Patrons couldn’t help but stop in the halls of the Gardens during intermission of a Leafs or junior Marlies game.
Not for the barkers who were hawking “programs, popcorn, cold drinks!”, massing for the crude men’s urinal trough, or to re-orient amid the grey haze before smoking was banned in the Reds, Blues and Greens.
It was to gaze at the wonderful mish mash of hockey photos crammed throughout the building, almost all black and white, a timeline of the team from the building’s opening in 1931.
Former building super Wayne Gillespie told us those blue frames were made right in the Gardens carpentry shop and treated with utmost respect, even by the kids who came to Carlton and dressed for a KISS concert
Linking Charlie Conacher, Turk Broda and Dave Keon and the Stanley Cups in between, the great sports lensmen of the flashbulb era, such as the Turofsky Brothers, Michael Burns Sr., and staff from the Telegram, Star and Globe, documented the great Leafs at work and play, for all to admire.
Those snapshots were augmented in the 1980s and ‘90s by in-house photogs Graig Abel and Dennis Miles, who vividly captured the Gardens last days — Rick Vaive’s 50 goals, Doug Gilmour’s wraparound, the smiling Mats Sundin, a bloodied Wendel Clark, the scowling Pat Burns.
Some of the collection survived the auctioneer’s gavel and made it to the new home on Bay Street, though dwarfed by the restored Cup banners, retired numbers and the creation of Legend’s Row outside.
While it can be chaos in the corridors of Scotiabank Arena before, during and after a game, keep an eye for a parent or grandparent with a young-un, pausing beneath an old pic. One or both are usually in Leafs sweaters, the elder pointing out players he’d grown up watching, another skein of yarn handed down through a century of Arenas, St. Patricks and Leafs.
But with a decided lack of title parade images to hang the past 57 years (other than the 2019 Raptors), Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment has chosen new mediums to accent $350 million of arena renovations over the next two years. Scotiabank Arena will retain something of a photo scrapbook aesthetic, but is moving to a more modern art gallery feel, with the same goal of celebrating the past.
MLSE, in league with California-based Sports And The Arts, put the call out for submissions to interpret the Leafs, Raptors and live music acts through the arena’s first 25 years. They whittled applicants down to 34 artisans, who submitted 76 works.
Samantha Woj was among the first to get a commission, not for being a big Leafs fan — ”I had heard of Mitch Marner,” the Montreal native said with a laugh — but for love of sports and painting that transcended her rare genetic disorder.
Born with ectrodactyly, an absence/malformation of the middle fingers and toes, she developed her own style using sports equipment as her implements.
Her astonishing portraits of Marner, John Tavares and Morgan Rielly in celebratory mode were created with a puck, stick blade and helmet. Having used a soccer ball, basketball and football to portray athletes in those sports (including the NFL’s Kelce brothers, who gave her work a shout-out on their podcast New Heights at last year’s Super Bowl), painting the three Leafs gave her a new palette of gear to explore.
The Leafs chose the photos of their three players, but otherwise gave Woj full artistic license to dig through an equipment bag.
But how in the name of Emily Carr can one paint with a hockey bucket?
“The edge of the visor and the helmet strap is great for detail in the face, eyes and eyebrows,” enthused the 29-year-old Woj, which she shortened from Wojciechowicz. “Really, the biggest challenge for me was getting the right shade of blue in the Leaf sweater.”
Woj underwent delicate toe to hand surgery as a toddler, providing her two digits as basic grip.
“Some artists lose a finger or limb and overcome it, but I’d already had my operation and learned to adapt. I caught the bug in a painting class in Grade 6 and knew right away that’s what I wanted to do.
“With my morbid sense of humour, I tell people I can’t paint with sharp objects, but sometimes in my work, two fingers can actually be easier to manipulate than have the other ones get in the way.”
A soccer player, avid skater and winter sports enthusiast, hockey provided Woj a perfect balance to marry art and athletics.
“I’d watched hockey, never played it, but painting with the equipment gives you a sense of movement you can feel but can’t really describe.”
