Home Sweet (Hockey) Home
By Mike Toth
If you're a sports fan, you've been cooped up in your humble abode watching the various pandemic play-offs on the tube and telling yourself that it's better than viewing yet another "Seinfeld" re-run. (Although, to be honest, I can never get enough of the "Who would've thought an immigrant would own a pony?" episode.) But most of us can't wait for the day when we can get out of the house and get back to watching some of the games we love, live and in living color.
With that in mind, here's a trio of home hockey rinks that have always fuelled my passion for pucks.
Drumheller Memorial Arena
A lot of folks have a favorite uncle.
But when your favorite uncle happens to be just a year older than you AND your best buddy, then you've really got something. Uncle Rick (just "Rick" to me) and I were both hockey-crazed 70's kids who grew up cheering for the Alberta Junior Hockey League Drumheller Falcons. In 1975, the Falcons faced off against the Spruce Grove Mets in the AJHL final.
The Mets were a Messier family affair.
Doug Messier was the hard-boiled coach of the Mets, a marketing genius who sometimes wore an army helmet behind the bench to rile up the opposition crowd. His son, Paul Messier, was the Mets stud defenceman who would go on to play a handful of games in the NHL before embarking on a successful pro career in Europe.
And, oh yeah.
The Mets also included Doug's younger son, who was employed as the team's stick boy.
Perhaps you've heard of him.
A young fellow by the name of Mark Messier who went from lugging Sherwoods for the Mets to establishing himself as one of the greatest players in NHL history.
The Falcons didn't have any future hall of famers in their line-up, but they did feature a few familiar hockey names. Jim Nill was a hard working Falcons forward who's now the hard working general manager of the NHL Dallas Stars. Merlin Malinowski, meanwhile, was a high-scoring rookie for Drumheller who went on to play 282 NHL games. But Malinowski is most famous for a line used by his crusty coach with the old Colorado Rockies - a gentleman by the name of Don Cherry.
"They call Malinowski "Merlin the Magician", huh?," snorted the future Coach's Corner king. "Makes sense because when the going gets tough, Merlin always disappears."
Speaking of disappearing acts, the Falcons flew to a 3-1 games lead in that '75 series against Spruce Grove before the Mets roared back to win it all in game 7. (Uncle) Rick and I were absolutely crushed, but we didn't lose our love for the Falcons.
Four years later, in fact, we both suited up for our favorite team as we got a taste of playing junior hockey. Our 1979 version of the Falcons never even got close to experiencing any sort of play-off success. But when we skated out together for the first time at the Memorial with the flying Falcon on our chests, it was obviously a huge thrill.
Calgary Stampede Corral
What a great old barn.
A big part of the magic of the Corral was going to a game early to walk around the concourse and look at the old hockey photos - something Maple Leaf Gardens fans in Toronto can also relate with. On the ice, there were so many magic moments - all of them shared with my hockey-loving dad.
Watching Danny Gare, Mike Rogers and Jerry Holland light it up for the Calgary Centennials, as they formed one of the most potent lines in junior hockey history.
The Centennials later morphed into the Calgary Wranglers, who advanced to the 1981 Western Hockey League final against the Victoria Cougars. Forced to play one of the games in the middle of a weekday afternoon because of a Calgary Flames play-off game that night, my dad pulled me out of my grade 12 class and we headed for the Corral. Hockey and hooky - the perfect combo; and what a dynamic duo in the opposing creases. Mike Vernon of the Wranglers versus Victoria's Grant Fuhr - a precursor to their "Battle of Alberta" duels with Vernon stopping pucks for the Flames and Fuhr pulling off his acrobatics in the Edmonton Oilers cage.
I also saw my first regular season NHL game at the Corral. But "saw" might be an overstatement. When the Flames moved to Calgary in 1980, they played their first three seasons in the tiny Corral (with room for about 7,500 fans) before moving into the big, bright Saddledome. It was tough to get a ticket at the old Corral and for my first game against the Boston Bruins, dad and I could only get our hands on standing room ducats at one end of the rink. It was great, except every time the puck would get near the net all the people with seats would stand up and block our view. The good news? The Flames won 2-1. The bad news? All the goals were scored in our end and we didn't see a single puck go in the net.
Toronto St. Michael's Arena
My dad has passed away, Mike Vernon and Grant Fuhr are long retired from the NHL, and it's been 25 years since I lived in Alberta.
Yes, time flies.
Moving to Toronto in the 90's to work for TSN and Sportsnet, I went searching for a new hockey home. I found it at the corner of Bathurst and St. Clair - a cozy little gem with a ton of hockey history.
Dave Keon, Gerry Cheevers, Eric Lindros - the long list of famous St. Mike's alumni is staggering. Through the years, I've enjoyed an up-close look at a lot of talented St. Mike's players who are now part of today's NHL. Andrew Cogliano, Jake Evans, Cal Clutterbuck (the best name in hockey, by the way) are modern examples of many of the young men who have worn the big "M" on their St. Mike's jersey over the years.
I always sit in the same spot at St. Mike's - front row, north end, right behind the puck-scarred glass.
Seated next to me?
My two hockey-loving sons, Max and Theo; and just like when I'd go to the games with good old (Uncle) Rick and dad, we've shared a lot of great memories…..and some great chow too, as the St. Mike's hot dogs are legendary.
There's not a soul alive who doesn't miss one of their favorite hangouts as we all cope with COVID-19. Most of us are lucky to be able to stay safe at home, but it's often at our "home away from home" that we experience a lot of the joy and passion in our lives.
So, here's to the hockey rinks or whatever your special place happens to be.
Hopefully, we'll all be home again soon.