Grand Leaf ushers are walking monuments
From Armstrong’s Cup winner to Beatles, Ballard and Matthews, team’s elder statesmen saw it all
The NHL is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, but several people working inside the Air Canada Centre do not need to read about league history or hear about it.
Chances are they saw a lot of it in person.
These grand old ushers are believed to be the longest-tenured staff members in the NHL. Still working for the Toronto Maple Leafs in their 70s, they could be reclassified as walking monuments.
Vic Braknis, 77, for instance, can talk in precise detail about the 1955 riots in Montreal, protesting the suspension of Maurice Richard, because Braknis was there.
Andy Mastoris, 78, can rhapsodize about the Leafs’ last Stanley Cup victory in 1967, because he was there.
And Craig Palfrey, 70, can describe a brawl that spilled into the hallway at Maple Leaf Gardens in the 1970s, because he was there.
Mastoris leads the way with 53 years on the job. He started with the Leafs in 1964, when Mike Babcock, the team’s current coach, was a baby.
More than 20 Maple Leaf coaches have passed through the doors in Mastoris’s time, and Canada has changed prime ministers almost a dozen times.
Palfrey has been a mainstay for the Leafs’ organization for 44 years. Braknis, in his 25th season, is one of the juniors. Imagine being 77 and sitting only No. 37 on your organization’s seniority list.
Before coming to Toronto, Braknis spent 17 years working in Montreal for the Canadiens and celebrated 10 Stanley Cups with them. After coming to Toronto, he worked for the Blue Jays and racked up a pair of World Series victories right off the bat.
“Maybe I’m a good luck charm,” he said with a wry smile, sitting in the stands while the Leafs slapped pucks towards the net during the morning skate.
These ushers are the first to admit that age sometimes slows them down, but they do not like to miss work. Mastoris had a heart attack in 1986 and left the organization for three years. Even surgery often has to wait. “I only missed one game this year because I had eye surgery,” Braknis said. “Over the years, I had a knee replacement, I had prostate surgery and I had a double bypass and a new heart valve, but I explain to my doctors I want the surgeries done during the summer.”
The hardest part of the job is standing for several hours at a time. In addition to directing people to their seats at sporting events, ice shows and concerts, the ushers open the players’ gates to and from the ice surface and check identification badges at the dressing-room doors.
The ushers’ game-day routine parallels that of the players. They work the morning skate, go home for a meal and a nap, then return for duty three hours before game time.
The ushers are privy to some of the players’ pre-game routines.
Braknis saw goalie Frederik Andersen bouncing two or three tennis balls off the wall leading to the ice. Andersen will then take the tennis balls in his hands, go to the side boards and stare down at the ice in a trancelike state.
In the pre-game warmup, forward James van Riemsdyk will shoot the puck against the boards, then lift it with his stick and pass it over the glass to a child in the stands.
Some ushers say they do the job for the “beer money” or to keep busy in retirement. But they do not forget why they were initially drawn to it: their love of sports.
Toronto’s elder statesmen have been witness to music icons and milestones, winners and sinners, scoundrels and saints.
Growing up in Montreal, Braknis was a Canadiens fan. His family did not own a television, so he would go to a local furniture store and watch games through the window.
In high school, he sold programs for 25 cents, earning a 3-cent commission.
He started working for the Canadiens a few days before riots broke out on March 17, 1955, in protest over Richard’s season-ending suspension for punching a linesman during a confrontation with the Boston Bruins’ Hal Laycoe a few days earlier.
Braknis was positioned near NHL commissioner Clarence Campbell when a tear-gas bomb was fired in Campbell’s direction.
“Before that, they were throwing stuff at him, and one individual came down and tried to take a swipe at Campbell,” Braknis recalled.
His first worry was that somebody would steal his money bag, which was stuffed with about $25 in cash. That was a lot in those days. The Forum was evacuated and Braknis saw a mob form outside. Fans broke windows all the way down Ste-Catherine Street.
“I was only about 15, so I didn’t stick around too long,” he said. “My mother and father were very worried about me because they had heard about it on the radio.”
Richard had to make a public appeal for calm, and Braknis returned to work the next game.
Mastoris still talks about his first day of work. It was Sept. 7, 1964. A band called the Beatles played Maple Leaf Gardens.
Mastoris’s first boss was the cantankerous Leafs owner Harold Ballard, who later went to jail for fraud. But Mastoris found him unfailingly polite, even if Ballard did not know his name.
“He called me ‘kid,’ and I was in my 30s,” Mastoris said, laughing.
He was an usher at the most important Leafs game in the past 50 years, when a George Armstrong goal clinched the Stanley Cup title against the Canadiens in 1967.
Mastoris was in the wrong place and missed it. Toronto has not won a championship since.
“I was on the south end and Armstrong scored down at the other end,” Mastoris said with a grimace.
He has been there for dark moments, too. A child molestation scandal that came to light in the 1990s resulted in convictions for three Gardens employees, one of whom was an usher, for abuse that had occurred in the 1970s and ’80s.
One angry fan once shouted out vile accusations at Mastoris.
“It was hurtful because the ushers were all painted with the same brush,” he said.
These days, Mastoris is a ticket taker, and his interactions with fans are more congenial.
“People purposely come through Gate 1 just to have a chat with Andy,” said Zachary Miller, 37, who is the manager of event personnel for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
Brian and Margi Watkins of Cobourg, Ont., have known Mastoris since they became season-ticket holders in 1972.
“We became terrific friends over the years and we started playing golf together,” Watkins, 70, recalled.
On game days, he and his wife would bring Mastoris his favourite butter tarts, available only near Cobourg.
Once, to mark a bad season, Watkins and Mastoris, a Greek immigrant, spent a long night drinking ouzo across from the Gardens.
This season, propelled by a dynamic group of rookies led by No. 1 pick Auston Matthews, the Leafs are back in the playoffs.
But they have not won a playoff series since 2004 and too many bad years have been hard on an usher’s ears.
“In the years we’ve been bad,” Mastoris said, “the smart alecks on their way out would yell out, ‘Where do I get my refund?’ ”
That is perhaps why Maple Leaf Gardens, which the Leafs left in 1999, meant so much to Mastoris.
“Going to Maple Leaf Gardens was like a Catholic going to the Vatican,” he said. “It was a place of worship.”
“This,” he said, looking around, “will never be like Maple Leaf Gardens as far as I’m concerned. But in time, it will have its own history.”
“Going to Maple Leaf Gardens was like a Catholic going to the Vatican. It was a place of worship.” ANDY MASTORIS LEAF USHER SINCE 1964
Vic Braknis, 77, an usher who has been with the Maple Leafs for 25 years, opens the gate for Leo Komarov. Braknis is among the longest-tenured staff members in the NHL.
Andy Mastoris, 78, right, the dean of Leaf ushers, scans tickets with his longtime co-worker Maurice Brathwaite.