Grand Leaf ush­ers are walk­ing mon­u­ments

From Arm­strong’s Cup win­ner to Bea­tles, Bal­lard and Matthews, team’s el­der states­men saw it all

Toronto Star - - GTA GREATER TORONTO AREA - CUR­TIS RUSH THE NEW YORK TIMES

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

MICHELLE SIU/THE NEW YORK TIMES

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.

MICHELLE SIU/THE NEW YORK TIMES

Andy Mas­toris, 78, right, the dean of Leaf ush­ers, scans tick­ets with his long­time co-worker Mau­rice Brath­waite.

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