The COVID-19 shutdown gave her ample time to experiment, first rolling a soccer ball on canvas just to see what the pattern looked like. That led to an image of English forward Marcus Rashford after Woj heard of the brutal abuse he suffered for missing a penalty kick in the Euro 2020 final against Italy.
Then came the Kelces, using the breadth, laces and nose of the football.
While in Montreal for an exhibition game, the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder gave her space outside the Bell Centre for a live depiction of their local product, Luguentz Dort, using just the basketball.
The Leafs had seen Woj’s work in a similar set-up, painting mascot Carlton the Bear, as curious fans passed by Scotiabank Arena. Sports And The Arts thought she’d be perfect for what MLSE had in mind, along with other Canadians; Cass Keenan’s watercolours of Clark, Borje Salming and Darryl Sittler, a historical woven collage by Jason Jay and six basketball-themed pieces by Mark Stoddart.
“The Leafs are 107 years old, the Raptors will be 30, so we’ve got a depth of content at our disposal to tell these stories,” said Nick Eaves, MLSE chief venues and operations officer. “Certainly, the varied way we are telling them distinguishes this arena reno from others.
“It’s one thing to see a photo of a player you remember, or don’t remember, and that evokes an emotion. But to be able to immerse yourself in a story and understand what was in the mind of the artist is something we think is different.
“We’ll still have the great hero photographs from the many moments in our past, but through the contributions of unique and diverse artists we’ll be telling the stories of the Leafs, Raptors, live music and culture in this building and this market in ways that are different and what we think will really resonate with fans coming through here.”
The unfortunate part is most of the art is currently in Scotiabank Arena’s private box/restaurant corridors, though some pieces are visible through the pedestrian walkway on the arena’s west side.
There is a QR code on the works that explain their significance and tell each artist’s story, and consideration is being given to marketing the prints in future.
ONCE A LEAF
Featuring one of the more than 1,100 players, coaches and general managers who have played or worked in Toronto since 1917.
FORWARD DARYL EVANS
BORN: Jan. 12, 1961, Toronto, Ont.
SWEATER NUMBER: 3
GP 3, 1G, 0 A, 1 point, 0 PIMS
THEN: The Willowdale native realized a boyhood dream in the summer of 1986, when he ended his five-year NHL hitch with the Los Angeles Kings and Washington Capitals and signed with the Leafs.
“I was teetering between Toronto and Detroit, but thought it would be cool to come home,” Evans said during a break from radio analyst duties with the Kings. “With the Leafs farm team being in Newmarket then, it was a chance to stay in one place, 15 miles in either direction and be around my family again after all the years they’d supported me. NHL or AHL, they could come and watch me play.”
It turned out to be 200-plus games with the Saints, but Evans says: “I don’t regret my decision at all, the chance to put the Leaf uniform, score one (against Detroit’s Mark LaForest) and get called up for the playoffs that year.”
Evans played minor hockey for the Young Nats out of storied North Toronto Arena, as well as Jr. B for the Seneca Nats and on to a high-scoring junior career with the Niagara Falls Flyers.
In his 1980 draft year, the swift-skating Evans (he famously left his laces untied for better flexibility) had 95 points, third on the team to Steve Ludzik and Steve Larmer. But his 5-foot-8 size in a big man’s NHL held him back until the ninth round when L.A. took a chance.
The Kings were glad they had the rookie in their lineup in the deciding Game 3 of the 1982 playoffs’ opening round against Wayne Gretzky’s Oilers. From a 5-0 third-period deficit at the Forum, L.A. roared back and won on Evans’ OT winner against Grant Fuhr, the Miracle on Manchester.
It was just like Evans envisioned in childhood ball hockey games, emulating Dave Keon or Frank Mahovlich, whom he watched win Toronto’s last Cup in 1967.
“Playing ball hockey on the street around Grantbrook and Finch, I was all of those stars; Keon, Mahovlich, Tim Horton, Bob Baun, Eddie Shack and I was Johnny Bower in goal. Then the next wave with Darryl Sittler and Paul Henderson. You knew ’em all back then because there were so few teams.
