Who’s your team?
The days of Leaf jokes may finally be over
If you’re a long suffering Maple Leaf fan like myself those sad old days of listening to Joe MacInnis’ Leaf jokes are over now.
Mathews, Andersen and crew made sure of that. Leafs hats and sweaters are seen all over the place and even as hard as it is to believe, some diehard Habs and Bruins fans were openly saying they wanted to see Toronto beat the Caps. It got me wondering about team loyalty and where it all starts.
For me it was easy. Dave Keon was my favorite player, he captained the Leafs to four Stanley Cups including their last one in 1967, the year I started to pay closer attention to Hockey Night in Canada.
My dad wasn’t into hockey very much himself, and if he had a favorite I think it was Montreal, so he didn’t influence either me or my younger brother who to cheer for. Brother David took on the Bruins mantle in 1970 the year they won the cup. That would make us both the same age in grade three when our team loyalty was decided.
For others team allegiance can be more complicated. Tyrone Gardiner, 1965 Canadian Lightweight Boxing champion, when not cheering on the local Q league Screaming Eagles, is another longtime Leaf. Tyrone says his team is Toronto since a young age, but likes to see all the Canadian teams do good, even the Habs, and that’s because of a long time connection with them through Sydney native Al MacNeil.
MacNeil got started in the NHL with Toronto in 1956/57 playing 53 games. Over the next few years he was moved around on various AHL and EPHL farm teams including Montreal’s. In 1961/62 he played with the Habs, and in that summer got traded to Chicago. During these hectic formative years for MacNeil he would end up back in Sydney for the summer months. In order to keep in shape he would spend many afternoons at the Venetian Gardens Gym on the Esplanade.
According to Gardiner the gym was full of boxers at night, himself included, so MacNeil preferred the time alone in the day instead.
“I was friends with Al back then and I’d often go down there with him,” says Gardiner. “He wanted to stay in shape, but he also wanted to protect himself if he got in a fight so we did a lot of sparring together.”
Gardiner at the time was a serious up and comer in the boxing world and was knocking guys out of the ring left, right and centre. He had already won numerous regional awards. MacNeil was a force of his own and for four years played defence with the Chicago Black Hawks, a team lead by greats like Stan Makita and Bobby Hull.
In 1964 the year before he won the Canadian Lightweight Championship, Gardiner got a call from Black Hawks coach Rudy Pilous. He was being honoured by them as their athlete of the year. He was flown to Chicago, Toronto and Montreal for three games and escorted everywhere by Elmer “Moose” Vasco, who paired with defenceman Pierre Pilote, helped his team win the cup in 1961.
“It was a fabulous time those five days,’” remembers Gardiner. “It was Al of course who had to have suggested me for this award, which they gave out yearly.”
In the 1970/71 season Habs GM Sam Pollock called upon MacNeil to get behind the bench in December to try and turn a lacklustre Montreal season around. MacNeil did just that and with a late season addition of goalie Ken Dryden they took Chicago to a seven game final and won, making Al MacNeil the first Atlantic Canadian to coach an NHL team and then win the big prize. Dryden went on to backstop five more Stanley Cup victories in the 1970s.
For Tyrone Gardiner he had no choice to cheer on both the Black Hawks and the Habs since his old sparring partner played for one and was at the helm of the other.
But given a playoff series between Toronto and Montreal it’s still the Leafs all the way.
Tyrone Gardiner in his personal mini sports archives. Tyrone has voluminous files and photos on most boxers and other Cape Breton athletes over the decades here.
Tyrone Gardiner gets a lesson from Bo Jack 2 in Venetian Gardens Gym sometime in the 1960s.
Al MacNeil sporting Habs and Black Hawks jerseys in the 1960s.