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4 Banners in 14 Days

In this, their Centennial Season, the Toronto Maple Leafs are delivering the original ACC player banners to the hometowns of their greatest players.

by Mike Ferriman / MapleLeafs.com

Eight have been delivered so far and in a stretch of just fourteen days, four were delivered across two provinces… and two nations.

One undisputable fact is that mining towns produce Maple Leafs stars. Towns that mine for iron, copper, nickel and gold. On the fortnight that began November 27, a Leaf that wore that very same number, returned home to Timmins (Schumacher to be completely accurate), the McIntyre Arena and the very ice surface on which he learned to love the game. Frank Mahovlich along with Bill Barilko called this gold mining town home.

One time, Frank even caught a glance of Bill, (eleven years his senior) practicing on that ice. The Arena has stood for 78 years and was financed by the original owner of the Maple Leafs, J.P. Bickell. Many Leafs hail from Timmins, including Steve Sullivan, who was on hand for the 27th, as a part of the overall Rogers Hometown Hockey celebration. Wendel was there too, perhaps sizing up our operation, in advance his banner being delivered to Kelvington, in the new year. Barry and Frank Klisanich, the nephews of Bill Barilko, made their ways from Toronto and Minnesota respectively to watch the unveiling. Bill's banner took a different route to its final home than the rest of our banners. After our 18 original banners were brought down this summer, we came to the realization that Bill's banner needed to go back up one more time, as this summer marked the farewell tour for the Tragically Hip. For those who are fans of the band and have attended their performances, you know how special a moment it is, when Gord belts out the lyrics to 50 Mission Cap… the story of Bill Barilko. Bill's banner was spotlighted during the first of their final three shows in Toronto. It did not go unnoticed by the thousands of Leafs fans in attendance. Thank you Gord.

 

Bashin' Bill and the Big M

Back in Timmins, this was to be the Leafs lone dual banner delivery, with the task of deploying the banners falling upon Timmins Fire Chief, Spyke Pintar. When Ron MacLean cued the drop, Spyke did not disappoint. Bill's number 5 and Frank's number 27 banners cascaded down the Gardens-esque yellow brick walls of the Mac, while those in attendance expressed their approval.

 

 

Frank had arrived in town at 1:30, as always, the sharpest dressed man in the room, looking as much like a 50's movie star attending a film premiere, as a hockey hero returning to the north. From the minute he arrived, not a moment passed where he wasn't telling a story, signing an autograph or posing for photos with his fans, most of whom had their own Mahovlich tales to tell. It began around 3:00 as Frank arrived at the rink, and it carried though the unveiling and into the post event dinner. The Big M's fans were everywhere, and even mid-meal, Frank did not disappoint, taking time away from his jambalaya to speak to a fan's ailing father on the phone.

 

  

If you're ever passing through Timmins, be sure to poke your head into the McIntyre Arena, grab a delicious meal at the Coffee Shop, and take a look at the banners of two of the greatest players to ever emerge from the north.

 

 

King of the North

Three days later, we set out on the longest of our banner journeys, to the town of Kiruna Sweden, located at 68 degrees north, well within the Arctic Circle. After Kiruna, there's just snow… maybe a few white walkers. Kiruna is an iron mining community and the birthplace of Borje Salming. His banner travelled over three days, from Toronto to Frankfurt and then to Stockholm where we met up with Mats Sundin for a quick visit… it was nice to see the big guy. From there it was off to Kiruna. At the airport we picked up Borje's teammate Tiger Williams. It's safe to say, those who proudly call Kiruna home, had never met anyone quite like the NHL's all-time penalty minutes leader. Within seconds, Tiger was chastising the airport bartender for displaying a poster of Zdeno Chara at the bar, in a country that calls Borje "King". 

We arrived in Kiruna at 7:30 PM on December 2nd and were taken to our hotel, the Bishop's Arms, which also serves as the town's most popular pub and headquarters for the supporters of Kiruna AIF, Borje's former club. The beer taps were literally right beside check-in. After an evening of sharing stories with the locals, we turned in; Saturday was going to be a big day. Our morning began with a tour of the LKAB iron mine. It goes down 1.6 km under the town, so far under in fact, that they are currently undertaking the daunting task of relocating half of the town to a new location.

