Wednesday, August 31, 2005

 

Berger's Fix on Hockey Arenas

Now for a great Berger Fix about arenas...One of my favorite topics.

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

As hockey fans from coast to coast in Canada and the United States anxiously await the start of training camps, I’ve been asked by several e-mailers to rate the arenas in the NHL, both past and present. And, to post a favorite memory from each of the buildings I’ve been fortunate enough to visit over the years. For purposes of length, I’ll split this up over several submissions – beginning, here, with my top 10 former arenas. In order to have a bit of fun with this idea, I’d like to return the invitation and ask readers to e-mail me stories from NHL cities you may have visited. I’ll incorporate the best of them into a column sometime in the next few weeks. It seems that many fans have viewed the coming season in a serious vain, debating the merits of your favorite team, and wondering how the signing spree in August might alter the balance of power in the NHL. We’ll have plenty of time to update predictions as the regular season draws closer. In the meantime, let’s see who has the fondest arena memories. Send your recollections to howard.berger@rci.rogers.com and be sure to include your name. Now, for my rating of defunct NHL arenas:



1. MAPLE LEAF GARDENS, TORONTO: Where to start? I probably saw 1,000 NHL games in the Leafs’ old stomping ground between 1966 and 1999. I do remember my first Leaf game, on Dec. 5th, 1966 – Toronto vs. Detroit – if only for the thrill of seeing Gordie Howe play in person. I also somehow remember Paul Henderson, still wearing No. 19 for the Red Wings, all decked out in a surgeon’s mask that night. The game was actually shown on LEAFS TV CLASSICS several months ago, and there was the future Canadian hockey hero looking like a doctor on skates. Apparently, he’d been fighting some form of allergy, and required the protection. Henderson would be traded to the Leafs in the famous Frank Mahovlich deal 15 months later. The most vivid memory I have of attending any Leaf game was Darryl Sittler’s record-breaking night on Feb. 7th, 1976. I sat in the corner red seats and marveled at the way everything Sittler touched turned into a goal or an assist. He scored six times and set up four others for 10 points: a single-game mark that somehow withstood the era of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. The Maple Leafs destroyed the Boston Bruins, and beleaguered coach Don Cherry, 11-4, in that incredible game.

2. MONTREAL FORUM: The first time I visited the shrine on Rue Ste. Catherine was for the NHL draft in 1981. And, it was rather awe-inspiring to walk the floor of the building I’d seen so many times on television. I later covered a number of playoff games in the Forum – the most memorable being the night the Calgary Flames won the 1989 Stanley Cup, and became the one and only visiting team to carry the mug in the Habs’ lair. Everyone remembers the goal Lanny McDonald scored that night after coming out of the penalty box. But, the best player on the ice was a future Leaf, wearing No. 39 for the Flames, by the name of Doug Gilmour.

3. CHICAGO STADIUM: Reputed to be the loudest building in the NHL, the Blackhawks’ former home was quite raucous, but I’ve been to other arenas that were just as noisy on a given night. My most memorable visit was for the game that turned out to be the Hawks’ final appearance in the Stadium – in April of 1994 – when they were ousted from the opening round of the playoffs by the Maple Leafs and goalie Felix Potvin, who recorded three shutouts in the six-game series. My first visit to the Stadium was for a Blackhawks-Leafs game in 1988, and I remember Chicago defenseman Gary Nylund (drafted by Toronto in 1982) spitting at former teammate Allan Bester as he left the ice after being ejected from the match.

4. DETROIT OLYMPIA: I saw only one game in the home of Gordie Howe, Terry Sawchuk, Ted Lindsay, and all the great former Red Wings’ players. It was the final appearance by the Maple Leafs – a matinee in March, 1979. I sat over one of the blue lines in the upper balcony, which surrounded the entire ice. The Leafs lost the game, but the many Toronto fans in attendance still taunted the Red Wing rooters because the Leafs were on their way to the playoffs, while Detroit had been eliminated from contention. I’d heard the horror stories of the ghetto in which the Olympia was located, and I remember having some anxious moments while scurrying back to the car after the game.

5. BUFFALO MEMORIAL AUDITORIUM: The Sabres’ former home still stands, vacant, across the parking lot from the club’s current building, HSBC Arena. The Aud was a terrific place to watch a game, as the seats rose on a very steep incline all around the ice. They used to have a great organist, who knew how to perfectly gauge the mood of the crowd. I only saw a few hockey games in the arena, and none really stand out. My most vivid memory comes from attending an NBA playoff game in 1975. The Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) routed the Washington Bullets thanks to a 50-point performance by big center Bob McAdoo.

