TSN25: The Forum and the Gardens close their doors

Kelvin Chow,

7/31/2009 9:04:42 AM

In honour of TSN's 25th Anniversary, is taking a look at some of the top sports stories over the last 25 years. Next up, a farewell to two legendary arenas - the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens.

The 1990's saw many historic sports venues close their doors to make way for state-of-the-art buildings.

Granted, there was a sense of old world charm that came with cramming through narrow hallways, sitting in rickety wooden chairs and eating cold hot dogs while drinking stale beer.

But in an economic climate that is all about more dollars and cents, the shrines of old were exactly that - old.

One by one, their lights faded out. Boston said farewell to The Garden (or GAH-den as they fondly called it) and Chicago fans promised to 'Remember the Roar' from the old Stadium in the Windy City.

And in Canada, sports fans bid adieu to two of the country's most celebrated gems - The Forum in Montreal and Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens.

For 72 years, The Forum hosted more than its fair share of great sporting moments. Boxing great Archie Moore scored a memorable 11-round knockout over Yvon Durelle there in 1958. Almost 30 years later, Matthew Hilton beat Buster Drayton in a 15-round world title bout. The building also hosted events for the 1976 Summer Olympics, where Romanian gymnist Nadia Comaneci earned the first perfect 10 in the history of the Games.

But for the 90 million people that passed through its turnstiles at Atwater and Ste-Catherine, The Forum will always be remembered as hockey's home address. It was the home of All-Stars, the home of legends and the home of champions. It was the home of the Montreal Canadiens - and it closed its doors for the final time on March 11, 1996.

"I don't think anyone realized at the time what a wonderful arena it was to watch hockey," said Michael Whalen, who covered the Canadiens for TSN at the time.

"People and the players got caught up in the arrival of the new Molson Centre. There were a lot of things wrong with the Forum, like the cockroaches and cigarette smell that lingered in the hall. But it was one of the last places left where you could clearly hear the skates cut into the ice."

In a game that was broadcast live on TSN, the Canadiens' last game - a 4-1 victory against the Dallas Stars - was played out in dramatic storybook fashion from start to finish. 

The sellout crowd was treated to one more singing of the national anthem by the late great Roger Doucet. In a classy gesture by the Stars, former Canadiens Guy Carbonneau, Brent Gilchrist and Craig Ludwig and Montreal native Benoit Hogue took the opening faceoff. Canadiens players Jocelyn Thibault, Vincent Damphousse and Pierre Turgeon - all from the province of Quebec - were named the three stars.

But what happened next was nothing short of breathtaking for any fan of the game. One by one, a parade of champions walked out on the ice for one last goodbye. Cheers and hoorahs for legends like Lafleur, Dryden, Cournoyer, Beliveau and Bouchard.

And finally, The Rocket himself.

For 18 seasons, Maurice Richard gave Montrealers his pride and passion on the ice. And that very night, the 17,959 fans in attendance (many of whom never even saw him play) returned it in kind. In what will go down as one of the franchise's most endearing moments, Richard received a 16-minute standing ovation.

"It was an extrordinary sight to see so many legends from just one team," said TSN's Rod Smith, who worked for the network as a reporter that night. "But nothing could top Maurice Richard. They saved him for last and I remember that the applause just wouldn't stop. It got to the point that he was somewhat embarrassed by it. But then you could tell he started to embrace it when he raised his arms to the crowd. And it was such an emotional sight watching Richard wiping a tear from his eye. Nearly 36 years to the day after his last game with the Canadiens, it was especially touching to everyone there - including him. It was amazing."

While there were fewer Stanley Cup banners compared to its Montreal counterpart, Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens could certainly compete with The Forum with its own share of great stories.

The list of sporting events hosted at the building was endless. The very first game of the Basketball Association of America (a forerunner of the NBA) was played at The Gardens - a 68-66 victory by the New York Knicks over the Toronto Huskies. Canada's George Chuvalo went 15 rounds with the legendary Muhammad Ali (known then as Cassius Clay) there.

But hockey was, and always will be, its true lifeblood. The last standing temple of the game was home to the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1931 to 1999, a period that saw them capture 11 Stanley Cups.

And while long-suffering Leaf fans have been holding out hope for the club's first championship since 1967, there have been plenty of other great hockey memories from the corner of Church and Carlton.
This was where (as the popular song Fiftymissioncap goes) the last goal Bill Barilko ever scored won the Leafs the Cup. This was where Darryl Sittler set a new NHL record for most points in a game that stands to this day. This was where Doug Gilmour's wraparound goal against the Blues brought 16,307 fans to a frenzy in the 1993 playoffs.

This was where legends were made.

On February 13, 1999, many of those same legends were welcomed one last time as the hometown team closed out the Gardens.

"I think for many Leaf fans, especially the younger ones, leaving Maple Leaf Gardens was in a way exercising the demons of the Harold Ballard era," explained David Amber, who covered the Leafs for TSN that year. "It was definitely a festive mood, for the players and fans, who appreciated the long history of the arena, but wanted to build a new legacy of winning at the new venue."

Over 100 former alumni took part in the closing ceremony, with long-time greats like Borje Salming and Ron Ellis sharing the spotlight with lesser-known Leafs like Slava Duris and Tim Ecclestone. And while it didn't have the grandeur and ceremony that the closing of the Forum did, it was certainly fitting. As with any team with a passionate fan base, to cheer for the Maple Leafs is to cheer for them through and through. In the best of times and not-so best of times.

"The best part of the hockey atmosphere at Maple Leaf Gardens in those final games was the parade of former NHL players that came back to see the building one last time," said Amber. "Seeing how emotional some of them were, really spoke to how special the venue was."

And when the legendary Red Horner finally handed Mats Sundin a flag that read "Memories and Dreams" for the Leaf captain to take to the new Air Canada Centre, it was certainly the best of times.