vanilla icing.  Waydago, chef.

We talked about island life.  Coming soon is a huge bonfire on Ward’s beach, reducing the island’s Christmas trees to ash.  I mentioned the meditation retreat I’m about to go on.  Beside me sat a fellow with a speech impediment.  I felt a stereotype bubble up as I struggled to understand him.  But then I got the hang of his lingo and we were off to the races.  He had many wise things to say.

Amply satisfied, we switched the pews to theatre style.  Three gentlemen began their enthrallment of us the audience.  Violin, cello, piano.  Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky.  Oh my.  Melodies soared.  Harmonies filled the tones.  Brilliant runs and calm lacings of notes.

Directly in front of me sat a young woman with curly red hair stretching to the middle of her back.  I exhaled, a few times.  She was so pretty.  I longed to run my fingers through her tresses.  Showing admirable restraint, however, I returned again and again to the music.

The alignment of bodies ahead meant that I rarely saw a full performer’s head during the performance.  Occasionally just the violinist’s eyes were seen through the gap, and they were usually closed.  Sometimes an upbow rose above the crowd, or a shoulder gave way to an ear.  I decided to let it be, rather than twisting myself to see more.  I thought of how, in one telling, the moment is perfect as it presents itself.  I thought that the folks behind me would have to adjust if I made sudden moves.  And that hair was just so divine.

Ahh
Thank you, Toronto Island
and more especially the people who call it home
I’ll be back