Marathon Man’s Maple Madness

Aside from taking in the occasional game of football every now and again, one of my other interests is athletics, or to be more accurate in my case, road running. Not being in Olympic contention every time I step out to run a local 10k race is a constant niggle, but it’s one that I manage to get over. In an age when we are constantly being told that the average Briton is overweight (with an ever increasing amount of the population moving into various stages of obesity), I am quite content with the fact that I do my bit to fight off the middle aged spread, and keep myself active.

It’s part of the reason why I visited Canada recently. When I was seven, I watched the highlights of the first London Marathon, and thought to myself that I wouldn’t mind one day having a go at that. Of course, I didn’t know then that you had to be eighteen to take part, and so I had to wait a few years. Then I discovered football, and various other activities which meant that I was twenty four when I finally took part in my first London. After the run, and with my legs starting to ache like they had never ached before, I used the Steve Redgrave speech after he had won his fourth Olympic Gold medal in Atlanta; “if you see me near a boat again, you can shoot me”. Except that I changed the boat for an entry form, and “shooting” to hit me. Shooting me for saying that I would like to run it again seemed a bit excessive.

As is the way, twelve months later, I was there again, and this is why I am out in Toronto; to run their Waterfront Marathon. However, the trip is not all about running. Throughout the course of the year, I had been searching through the fixtures for the local sports teams, hoping to take in another event while I was visiting.

It didn’t bode well. The baseball season is into the final stages of the play offs in October, and the basketball season would have been just getting underway if it hadn’t been for a labour dispute between the owners and players. The Canadian Football League (like the NFL south of the border, but not quite) seemed like a good option, and for a while was in fact the only option. The city’s representative in the MLS, Toronto FC were away as well, and even more frustratingly, the Canadian national team had played a World Cup qualifier in Toronto, the night before I arrived.

Then the ice hockey fixtures were announced. Hockey is as much a national fixation in Canada as football is in the UK (and most of the rest of the world for that matter). The city’s team, the Maple Leafs actually had two home games scheduled while I was around, but one of these would be the night before my marathon, so that was out. However, the second (on the day after the run) was definitely a go, so as soon as the tickets went on sale, I got online and secured my seat.

As the trip got closer, the fixtures for the Toronto Marlies (a kind of reserve side for the main team) were announced, and they were also drawn at home, so I could now fit a game either side of my run. The trip had just got a whole lot better.

So, having spent far too much cash on Maple Leafs merchandise, I made my way out to the Ricoh Coliseum on the Saturday afternoon for their home opener against the Lake Erie Monsters. All of the NHL sides have “farm” teams, where they send players to hone their skills before putting them on the ice in the major league. Inside the arena are the names of some of those Marlies who have gone on to careers with the Leafs.

The team are marketed as though “every game is a try out”, and in the last year, several players on the current roster have performed in the NHL for the Leafs. Tickets for these games start at $10 (Canadian), although they are for seats behind the goal. For a seat on the half way line, it has set me back about $30, and when I arrive at the arena, I go straight in and the seat is definitely worth it.

When the players leave the ice after their warm up, the zamboni’s drive on to the surface to re-ice the playing area before the game can begin. The club are making a donation to a fire fighters charity, and so once the machines have left the ice, a carpet is laid on a part of the ice so that the great and good can stand on the ice without any embarrassing falling over.

The arena then goes dark, and the home players are introduced to the crowd. They are accompanied by local junior players, who are all kitted out in their normal team attire. The first few successfully avoid the carpet, but then one doesn’t look where he is going, and skates straight into it, and falls over. There is a moment’s concern for the youngster, but he soon recovers his footing, and skates to the appointed spot with his player. The next few avoid the same mistake, but then another one almost goes over, and this time, it’s actually one of the players, who manages to miss the shouts of the crowd, and hits the carpet. He is able to stay upright though, and the youngster misses it as well.

We then get the national anthems, and then once the mischievous carpet has been removed, the game can get under way. Two hours or so later Toronto have won 5-3, and there have been almost as many punch-ups as goals. The fights are as much a part of the game as the actual play on the ice, and the game wouldn’t be the same without the threat of two players going at each other at almost any moment. Canadians are proud of their hockey tradition, and next up is a team that one of the original members of the NHL; the Maple Leafs.

Before I can sample the delights of the Leafs though, I have the small matter of 26.2 miles to run. A windy morning greets us as we make our way to the start, so I kit myself out accordingly, and try to rein in the nerves that always grip me before I do something like this. Four hours and twenty six minutes after crossing the start line, I finish the run on Bay Street, and can finally relax. During each marathon that I have done, I always question why I am here, putting myself through the misery and pain that almost inevitably comes along. I still don’t know, but the feeling of accomplishment that follows the finish is probably why. Plus the fantastic medal at the end of this run helps as well. Unfortunately for one competitor though, it’s all too much, and we find out later that a 27 year old man died near to the finish. It’s a horrible thought that you go out to take part in an event like this, and don’t make it home.

