Game 6 of the opening round series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins reminded me of another time at the arena. Not a game because, let’s face it, you see stuff in any game that you see in every game. No, what came to mind was the Leafs team gathering for training camp almost 17 years ago, a couple of days after 9/11.
It was like we were all unsteady on our feet, all walking around on a carpet of ball bearings and tacks. When I say “we” I speak not of people in the arena or the city or the country. “We” was a world-wide thing that day. We were still processing the tragedy. I was one of those who had to try to explain the awful events and ascribe motives to answer questions of daughters who were in grade school. In the wake of 9/11 asking coach and GM about the prospects for the upcoming season never felt so empty. In a global paradigm shift what do 80 games here or 80 games there really mean? The arena was a giant vacuum, all the oxygen and meaning sucked out of it.
And a couple of days after that, when the border re-opened but air travel had yet to resume, I drove to New York, to the Rangers’ training camp and that same feeling was in play once more, an occupational ennui. I don’t know what it’s all about, I thought, but this ain’t it, not while the ruins smoulder at Ground Zero and they’re counting the dead.
In Toronto Monday night, the mortal toll was 10 and the wounded were in city hospitals. Many people had found out about the rental van careening down a sidewalk in North York only when they were en route to the ACC or maybe when they gathered before the playoff game. It had to hit everyone hard because it came so close to home — no one at the ACC would need GPS to find the awful scene, simply go one block east, turn left and keep going north, up the main artery through the beating heart of the city. Keep going until the police tape or until it sinks in that you’re driving the same route as that of the guy at the wheel of the van.
I don’t know if there were thoughts about postponement. So many people in one building no matter how high security were raised, so many more gathered out on the plaza to watch the game on a big screen. Management would have had to strongly considered it if the Yonge Street tragedy was determined to be just one terrible by-product of a larger threat to national security. Hard to imagine how you’d play the game in a city or nation in lockdown. Life in Toronto this time went on, however, and so did the game. So did the party at Maple Leaf Square.
To the credit of the players on both teams, everyone said the right and respectful things. The Bruins have too much practice in this, at least those who have been around a few years going back to the bombing of the Boston Marathon. Really, everyone just has too much practice in this now. In every dressing room in the league you can find players who had ridden buses on the prairies like the Humboldt Broncos, some who knew that road, that intersection.
The Leafs and the Bruins didn’t need the crowd’s sanction to go ahead and play as if it were just another day or at least another Game 6. The crowd offered its sanction anyway, first with the buzz in the hour as the ACC filled up and then as the chorus of a stirring rendition of O Canada. There was no sense of too soon, just a hope for the Leafs that they hadn’t left it too late.
Through the first 21 minutes, you’d have had to be watching the game through blue-hued glasses to believe that the Maple Leafs were going to prevail over the Bruins in Game 6.
Though you saw no evidence of it on the scoreboard at the time, never did the Leafs seem to be reeling so badly as in the last six or seven minutes of the first period. The game at that point was still scoreless but the Leafs were like a fighter who couldn’t get out of a corner of the ring with blows raining down. It seemed like that whole stretch was played out of the home team’s zone, Leafs centres out taking faceoffs against Patrice Bergeron and losing every one of them. If it wasn’t Bergeron, who was being double-shifted with his linemates Brad Marchand and David Pasternak, then it was David Krejci denying the Leafs possession from the puck drop on Frederik Andersen’s doorstop.
Every time the Leafs had a look at open ice to clear the zone, somehow a lane closed up or the puck got up on an edge or a bounce went sideways. They were able to get the puck within an inch of the blue line but not an inch beyond it. And when finally the Leafs cleared the puck it would lead to an icing call and no line change for relief. One defensive-zone faceoff after another, the Leafs were fighting in a corner with their backs to the ropes. It would have suited them if the league officials opted to go with no-stop time just to get out of the first period. Against the odds the home side escaped to the dressing at the intermission with a scoreless tie.
Such relentless pressure could only result in heartbreak, you thought, and so it seemed to come to pass when Jake DeBrusk opened the scoring a minute into the second period. Given the run of play, the Bruins were full value for a 1-0 lead, maybe deserved better and couldn’t be blamed if they thought they had all they’d need to win the game. But the Leafs replied on the next shift with a tying goal by William Nylander and minutes down the line, after another was disallowed on goaltender interference, a go-ahead goal on a spin-around backhand by Mitch Marner.
No one in the Leafs Legion could really have much confidence that the lead would stand up through the third period. Somehow it did. Somehow the home team stifled the Bruins for much of the last 20. I’ll offer a few explanations for “somehow.” One: The Leafs stayed out of the penalty box. Two: That top line of Marchand-Bergeron-Pasternak seemed a little weary after its heavy early load and a little less sharp as the game wore on. Three: Frederik Andersen who effectively stole his second straight game to set up Game 7 in Boston Wednesday. There were of course other contributors—Jake Gardiner was the Leafs’ best blueliner, Tomas Plekanec did a great job on Bergeron and scored the clinching empty netter and pretty much the balance of the roster fed off the energy in the arena.
This time the arena wasn’t a vacuum. Or perhaps it was a vacuum quickly unsealed, with oxygen and meaning rushing back into it. Maybe we’re too inured to tragedy now. Or maybe we just need times like these to remind us why we keep on keeping on. I’m sure someone—okay, tens of thousands–will be hashtagging TorontoStrong and we’ll see t-shirts and the like. Really we should be recognizing those who raced in and administered CPR to the fallen or treated the injured in hospital or disarmed and arrested the suspected driver of the van or comforted the families of the victims.
They’re Freddie Andersens all in far bigger things than any game, even Games 6 and 7.