6. PHILADELPHIA SPECTRUM: This arena had the greatest press box location in the history of the NHL. It was in back of the first 25 or so rows of seats, right at center ice, and the dressing rooms were directly below the box, down a short flight of stairs. What a bonus for a reporter! Clearly, the best Spectrum memories I have are from covering my first-ever Stanley Cup Final: the 1985 series between the Flyers and Edmonton Oilers – Gretzky and Co. winning their second consecutive championship that spring. All the seats, in three levels, were a dark-red color, and were built close to the ice. While on a Leaf trip to Philly in 1998, I was allowed inside the Spectrum to show it to a friend who was with me. We had the run of the place – walking along the arena’s cement floor, looking eerily about the empty building, and trying to recall all the great hockey memories from years past, as the Flyers had since moved to their new home (Wachovia Center) across the parking lot.

7. BOSTON GARDEN: This grand old building drops a few spots in my personal ratings because I nearly suffered heat-stroke while watching Stanley Cup Final matches in 1988 and 1990. I was sitting in the auxiliary press box, up behind one of the goals, when the lights went out on May 24th, 1988, during Game 4 of the Final between the Bruins and Edmonton. Anyone old enough to have watched that series will remember the game being canceled because of a heat-induced blackout in Boston. And what a relief it was! It must have been 120 degrees where I was sitting, with zero air circulation. I was completely drenched in sweat, and more than happy to climb out of the darkened arena. The same thing almost happened on another sweltering night during Game 1 of the ’90 Final, also with Edmonton. This time, only one bank of lights went out, and the teams played on into the wee hours of the morning. Peter Klima scored the winner for the Oilers in triple overtime, and, again, it was a blessing for me to escape the suffocating arena.

8. LOS ANGELES FORUM: I loved watching hockey games in the circular, Roman-columned arena that Jack Kent Cooke built for the Kings and Lakers in 1967. The seating area had the strangest color scheme imaginable: half the building was gold, the other half orange. And, of all the Leaf playoff encounters I’ve covered over the past two decades, perhaps the most memorable was in the L.A. Forum – Game 6 of the Kings-Toronto Cup semifinal in 1993. The Leafs trailed, 4-2, midway through the third period, but Wendel Clark finished off a hattrick to deadlock the game in the dying moments of regulation time, on a pass from the corner by Doug Gilmour. The game went into overtime, and a Toronto goal would put the Leafs into the Cup Final for the first time since ’67. But, Leaf-killer Gretzky scored the winner on a powerplay early in the first OT, with former Oilers’ teammate Glenn Anderson serving a silly boarding penalty for the visitors. Gretzky then played what he called his greatest-ever post-season game, as the Kings eliminated the Leafs two nights later in the deciding match at Toronto.

9. ST. LOUIS ARENA: The old barn on Oakland Avenue served as home of the Blues from their 1967 inception through the lockout-shortened season of 1994-95. The first Leaf playoff series I covered on the road for The Fan-590 (we hadn’t yet become an all-sports station) was against the Blues in 1990. Like the Auditorium in Buffalo, the Arena seats were practically on top of one another as they rose from the ice. The seating area had a very steep incline, which made for great viewing. I’ll always remember not being able to see much of the first two games of that ’90 series. We had the Leaf radio rights back then, and I had to stand at the doorway of our broadcast booth to prevent the Blues’ wild GM Ron Caron from entering and screaming at Joe Bowen and Bill Watters, who were taunting him as he looked over from his private Arena box next door. What a scene that was, I’ll tell you!

10. COW PALACE: Exactly as its name implies, this ancient relic in Daly City, Calif. – just south of downtown San Francisco – was used primarily as a showplace for livestock. It also had about 10,000 seats and was the only semblance of an arena in San Francisco. It therefore served as home of the San Jose Sharks for the first two years of that franchise, as the San Jose Arena (now the H-P Pavilion) was being constructed 45 miles south. Renowned for several appearances by The Beatles, the Cow Palace hosted the NHL in the early expansion era, as the Oakland Seals traveled across the Bay to play a handful of home games in 1967 and ’68. But, I reflect on covering an afternoon game in March, 1992, between the Sharks and Maple Leafs. Toronto had acquired Gilmour from Calgary two months earlier and was threatening to make a late-season push for the playoffs. The Leafs threw about 48 shots at a terrible, first-year San Jose team, but Sharks’ goalie Jeff Hackett played the game of his career, and San Jose won, 4-1, thus killing the Leafs’ momentum, and ending their post-season hopes.



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