As I start to make my way back to the hotel, it’s still windy, and the tin foil blanket that I have been given to keep me warm for the hobble back transforms a couple of times into some kind of silver hoodie. When I do make it back to the warmth of the hotel, I stand patiently waiting for the lift, and when it finally gets to my floor, I take an age to get back to my room. I feel really pleased with myself that I got round, although I am starting to ache even more.

By the time Monday rolls around, I am taking an age to get anywhere. I wonder around the city, but it’s all very slow, and out of keeping with the hustle and bustle going on around me. I resist the urge to get any kind of public transport, as I know that I have to keep moving. If I stop, then it will take me longer to recover, so I have to keep on the move.

The Leafs game against the Colorado Avalanche is due to start at 7pm, so I leave my hotel just after 5, kitted out in my new jersey. I am asked by several in the hotel if I am going to the game, to which I reply that I am, and that it is my first game in North America. I have attended hockey in the UK before, and even went to the LA v Anaheim game at the o2 a few years back, but this is the real thing. I am hobbling less now, although stairs are still a problem. I actually make good progress to the Air Canada Centre, and with the doors not opening until an hour before the game starts, I wait around outside among the scalpers for a while before I head inside for the warmth.

The ACC is about a dozen years old, as the team previously played at Maple Leafs Gardens, on Carlton Street in the city. The original venue still stands, but it’s being renovated at the moment, and so the only visitors it gets at the moment are the construction staff. The ACC is quite an impressive arena, but I am more taken aback with the amenities inside. There are more merchandise stands that you can shake a hockey stick at, and the choice of food is something else. I wonder around the lower level concourse for several minutes, taking it all in. The locals just wonder around, but for me this is a real eye opener. Pizza delivered to your seat, in a proper take-out style box. Sushi (if that’s your thing) is also available, as is the standard hot dogs and popcorn.

With stairs still a bit of a problem, it’s obvious that my seat will be right at the back, and it takes some time to reach. Having gone up there, I then decide that I need something to eat, so I have to clamber back down. I settle on the nearest food outlet to my section, which means a large slice of pizza, and so I purchase and begin the long, slow and slightly painful climb back to my seat.

I have on my left a couple of Colorado fans, while almost everyone else seems to be cheering for the Leafs. Wearing my recently acquired home jersey, I don’t really stand out, although I am sure that if I was to shout something out, the English accent would be spotted a mile off, so I keep quiet for most of it. Although I have an interest in the game, I am no expert, so I don’t want to do or say anything stupid.

After the warm up, we have the anthems and then the game starts. Both teams have made impressive starts to their respective campaigns, but for some reason neither look that great for the first twenty minute period. There are plenty of breaks during the game, although not as many as there are in baseball or the NFL.

At the end of the first period, there is a chance for someone in the crowd to win a signed Leafs jersey. One person from the clubs staff represents each section of the arena (split into colours which depends on how much your ticket was), and they are catapulted down the ice whilst sitting on a rubber ring into ten large bowling pins; the winner of the shirt will come from the one who knocks down the most pins. Sitting in my seat in the gods, we get a great view of the first few down the ice, and a top score of nine will be tough to beat. Our purple representative is hurled down towards the pins and takes out all ten, which prompts a fair amount of whooping in our section. Then the lucky seat is announced on the screen, and frustratingly, it’s just two to my right that wins. It’s the closest I have ever come to winning anything in a stadium.

Having swiftly got over my disappointment, the game restarts and unlike the Marlies on Saturday, there are no fights. Not one. The whole game is played without anyone getting five minutes in the penalty box for fighting. The Leafs are not playing any better, and with a few minutes of the game to go, are trailing 2-1, when they equalize. This means that the game will go into overtime, as no game is allowed to finish as a draw. Just over a minute into the five minute overtime period, Colorado score the winning goal, and the game ends there and then. There is a lot of disappointment etched onto the faces of the home fans, and almost the entire crowd heads straight for the exits, not bothering with the post game ceremonies. There is though enough time to ask one of the staff to take my picture in the arena, and then it’s back out into the night for the walk/hobble back to the hotel.

Even though the result went against the home team, I loved it, and I would quite willingly put myself through another flight out to see a few more games. There are enough in the regular season to get to, and so a week of hockey quite appeals. It might not be for a while, but I will go back. While the Leafs get on though, trying to win the Stanley Cup (which they last claimed in 1967), I am going back to the Daggers. There are times when I am not sure where I would rather be…

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