Everyone needs a quiet place. Somewhere to gather your thoughts, recharge the batteries, get away from the buzz and jangle of modern life.
Some people go for a walk in the forest, some prefer an isolated beach, some are content with the view from the backyard deck, some meditate. Some (let’s be honest) prefer to pour a glass of Cabernet, smoke a doobie, put on headphones and listen to orca love calls.
Still others go to Leaf games.
As the introductions of the players and coaches unfolded at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto Wednesday, it was as quiet as a funeral in an empty church. Apparently something approaching sound was piped in for captain John Tavares, but otherwise it was hard to believe this was the opener for a Maple Leafs juggernaut that is (so we are told) a lock to win Lord Stanley’s bauble sometime in June.
It was no different when the game began. Even a hat trick for Auston Matthews, Toronto’s Mr. October, failed to result in a single hat on the ice. Scan the crowd in the lower bowl and it looked like everyone was dead from the coccyx up.
Even the usually sycophantic Toronto media was appalled. “Toronto,” wrote Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail, “does crowd noise like Utah does Oktoberfest.”
Face it, Montreal gives good crowd. Nothing underlines the cultural differences between Toronto and Montreal like the behaviour of the crowds at sports events. Back in the day, 15,000 fans at an Expos game in the dreary Big O could generate as much noise as 50,000 watching the Blue Jays at the SkyDome. Our standing ovations are legendary (welcome back, Saku!) as are the post-Stanley Cup riots, unfortunately.
When the Connor Bedard show unfolds Saturday evening at the Bell Centre, fans will blow the roof off the building. They will shake, rattle and roll. They will boo lustily. If they don’t like a call, the outcry will peel the stripes off a referee’s back.
There are, of course, real fans in Toronto. Millions of them. They’re the ones who fill my email and Twitter feed with notes insisting that Ryan Reaves can actually play hockey, if you just pause the game and give him a chance to catch up before Arber Xhekaj knocks him into the last millennium.
They’re a little unrealistic, maybe, and most were born decades after Toronto won its last Stanley Cup — but they bring real passion, the quality so conspicuously lacking at the Leafs opener. They even export it to Montreal, where they seem to show up in greater numbers and to make more noise than they do at home.
The economic realities of trying to live in a city where two people earning six-figure incomes can’t afford an actual house have shunted these fans to the sidelines, especially for occasions like the season opener and playoff games.
Does it matter? During the regular season, I don’t think it does, not in competitive terms. Today’s generic arenas are so alike that it’s difficult to tell one from another once you’re inside. When it comes to intimidating visiting players, the Bell Centre itself doesn’t hold a candle to the Forum — and the Forum, even with its ghosts, was a friendly environment compared with the Philadelphia Spectrum and the old Boston Garden.
It’s during the playoffs that the absence of a crowd that can generate rocket-takeoff decibels might actually affect the outcome.
My first experience of playoff hockey in the other team’s rink was with Red Fisher in Boston in 1994. Boston Garden didn’t just intimidate players, it was equally unfriendly to visiting media. As I tried to squeeze my 6-foot-5 frame through the 4-foot portal that led to the press box, the noise was already at overtime levels and there were howls of derision from fans sitting behind us, most of whom looked like Chris Nilan’s tougher brothers.
And Boston Garden, they say, was a holiday resort compared to the Philadelphia Spectrum in the heyday of the Broad Street Bullies.
The old barns are all gone, along with the things that made them unique. At most of the new arenas, it costs more to park your car than families once spent for an entire night of NHL hockey. When you’re drinking $15 beer, you’re not going to get drunk enough to get rowdy.
The result is what we saw in Toronto Wednesday: The atmosphere of a corporate boardroom the day the execs find out their bonuses have been cancelled.
Like it or not, fans are part of the sports experience. It’s why I like European soccer. It’s also why the NHL should drop the practice of having the Leafs and Canadiens play their openers against each other. The loathing is there, the genuine rivalry is not, and the Toronto crowds are too docile.
Give us the Bruins on opening night. There’s no rivalry like Boston and Montreal, with the Broons and the Habs battling through a total of 34 postseason series and 177 playoff games.
Now that’s a rivalry. In Boston, you don’t need a pulse check to make certain the fans are alive.
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