TORONTO — The renovated Maple Leaf Gardens is much like other renovated buildings in Toronto. A modern facility indicative of the 21st-century lifestyle built inside an old facade, with historic artifacts left over from a by-gone era.
Much of the activity in Toronto this Friday night is a few blocks south. Dundas Square at Yonge is a 24-hour beacon of lights and commercialism.
Maple Leaf Gardens is removed from that, surrounded by a few grocery stores and apartment complexes, but none of the bars and restaurants that light up the area around the Eaton Centre or Air Canada Centre. It even retains that dusky smell. The patrons at the new Ryerson athletic complex aren't required to wear hats, but wafts of cigarette smoke penetrate the air upon entry to the building, a smell I can only imagine was just as present to the same 24-year old hockey fan walking up to the entrance of the building in the 1940s.
Maple Leaf Gardens is officially the Mattamy Athletic Centre, but like the Rogers Centre, the new name will never stick. The hundreds of fans skulking up to the entrance on Carlton Street, old and young, refer to the rink as "the Gardens" or "MLG". There may be a few dissenting voices belonging to bodies dressed up in Ryerson golf shirts this evening, but they're quickly drowned out. A fairly large student crowd has turned out, crowding the narrow hallway upon entry to the renovated facility up two flights of stairs from ground-level.
The opponent tonight, in the home opener for the 1-1 Ryerson Rams men's team, is the 1-0 Queen's Golden Gaels. There are no game programs provided, nor any newspaper that can offer a comprehensive preview. Not being an expert in OUA hockey, I rely on the facts about either team found at the bottom of the game sheet offered to fans with both team rosters.
"This is already the second meeting between these teams; Queen's took a 6-3 win last Friday night in Kingston."
"Ryerson has fired 95 shots on goal in two games for an average of 47.5 shots per game which is tops in the country."
"Defenceman Brian Birkhoff scored the Rams' game-winner in a 3-2 win against RMC on Saturday night,"
"Queen's won the season series last year, taking two of three games against the Rams."
Other than that, I wouldn't be able to tell you anything about either team. I'd never watched either squad play before. I will say that especially earlier on, it was easier to note the Ryerson players. Every odd-man rush, every collision, everything of note was accompanied by an auditory cue. Everything Ryerson did just seemed to mean more.
What else do I know? Ryerson starter Troy Passingham, who let in 6 of 33 shots in the previous two meetings between these teams, is "not the good goalie" according to an old-timer next to me explaining the Rams' squad to his friend. Confirmation bias, perhaps, but Passingham fumbles his first touch of the puck, a long range effort through a screen that bounces through the crease but eludes any Golden Gael stick.
He's also the first to get beat. Steve Schmidt whistles a shot over the cross bar, and the puck ricochets off the end boards right to a waiting Andrew Wiebe at the goal-mouth. It's 1-0 just ninety seconds in, before the raucous student sections have taken a break.
That's what it takes to get chances in this game. Everybody is strong, everybody is structured, but the talent that's present in an OHL game or a pro game, where a couple of guys on the ice can just create offence, doesn't really exist. Breakdowns are rare and the action isn't chaotic. It's a delight to watch, and Jordan Mirwaldt, just after the midway point of the first period, is the first to create something on his own, dragging a defenceman to the right side, along with Passingham, and sliding it right across the goal to Corey Bureau for the 2-0 goal.
I think this is where the crowd starts to get nervous: the atmosphere is rowdy, but now there's a collective belief that (gulp) Ryerson might not win their opener. Their best line, a unit worth a combined 650 lbs with Jason McDonough, Andrew Buck and Greg Payne, are physical, knocking over defencemen, but again, none of them is talented enough to bring a puck right into a good shooting area. Ryerson are generating shots, but they're outside efforts.
