On March 27, 2010, I was scheduled to work my fifth game of the season at the Air Canada Centre, the centre of the hockey universe. This would also be the last appearance of my career on Toronto ice - try not to all cheer at once, Leafs Nation! For me it is an honour and a privilege every time I step onto the ice in that large cash register they call the ACC.
The Leafs could play on a slushy Toronto Harbour and draw a record crowd but the only other hockey home that most of us can recall was Maple Leaf Gardens. The sound of that hallowed building still resonates in my head. On my final visit to Toronto for the game, I felt I must walk over to pay my respects to that historic building. It was a walk I would take by myself before teaming up with my associate referee for the game, Wes McCauley...
I approached the facade of Maple Leaf Gardens on my nostalgic stroll and tried to dream my way into the boarded-up building. I wanted to recall what it was like in those days on a game night, especially a Saturday night. It all came back to me in a flash. Transported back in time, I was suddenly approaching the brightly lit blue-on-white marquee from across the street: SATURDAY NIGHT - MONTREAL CANADIENS, 8:00 PM. I was going to be the referee this night in Toronto.
On Saturday nights, the game wasn't just played on this corner; it was Hockey Night in Canada and the entire nation showed up. In English-speaking Canada in the days before NHL expansion into Western Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs were (and to some extent are still) regarded as Canada's team, with a profile akin to those of the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees in the United States. Hockey is the heart and soul of Canadian culture.
I had my father with me and my little three-year-old son Matthew in tow. While it was only a pre-season game, for me, at the infancy of my NHL officiating career, it was what I imagined a seventh game of the Stanley Cup final might be like...
On this night, I didn't know whether to step on the ice or get down and kiss it. I wisely chose the former. I wanted to show everyone that I belonged.
On my first turn around the rink, I looked up at the gondola I had seen so many times on television, from which Foster Hewitt and his son Bill broadcast the games. Everything looked so much more immense and bright. Making the turn, I looked directly into Harold Ballard's "bunker." There he sat, with King Clancy beside him. It was then that I heard the familiar voice of an old friend: the distinctive monotone of Leafs PA announcer Paul Morris, who held that job for 38 years and worked 1,585 consecutive games before retiring, at age 61, in 1999. I froze in midstride and tried unsuccessfully to find the face that went with the voice.
The teams came onto the ice and paid little or no attention to me, but I studied each one of them. As I stood at centre ice to drop the puck between Darryl Sittler and Doug Jarvis, I wasn't sure which was shaking more, my knees or my hands. I immediately thought, 'Get your sh-- together, if you hope to be in charge of this game. Once I got into the flow, everything went great. By the third period I felt like I really belonged, and nobody had even yelled at me yet - until I missed a penalty against the Leafs, or at least that's what future Hall of Fame defenceman Guy Lapointe thought. The Leafs were winning by a goal with a couple of minutes to play, and Lapointe was quite animated in his protest of the non-call. Wanting to appear like a veteran, I thought it wise to call him by his first name, which I hoped would make him feel comfortable with me. I put my hands up with palms open and said, "Relax, Serge!" Well, Lapointe shot me a look of disgust and said, "My name is Guy, you 'effing' rookie!"...
As a postscript, a few nights later, I was in Montreal for a game and I sent my skates in to Eddie Palchak of the Canadiens to be sharpened. I was all dressed and ready to go and was looking forward to hearing Roger Doucet sing the national anthem, but my skates had not yet been returned. I asked Raymond, our room attendant, to please hurry and get my skates. He hadn't returned before the two-minute warning, so I told the linesmen to go on without me and I would join them as soon as I had my skates. Shortly thereafter, Raymond came running in with a smirk on his face and said, in broken English, "I am so sorry, Monsieur Fraser, they were very busy up the hall."
In a rush, I jammed my feet into the skates...and shaving cream came flying out of both of them. I had no choice but to quickly tie them up and rush to the ice, just as Roger was about to sing. As I stepped on the ice, my left skate went in one direction and the right in another. Guy Lapointe was standing beside Serge Savard on the Canadiens' blue line with a big grin on his face. After the anthem, he skated over and asked, "How are your skates tonight, rookie?" I replied, "Perfect, Guy - just the way I like them." We both laughed and the ice was broken. I think that was when I realized that acceptance would come if I didn't force it. Though I did have to get my skates re-sharpened, since I think Guy had done the honours the first time...
My tour of the old Gardens was complete. While I couldn't physically get inside, I most definitely journeyed there through the inner recesses of my mind. I visited with ghosts of old acquaintances, such as great players Borje Salming, Darryl Sittler and Ian Turnbull; my old teammate Bob Neely; captains Rick Vaive — I pointed to the net when he scored his 50th goal for the first time in '82 - Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour; coaches Pat Burns and Pat Quinn; General Manager Cliff Fletcher; and so many more. We were all friends on this imaginary reunion, even though I could clearly see I was younger, cockier, and much less travelled in those days, when this Temple of Hockey allowed me to pass through her turnstiles.
On Wednesday, join me for a haunting visit with the Ghosts Of The Forum with the Montreal Canadiens!
For a personally autographed copy of Final Call from TSN hockey analyst and former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, visit The Book Keeper website.
For a regular copy of Final Call from TSN hockey analyst and former NHL referee Kerry Fraser, visit here.