Having spent most of my life in Stratford, Ontario Canada, I grew fond of the William Allman Arena in Stratford, one of the oldest continuously operated hockey rinks in the World. There is some suggestion that it is actually the oldest, but that’s an argument for another day.
And that got me thinking about some of the old barns I have been lucky enough to visit. Now, giving away my age isn’t something I normally do, but when I tell you I was lucky enough to visit all original six franchise arenas, I guess I can’t keep it a secret.
Today, when it comes to the Detroit Red Wings, fans of this day automatically think of the Joe Louis Arena, the place the Wings call home for this season. But before “The Joe” there was the Olympia, the first NHL arena I had the opportunity to visit. That was in 1969 and I was just a young lad of 8 years at the time.
My parents had immigrated from Italy just 11 short years earlier and my father became an instant fan of hockey. My only knowledge of the game was from watching on Hockey Night in Canada and a few Ontario Hockey Association games here in Stratford.
I was in awe from the moment I walked into the arena. Just the sheer size of it and the number of people took my breath away. (The Allman arena in Stratford sits 2800 people). But the thing that has stuck with me the most from that visit is the Legendary Gordie Howe. We were lucky enough to have ice level seats in the corner. Howe came charging into that corner to throw a hit. The fear that ran through my body on that play has remained entrenched in my mind since. But I also knew then that I wanted to play hockey and shortly after asked my dad to buy me skates and the rest as they say, was history.
In 1971, I had the pleasure of going to the old Boston Garden, an arena like no other. The first thing I noticed was that the ice surface was smaller, much like the Allman here in Stratford. The ice surfaces have similar dimensions and they were cozier than other arenas I had been too.
Unlucky for me, our seats were in the first row in the upper level. You see, I have a terrible fear of heights. Even climbing a step ladder causes me to panic. But I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything. Even sitting “up high” I couldn’t believe how close we were to the ice. The fans showed a passion for the game that I had not yet seen anywhere else.
I got to see Bobby Orr. I got to see Phil Esposito. And I got to see Gerry Cheevers, three of my favorites. But the player I was most excited to see was Don Awrey. You see, his brother just happened to be my Physical Education teacher in school. “Mr. Awrey” had made arrangements for me to meet Don prior to the game, which I did. I still have his autograph. But my biggest regret was when he asked me if I’d like to meet Bobby Orr. I politely declined as I was already in awe just by being in the arena of the team I loved so much. Don’t worry though, I had other opportunities to meet Mr. Orr.
Shortly thereafter, we visited Chicago Stadium. If Boston Garden was the hockey Mecca to date, Chicago Stadium was Heaven to me. Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Tony-O are three players I truly enjoyed, especially Espo, since he was Phil’s brother. But Hawks fans took the Bruins’ fans passion to another level in that old barn. I couldn’t believe how loud it was. On several occasions, I found myself covering my ears. I couldn’t believe how kind and friendly the fans were, although I had never experienced otherwise to date in my short life. I, a Bruins fan, my dad a Leafs fan (later to become a Sabres fan) at a Hawks-Canadiens game. The clock in the old Chicago Stadium was the center piece for me. I had seen it on TV previously and couldn’t figure it out. I spent more time watching the clock than I did the game. I believe it was the last analog clock used in an NHL game. For newer fans of the game, I suggest looking at old pictures.
The following season we visited the Montreal Forum. And when they talk about the aura of an arena, Montreal had it. You could feel it much more than you could in Boston, Chicago, Detroit and Toronto. The history and the tradition of the team had a lot to do with that. But when they talk about the “ghosts of the Forum”, it’s like you could feel their presence the moment you stepped foot inside.
The Forum had this mystique about it that you couldn’t quite place your finger on. Maybe it was the greatness that had skated or was still skating on that ice surface. But to me, the Forum was the most awe-inspiring arena I had the chance to visit.
I wish I had been there in person, it would have been the best hockey experience ever, but I did get to watch it on TV: the best hockey game ever in my opinion was played at the Montreal Forum on New Years Eve, 1975 between the Canadiens and the Soviet Red Army. It ended in a three-three draw. It was the first and last time I had cheered for the Canadiens, but it doesn’t take away from the Forum being the top arena in my book.
The following season was my first of many, many visits to Maple Leaf Gardens. While the Gardens had history and tradition, it didn’t have the same feel for me as the Olympia, the Forum, the Garden or the Stadium in Chicago. Many of great players had skated up and down the ice at the Garden. And while Leaf fans were among some of the most knowledgeable in the game, they hadn’t made the atmosphere the same as their Original Six rivals. It was to me, for a lack of a better term, like walking into any old barn.
I can’t count how many times I was at Maple Leaf Gardens and the Air Canada Center. But given the choice, I would take the Gardens over the ACC any day of the week.
Finally, it wasn’t until 1983 that I had the chance to visit Madison Square Gardens in New York. Now, it wasn’t the same MSG that the Rangers played in during their Original Six days, but being only one season away was close enough for me. MSG is what it is, the greatest sports arena in the world. But that wasn’t because of hockey – it played just a small role in it. Basketball, Boxing, Wrestling, you name it, you haven’t made it on the big stage until you’ve been at MSG.
That over and above hockey, is what made MSG worth a visit. That, and it is after all, New York City. It’s a tough choice, but if I had to rank them in order of having the biggest impact on me in terms of hockey and giving me that awe-inspiring moment, I would have to say: Montreal, Detroit, Boston, Chicago, Toronto and New York.
I’ll take the traditions, history and aura of the old barns any day of the week.