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  • Writer's pictureToth Sports Inc

Super Fan

Updated: May 28, 2021

By Mike Toth

It turns out fans make a huge difference.

During the "pandemic puck" of the NHL regular season, a lot of hockey fans got used to watching the players perform in empty arenas. But with the Stanley Cup play-offs upon us and life beginning to get back to normal, (at least in the U.S.) fans in the American stands have played a major role when it comes to improving the TV buzz.

But the Canadian play-offs?

It's a much different story. We're still bogged down by COVID in this country, which means no fans inside our rinks….and not a whole lot of sizzle on the ice. The two North division match-ups (featuring Toronto vs. Montreal and Edmonton vs. Winnipeg) have been the most boring of the first round of the Cup tournament, and the absence of a live crowd has been one of the big reasons. (Although the fact that Montreal's power play looks about as organized as Trudeau's vaccine plan doesn't help either.)

Somehow, though, the Habs have managed to force a game six in their series against the Leafs, and the Quebec government has approved the presence of 2,500 fans at the Bell Centre in Montreal on Saturday night. I guarantee they'll sound more like a crowd of 25,000 and the news is an absolute godsend for players who have been aching to hear the cheers (and even the boos) of real, live human beings.

The best hockey fan I've ever come across?

That would have to be my dearly departed Grandfather.

A hard working Saskatchewan farmer who was the son of strict Hungarian immigrants, Grandpa never got the chance to play hockey when he was a boy. But in his adult years you couldn't keep him out of the rink, especially after he finally retired from the farm and moved into town.

Grandpa's home rink was located in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan. I grew up in Alberta but if we visited Grandpa during the long cold prairie winters we'd always bundle up and go watch the local Senior team, the Esterhazy Flyers.

What an experience.

Grandpa would literally shake with excitement during the game and the sight (and sound) of this passionate old guy was one of the most familiar scenes at the Esterhazy Arena.

With traces of a Hungarian accent, Grandpa had a number of go-to phrases that he'd unleash during the action.

"He's a good goalie!," he'd scream after a sensational save.

"You bulldozer!," he'd bellow following a big bodycheck.

"Put him in jail!," he'd demand upon observing a dirty deed.

Following one successful season, the Flyers honored Grandpa as the team's "Number One Fan", presenting him with a plaque enshrined with all of his familiar sayings. When Grandpa passed away, I inherited the award - one of my favorite possessions. I also co-opted his phrases during my broadcasting years as I described the hockey highlights on "Sports at 11", TSN and Sportsnet. (My old Sportsnet partner, Jamie Campbell, got a particular kick out of the "He's a good goalie!" call.) My broadcasting days are pretty much behind me now, but I still pull out Grandpa's catch phrases to entertain my two sons while we watch games together.

Another great memory of going to games with Grandpa?

A Boxing Day trip to the famous Mac's Midget tournament in Calgary. Grandpa was in town for a Christmas visit, with a big Boxing Day dinner planned for my Uncle's place. Grandpa and I left for the Max Bell arena that morning with explicit instructions to be back for dinner at 5 pm.

Well, one game became two, two turned into three, three became four…..and all of a sudden we were accosted in the stands by an angry mob from our very own family. It was now after 7 pm and the turkey at my Uncle's house had turned stone cold. But as Grandpa munched on his second cheeseburger of the day while wearing a huge grin on his face, something told me he couldn't have cared less. As long as he was at a hockey rink, life couldn't be better.

But while Grandpa definitely loved hockey, he had a pretty big soft spot for his grandson, too.

Unfortunately, he never got the chance to see me play the game as much as he would've liked to. Farm work, freezing winters and long drives over treacherous prairie highways kept him from travelling very much.

But I'll never forget one of the rare occasions he did see me play. I was a goaltender with the Red Deer College Kings and in 1981, we hosted a touring Junior team from Sweden in front of a packed house at the old Red Deer Arena. With Grandpa up in the crowd, we managed to beat the Swedes 4-2.

Like me, Grandpa never forgot that game.

Years later, after I'd long hung up my goalie pads, Grandpa and I would be walking down the street on one of my Esterhazy visits and he'd stop a neighbor for a chat.

"This is my grandson," he'd proudly declare. "He beat the Swedes 4-2."

Sure, it happened ten years ago and there was absolutely no reason to work this piece of news into the conversation. But it made Grandpa happy and even though it was a little embarrassing, I have to admit that I got a kick out of it too.

So, do passionate hockey fans make a difference?

You bet they do.

Montreal Canadiens netminding legend Carey Price, for instance, is sure to get a huge boost from the 2500 leather lungs at the Bell Centre on Saturday night.

Just like a mediocre old puckstopper did years ago when his beloved Grandpa was up in the stands screaming "He's a good goalie!" at the top of his lungs and from the bottom of his heart.

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