“Around the corner was (Glenborough Park Crescent) which was cool because few cars came down there while we played. At school you traded hockey cards and years later, I got to work at Shack’s hockey school.
“You made a trip to the Gardens to watch the Marlies and, once in a blue moon, the Leafs. The Gardens still holds a special place for everyone, even though it’s not an NHL arena anymore. I’ve been over there (where it’s now a Loblaws grocery store and a smaller rink for Metropolitan University), took my kids to see it a few years ago when we came back.”
Evans played in Newmarket through the ’88-89 season, with a brief stop overseas to dominate the British League Whitley Warriors with 19 points in six games. He settled back in California in Redondo Beach, where he has been working Kings games with Hall of Famer Nick Nickson since 1998.
“Hockey is my life and a lot of special things have happened. In L.A., I’ve been involved in youth hockey, adult, high school programs, girls’ program and was a skating consultant to the Kings for a dozen years.”
He had a front-row seat to their two Cups in 2012 and ’14.
“It’s very rewarding to see where the sport has grown in L.A. And we just back from Australia (the exhibition series against Arizona) where I did a hockey clinic. That kind of thing never gets old for me,” he said.
“Having come from such a hockey hotbed in Toronto to a non-traditional climate and seeing where the game is at in L.A., the number of kids drafted out of California into the NHL and succeeding, such as (San Ramon’s) Auston Matthews … that was once unheard of.
“To have had even a little part with helping that is great.”
FAVOURITE LEAFS MEMORY
During the ’87 playoffs, Evans was summoned from the Saints by coach John Brophy for a game against Detroit and contributed in a win to put the Leafs up 3-1 in the best-of-seven series.
“We practised and were going to fly out to Detroit that afternoon. I was reaching for a puck and my back went out. Totally locked up, I was unable to move.
“No way I wanted Broph to know. But he calls an on-ice meeting. Paul Gardner, our coach with Newmarket, was helping run practice and I whispered ‘Paul, just put your stick blade into the back of my pants and push me into the circle.
“I told the trainers not to say anything and thought I’d be OK next day. I got to the hotel in Detroit and did all kinds of treatments, but unfortunately couldn’t play and the Leafs lost three straight.
“We’d have played Edmonton next round and a couple of reporters had been talking to me about getting the chance to play Gretzky and the Oilers again after ’82.”
The Leafs are still waiting to break that Cup curse.
“For their organization it would be great to see them win one again. It would do wonders for the game because it’s such a historic club. Everybody gets fired up when they come in here to play.
“I just hope they don’t win it at the expense of the Kings.”
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The dramatization of Salming’s career Borje, starring Valter Skarsgard, is nearing release in Europe … We hope to get around to a more in-depth look at free spirit goalie Dunc Wilson, who died last week in Honduras at age 75. For now, an excerpt from his 2005 interview with the Sun on the stir he caused at training camp in the early ’70s when he and Doug Favell showed up with then-revolutionary shaggy hair and casual wear. “(General manager) Jim Gregory spotted us and he was pretty angry. He told us ‘this is the NHL and you always wear a shirt, tie and cut your hair’. We walked into the Gardens and sure enough, everyone had shirt and ties, even (well-known rebel) Jim McKenny had a Western lariat around his collar. But they took one look at us and said ‘if the goalies can dress like that, why can’t we?’ By the end of the season, we even had Dave Keon wearing jeans and Kodiak work boots.”
THIS WEEK IN LEAFS HISTORY
Saturday would have been the 100th birthday of Leaf player and brief GM Howie Meeker, who found a vivid second career as a TV analyst, and Wednesday would’ve been the 99th birthday of Bower … Wednesday also marks 27 years since Clark’s eighth and final hat trick as a Leaf, part of a four-goal game versus Edmonton.
Have a question, comment or want to see a former Leaf featured? Drop a line to [email protected].