Friday, March 30, 2012

Being a Toronto Maple Leaf for a Day

The date was Thursday, March 29th 2012.

My boyhood love, the Philadelphia Flyers were in my hometown of Toronto to play the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre at 7pm. I had tickets to go to the game, but I had a previous commitment to volunteer in downtown Toronto until 9pm, so I thought I would go to the ACC after that and catch the rest of the game.

At least that was my plan...

Then, it all changed. My phone rang at 6:30pm. The Maple Leafs goalie Jonas Gustavsson, went down in the warm-ups after taking a freak shot off the knee. The back-up goalie Jussi Rynass, now focused himself to prepare to start the game after the injury to Gustavsson. However, this left the Leafs without a back-up goalie for the game.

The Leafs farm team, the Toronto Marlies, were on the road so no back-up goalie could be found in their system under such short notice.

Two of the commentators for Leafs TV saw this happen, and I happen to play hockey with them in their weekly skate. Bob McGill and Mark Osborne looked at each other and knowing that The Flyers were my favourite team, and that I lived mere minutes away from The Air Canada Centre, they called me.

"Chuckie, The Monster (this is Gustavsson's nickname) went down with a knee injury and the Leafs need an emergency back-up. Get down to the ACC now if you want to play!" said Osborne

I hopped in a cab for the 3 block drive and arrived at the ACC in 5 minutes flat where I was met by Osborne and The Leafs trainers. They walked me to The Leafs dressing room and while I was signing a one-day Pro contract, which would enable me to be on the roster that night, they suited me up so that I could dress for the game.

In the dressing room, the atmosphere was quiet as the players were preparing for their game and as I dressed, I made eye contact with each one of them. I think they could all remember their first pro game as I prepared to put on that Leafs jersey. -It even said, "Bastie" #35 on the back. I can't tell you the butterflies and the surreal feeling that was coursing through my veins at that moment.

As the time ran down, I was the last to walk down that hallway and take my seat on the bench and have the greatest seat in the ACC that night. -Or so I thought....

Towards the end of the second period it was an absolute horror for the Leafs. They were being badly outplayed by The Flyers and the score was 3-1 for Philadelphia.

And then it happened...

The Flyers scored to make it 4-1 and Maple Leafs head coach, Randy Carlyle had seen enough. Not wanting to subject his only remaining goalie to possible injury, and save him from a seemingly unwinnable game, he walked down the bench and looked at me.

"Chuckie, get ready buddy. You're about to get your shot. You're going in" said Carlyle

My heart stopped beating for 3 minutes and I couldn't get it down out of my throat in order to reply. I just made a silly face and nodded like an idiot.

I skated onto the Air Canada Centre ice surface in front of 18,000+ fans, including a few friends of mine that were in the crowd that night to watch the game. They were going crazy telling everyone around them, "Oh my God! It's Chuckie!!!"

I looked up at the giant scoreboard to see what the time was on the clock that I made my NHL debut so that I could memorize those numbers. 12:03 on the clock and then I saw my face being put up on the scoreboard. It was my childhood dream becoming a reality, and I could barely contain myself.

Here I was, just having turned 40 years old only weeks before, and always wondering if I could've made the NHL before giving up on hockey when I was 16, and more than half my lifetime later when I'd given up on that dream, it happens in a string of wild occurrences. -It really is funny how this universe works...

The Flyers scored 3 goals on me and my team, The Toronto Maple Leafs lost 7-1 that night. I can't remember a time where I've ever celebrated a 7-1 loss like I did that night. When I came out of the dressing room, my phone was ringing off the hook. I was able to bring a couple of my buddies down to see me in the dressing room after the game and got some amazing pictures. I even got a great picture with me and the Flyers' Scott Hartnell after the game in the dressing room.

I got to keep my equipment, jersey and The Leafs gave me $2000 for a night's work. Yet in my mind, that game was worth a million dollars.

Now, I want to be clear that this story never actually happened. Yet, on a night with enough magic in the air to create the stuff that dreams are made of, this is exactly how it happened.

At least it was in my mind...

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