Kiruna is a beautiful place but at this time of year, one doesn't see much of the sun. Sunrise was at 10:25 AM that day, sunset at 12:35 PM. The long nights provided a wonderful showcase for number 21. The head office of the LKAB mine, Kiruna's largest building. had turned off all the lights, save those necessary to light up Borje's number for all to see. 

 

 

Before lunch, it was time for rehearsal. As we discussed the evening's plans (Maple Leafs game presentation meets that of Kiruna AIF), Borje Salming made his first appearance. Borje is always a presence, it always seems like he's just come off the slopes after a great day of skiing and now the fun can really begin. Every room is better with Borje in it. 

To say that the town of Kiruna went all out, would be an understatement. The AIF game was sold out, the ceremony lasted over an hour, there were speeches, live performances, appearances by friends, family, teammates and even Carlton the Bear, making his first appearance outside of North America. Borje's banner was lifted into place and was followed by a spirited hockey game, which saw the first place, hometown team capture two points. After the game, the town threw a dinner and reception, the King appropriately seated at the head table. 

 

We've visited many hometowns over the years and we will visit many more, but it's safe to say that we'll never be received and appreciated in such a unique fashion as we were in the great hockey town of Kiruna.

 

 

Behind Enemy Lines

Five days after returning from overseas we hopped in the Marlies community vehicle and headed to a place the Leafs rarely host an event… the province of Quebec. What to expect… we weren't sure. Most certainly the town of Rouyn-Noranda would warmly welcome home their favourite son Dave Keon, but what of us, the staff of the Toronto Maple Leafs, loaded down with Centennial pucks, Leafs branded toques, face tattoos and signed sweaters? We would soon find out.

Those who follow the Maple Leafs closely know that unlike the other 18 players whose banners graced the rafters of Air Canada Centre, Dave didn't have an original banner to bring back to his hometown. Both the team and Davey agreed, that it would be nice to produce two banners, one for Toronto, and one for Rouyn-Noranda, the old copper mining down, located seven hours almost directly north of the ACC.

It's a bit of an Odyssey, getting from West Palm Beach Florida to Rouyn-Noranda Quebec, but Dave made the trek and brought with him some old friends, the Lady Byng, the Calder, the Conn Smythe and the Stanley Cup, which he won four times. The day began with Dave visiting the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the QMJHL, last year's Memorial Cup runners up.

 

 

One player in particular, Martins Dzierkals, was very excited to meet Dave. Martins was drafted by the Leafs in the third round of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and he fully realized the significance of the meeting, imploring us to send him "all of the pictures." After meeting with the players, it was the town's turn. Hundreds lined up for hours at the Centre Dave Keon (home of the Huskies), to meet Dave and get a picture with the Cup. This began at 11:30 AM and lasted until 3:00. Following a bit of a break, came the pre-game reception. Again the Cup was present, as was every relative and old friend, that still calls Rouyn-Noranda home. Excitement built throughout the reception as the ceremony, (expertly executed by the Huskies staff), drew near. The rink was sold out, it was teddy bear toss night and Dave Keon was to be honoured in the building that bears him name. All in attendance received a free Dave Keon hockey card and were witness to a moving, 25 minute, bilingual ceremony, that culminated in the second Dave Keon banner raising in as many months. The ovation was as long and as genuine, as any he's received on Toronto ice. 

 

 

Now, back to the matter of the residents of Rouyn-Noranda. How would the Leafs attempts to ingratiate themselves to the locals be received? As it turned out, quite well; every toque handed out was hastily pulled upon the heads of the recipients, face tattoos adorned the rosy cheeks of the youngsters in attendance, and the supply of souvenir Centennial pucks went pretty fast. Even the team's In-Arena Host wore a Leafs sweater for the entire night. We felt so very welcome, and maybe we even stole away a few Habs fans from our old rivals in Montreal… maybe.

There are ten more banners left to deliver, as we head to the communities of: St. Thomas, Kingston, Kelvington, Brandon, St. Jacob's, Prince Albert and more. It will most certainly make for a special second half of the season for the Maple Leafs Centennial Banner Tour.

 

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