Hey have you heard? Hockey is back. And the fans were out in full force last night in support of the home opener for the Leafs 75th anniversary season against their Ontario rivals, the Ottawa Senators.
Nearly two hours before game time, young and old adorned in blue and white jerseys and face paint, carrying oversized flags and banners, began flooding the gates of Air Canada Centre. With excitement and anticipation filling the evening air it was evident that, despite the record high temperature, Toronto was more than ready to say goodbye to summer and baseball, and hello to a Canadian winter of hockey.
At the TD Waterhouse Fan Zone, in the Galleria near Gate 1, fans got in to the spirit testing their shooting ability on a makeshift Cujo and playing virtual NHL on a Play Station 2 console. Other hockey enthusiasts took to shopping at Centresports, the Air Canada Centre's official merchant of Leafs wear, trying to find that perfect Leafs T-shirt or hat to show-off their blue and white fervor.
It was then time for the 2001-02 Maple Leafs to take the ice and they couldn't have asked for a better reception. To a cheering sold-out crowd on its feet, the beloved home team made their debut entrance led by last season's playoff hero, Curtis Joseph. One by one the rest of the team took their place at centre ice to equal a fanfare.
Prior to face-off a special tribute was made to Leafs legend Frank Mahovlich. As a key member of four Toronto Stanley Cup champion teams in the '60s, Mahovlich's #27 banner was raised to the rafters in honour of his memorable career as a Maple Leaf, along side many of his 60's cohorts including George Armstrong and Tim Horton. With his wife, children and grandchildren present, Mahovlich was clearly touched by the acknowledgment.
What makes a night like this one so pertinent, apart from it being the home opener, apart even from it being the Leafs 75th anniversary season? What makes it so eminent is that it symbolizes who we are as a nation. Hockey is a tradition, it is a piece of our culture and identity, and it is what we all know and cherish as a truly Canadian pasttime.
So Toronto fans, Leaf hockey is back and with it so are the players, the coaches, the referees, even Carlton the Bear and Don Cherry. Even more noticeably however and, perhaps more outstandingly in such uncertain times as we have been faced with recently, the fans are back. By the looks of the blue and white spirit last night, it seems they are willing and ready to cheer their Maple Leafs on in to another successful season.