But that's how they get on the board the first time. Rams defenceman Mark Corbett takes a weak wrist shot from the left point right along the boards that's deflected somewhere around the hashmarks and flutters over Riley Whitlock's outstretched glove. The goal is credited to Matt McCann, but before it's even announced, Queen's get one right back. A clearing attempt off the face-off takes a lucky hop right onto the stick of Golden Gael captain Patrick McGillis who moves in 2-on-1 and rips a wrist shot short-side on Passingham.
After 1, the scoreline reads 3-1 for the visitors, despite the shots being 17-14 for the Rams. Passingham hasn't looked awful on either goal, but he's removed at the start of the second period for Steve Gleeson.
In hockey, when one team is behind by a goal or two, they tend to throw everything they can at the net. Whitlock is set to be busy.
Indeed, while the pace slows for the second, Ryerson get their chances, out-shooting the Golden Gaels 17-5 in the period. It doesn't look like the discrepancy is that much, but the Rams have a very obvious territorial advantage, with a couple more players making themselves known.
Number 72, a pretty big character I later learn is Michael Fine, has gotten a couple of good shots away, while Number 10 (Daniel Lombardi to his friends) is a little too creative for his own good, squandering a chance on the powerplay with Whitlock down on the ice. The Golden Gaels did a good job plugging up the shooting lanes, and this is the one time in the game I guess the Rams didn't just take the shot as soon as they were below the top of the circle.
Queen's get the only goal of the period. Gleeson is beat the same was as Passingham was on his third goal, as a rare breakdown in the neutral zone leads to a passing play that has Jordan Soquila moving in on the right wing. Another short-side effort, and it's 4-1 heading into the second intermission. Shots are 34-19, but the scoreboard is tilted to the inverse, and several of the non-student crowd has decided to leave the rink.
There's a bit of a show in the third, however.
The structure collapses in the third as Ryerson push a little more, activating a defencemen on more rushes and trying to create more offence by moving the puck directly from the wing to the slot, looking for a lucky bounce. The skill of Jamie Haines has contributed to this, the weakening structure letting him move the puck more freely around the perimeter, but he's a passer, not a shooter, and Ryerson isn't particularly good at getting sticks on scoring chances in front.
The Rams catch a break while killing a penalty. At the blue line, Golden Gael Stephane Chabot is stripped by an aggressive Dustin Alcock, who fires a shot short-side on Whitlock. 4-2, and the fans have hope. A few minutes later, Fine sets up a backdoor play to the rushing Mark Corbett, who has snuck in from the left point. 4-3, and the crowd is starting to think that a comeback is in the works.
Ryerson will get several more chances in the coming minutes, with Queen's on their heels defending the onslaught.
But they're concentrating on the shooting lanes more than the passing lanes, and a lot of efforts are hitting shins before they get to the net. Ryerson, who you'll recall had fired an average of 47.5 shots on goal per game coming into this one (refer to Game Sheet Fact #2), are adding to that total. They creep above 40, and 45 soon follows, but most attempts are from the outside. This can be dangerous for Queen's, as Haines takes a soft shot that hits a shin pad in front and re-directs just wide of the post.
On an ensuing 4-on-2, Ryerson fail to get a shot. Defenceman David Searle has a good shooting lane just above the left circle, but Tyler Moore jumps in feet first to block the shot, limping off the ice as the puck harmlessly retreats into the Ryerson zone. Andrew Buck gets an opportunity in front for their 47th shot of the game, but Whitlock makes the save and no Ram can get their stick on it for a 48th shot on goal with the goalie down and vulnerable. Any good whack could have tied the game at that point.
That's as close as the Rams come. Gleeson is pulled for the extra attacker but with just over a minute to go, off a missed Rye shot, Taylor Clements is able to skate the puck out to centre, and buries a centre ice shot into the empty net. The fans are still chanting "Our House", but the comeback has fallen short. Despite outshooting the Gaels by a hefty amount, 48-27 in the end, Ryerson lose due to a couple of unfortunate bounces in the first period.
But it's still a jovial atmosphere. The student sections went to the game to watch their team, not necessarily to watch them win, and the crowd files back through the narrow hallway, out into the rainy Toronto night.