Sunday, February 27, 2011
Saturday May 23, 1998. Cold, Windy, Wet. My good friend and Grandfather in law, Russell, scored two tickets to Game 1 of the National Hockey League's Eastern Conference finals. The Leafs against the Sabres. We left in the morning from my house in Barrie, with lots of time to spare. It was a leisurely hour and a half drive to downtown Toronto and we were one of the first to hit the parking lot. The two of us had been to a few games at the old Maple Leaf Gardens but this was our first at the newly opened Air Canada Centre. The Gardens opened in 1931, and Russell was an authority on the premises, as he attended a game there the first year it opened. Sixty eight years later Russell could wax lyrical about every player he had seen over the past seven decades. Out of respect for my youth he attempted to confine most of his stories to the 70's and 80's but I loved to hear about the Teeter Kennedy's and the Turk Broda's of a time gone by. Russell used to tell me he thought that half of the current NHL would have a hard time making the first team squads in the old Toronto Mercantile League - I was never quite sure about that boast but I decided to go along with the tale. The truth be told hockey was not Russell's and my first love - it was baseball. And although we were off to see a hockey game the talk always seemed to get around to the diamond. Russell was an old catcher and I a less old but equally washed up Pitcher. Both of us were avid baseball historians and when he told a story about Don Larsen's perfect game but he wasn't sure of the year, I could complete his sentence with... October 8, 1956. Russell's stories usually involved a big trip like the day he drove to Toronto to see Jackie Robinson play for the visiting Montreal Monarchs, it was a hot August afternoon in 1946 and they stayed for both ends of the double header. After the first game they went back to car and opened the cooler to find that the cucumbers he'd brought had fried from green to white in the summer heat. Apparently it made for a hungry ride home.
When we reached the hockey game, lo and behold a bus load of Sabre fans were arriving at the game. As I walked by the mob of enemy fans (actually I was cheering for the Sabres too...) I lobbed a comment to a few of them that their star goaltender had been injured last night and wouldn't be able to suit up. That was met with some coarse words from the assembled mob - as if. Russell got a good laugh at my attempted jab. Of course the craziest thing was that my prediction was true; Russell and I were gobsmacked when a new goalie went to the net to start the first period for Buffalo, apparently a complete surprise to everyone in the northern hemisphere save for my clairvoyance. Russell spent the rest of the game asking me what would happen next with a wry smile.
The Sabres won 4-3 that afternoon, much to the dismay of the home town crowd. As this was our first trip to the new stadium, Russell and I took a long time leaving, soaking up all of the photos that adorned the new venue. After the crowd had dwindled we headed back to the car and I told him I had some fresh cucumbers stored in the trunk if he needed dinner. Another good laugh. On the way home we stopped at a German Restaurant with some great cooking. We ordered a huge pile of meat, and proceeded to dig in - it was quite a sight, a gigantic pork knuckle with sauerkraut on the side. Once we had loosed our belts, I asked the waitress to bring the bill to whichever one of the two of us looked older. Despite having close to 60 years on my dining companion, I got the bill. As the waitress explained - it was difficult to determine who was older, but easy to figure out which of us she liked better. Another good laugh.
Another hour and I had Russell back home to the farm. He asked me if my car took gas, and proceeded to drop several $20 bills in the cup holder - more than was needed. I headed back home, hoping that I might be close to as gracious and full of life as Russell, as the decades pass.
Russell continued on for many more years, he got to know his great grand children and I won't spoil any future blogs my children might write by rhyming off the good times they had with Great Grandpa.
Russell drifted off a few weeks ago at what I imagine was the northern end of 95 years of age. I'm hoping that he's got a baseball game on the radio and there's a cute German barmaid serving him a good sized portion of bratwurst and schnitzel.
G'night old friend, we'll talk some baseball again soon.