Well, here we go.
The Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens facing each other in a Stanley Cup series. Four to seven games that truly mean something.
Just like the old days.
It’s difficult to believe — even imagine — that it’s been 42 hockey years since the two old rivals met for post-season action. Yet it’s a true fact, clearly explained in any hockey book or conversation. It was a quarter-final in 1979, but I’m not going to mention that particular result.
Back in the good times — the late 1940s, ’50s and ’60s — it was a familiar scenario to have the NHL’s two oldest franchises doing battle.
Oh yes, I’m aged enough to remember.
My fondest memories are of the 1960s when I was scouting for the Leafs. In that decade, I experienced everything from September training camps to watching games from Foster Hewitt’s gondola in Maple Leaf Gardens.
And, yes, learned what those infamous dressing room champagne celebrations were really like.
Right now, a very long time after the fact, I think of the occasions — three of them — when I was fortunate to be in dressing rooms for Stanley Cup shenanigans.
When were they?
The first was April 19, 1963, in Toronto. The second was April 25, 1964, again in Toronto. And the third was May 1, 1965, at the Montreal Forum.
Oh how the champagne flows for such events — something you never forget. Lesson one was keeping the bubbly out of your eyes.
What made the three championship nights so special for me was the fact the first two happened at the Gardens. My all-time favourite place — more intriguing than the Montreal Forum, Boston’s Fenway Park or New York’s Yankee Stadium.
I knew what the Gardens looked like before I ever got to Toronto, before I ever saw a picture of the edifice, well before the arrival of television. Listening to Foster Hewitt’s dynamic voice on Saturday nights had me well acquainted with the iconic arena at the corner of Carlton and Church streets.
As I’ve said to many listeners, the Gardens, to me, never lost their radiance, no matter how many times I was there.
But let’s return to those dates I mentioned.
In the 1963 finals, the Leafs played the Detroit Red Wings. Toronto led the best-of-seven round 3-1 when I parked my convertible in the team’s private lot. I was psyched to the heavens as I walked through the VIP entrance.
I didn’t anticipate the excitement ahead.
The score was 1-1 in the third period when Eddie Shack scored what would be the winning marker. Dave Keon’s empty-net goal was the exclamation mark.
I had been in the Leafs quarters on previous occasions, but this was different. The atmosphere was electric as the celebrating players crowded into the room like a bunch of five-year-olds at a birthday party.
I never witnessed anything like it. With champagne splashing everywhere, the sound of corks popping, everyone dancing about, it was clearly upbeat. I got soaked that night. I was still wet when I got back to the Royal York.
The Leafs were champions.
It was a month later that I brought Frank Mahovlich to Pictou County for a parade up Provost Street, visits to several schools and a lobster dinner at Lyons Brook. Exactly two weeks later, rookie-of-the-year Kent Douglas was the guest, opening a bowling alley, attending two lobster parties, even helping me cut my birthday cake.
So let’s move on to 1964.
Two New Glasgow pals, Donnie Murray and Bill McCulloch, had travelled with me for earlier playoff action. This time it was the late Sterling Bain, of Stellarton, sharing the driving.
It was another Toronto-Detroit final and, with the Wings leading 3-2 in games, we headed to Detroit in case the series didn’t get back to Toronto.
What a great decision.
That sixth contest is still discussed after all these years. It was the game that was deadlocked 3-3 entering overtime. It was the game in which Leafs defenceman Bobby Baun scored the winning goal — on a leg broken earlier in the evening.
Game seven was at the Gardens, so off we went to downtown Toronto.
It was just as exciting as the previous April. Just not as many surprises as my first title night. Naturally, I was elated with the result — a 4-0 Toronto verdict behind Johnny Bower’s shutout.
Another champagne bash in the Leafs dressing room. Another dousing. Another memorable experience.
Heading home later, I promised Sterling that, if the occasion ever arose, I’d take him — a Canadiens fanatic — to see his team in a championship game.
It happened the very next year, on May 1, 1965.
The Canadiens and Chicago Blackhawks were the finalists. Sterling and I had watched game six on TV at his home. We had no plans beyond that.
An hour later, he and I were preparing to leave the next morning for Montreal. Yes, we were there at the Forum to pick up media passes.
The game wasn’t close, the Canadiens prevailing 4-0 on Gump Worsley’s whitewash. We watched the on-ice presentations, then made our way to the dressing room.
It didn’t seem the same for me, with the winners not wearing blue and white. But my friend was having a wonderful life-time experience with his favourites. Sterling and I posed with the cup — and with team captain Jean Beliveau. It was the first year the Conn Smythe Trophy was awarded and, yes, Beliveau was that initial winner.
For me, it was three Stanley Cup celebrations in three years. What more could a lifetime hockey fan ask for?
Now it’s 56 years later.
I’ll be content to be home in my La-Z-Boy, my two Shih Tzu pals on my lap, enjoying an old-fashioned showdown between the Leafs and Habs.
It’s just sad my friend Sterling isn’t around to see it too.