Goin’ Wild in Minny
Leafs Nation alive and well in the Twin Cities, Boudreau still a fan, Gardiners host 3-on-3
ST. PAUL, Minn. — I felt like that infamous football player (no name required) as I was running through Minneapolis airport towards the Lyft pickup after my Air Canada flight arrived an hour and a half later than scheduled.
I was supposed to be at the Tria Rink in downtown St.
Paul, attending the Wild practice, followed by a chat with its head coach, ex-Leaf Bruce Boudreau.
Fellow SIHR member (Society for International Hockey Research) Roger Godin, who is the Wild’s team curator, had arranged a busy schedule for my two days in the Twin Cities, escorting me to the small media room next to the rink just as practice ended. While Boudreau was chatting with Hockey Night in Canada’s Jim Hughson, it gave me a chance to put my travel bags down and catch my breath.
Boudreau, a Blue and White lifer and who began in minor hockey with the Marlboros, starred with the Markham Waxers junior Bs, then won two Memorial Cups with the Marlies before being drafted by Toronto in 1975.
“The Leafs are it, man; what every young player strives to become,” he said. “Regardless of how many opportunities to go somewhere else came along, for me, no matter how many times I was up and down, I never wanted to leave.”
During Boudreau’s frequent shuffling to and from the farm, he wore six different sweater numbers.
“Once you become a Leafs fan, you are one forever," he said. "Loved or hated by everyone else, you remain a Leafs fan. I religiously watch every game they play, so I guess I have a good scouting report.”
Boudreau could’ve also dropped by next door to watch the Leafs play outdoors in the Gardiner Classic.
Organized by Jake’s father, John, last year during the
Leafs’ seasonal visit to the Gardiner family’s home state, it’s a three-on-three mini-tournament on a small civic rink across from the Xcel Energy Center. From two blocks away, I detected the unmistakable sound of pucks hitting the boards; skates cutting into the ice and groans of a good or bad play.
A smattering of curious onlookers gathered to experience this group of highly skilled professionals acting like kids on a wintry play day. When the ‘championship’ game was done, the Leafs switched skates for running shoes, stopped for a hot dog at the snack bar and boarded the team bus in full gear. Though this was Minnesota, it couldn’t have be a more Canadian scene.
I had dinner that evening at Tom Reid’s bar a few blocks from Xcel, a well-known hangout for hockey people. Tom once played for the Minnesota North Stars during an 11-year NHL career and continues as the Wild’s radio colour commentator.
“Growing up, my dad was a huge Leafs fan, but my favourite was Jean Beliveau,” said Reid. “So we used to argue constantly who was the better team and who’d win the Cup. It was great.
“I never saw a game at the Gardens until I was 19, Bruins and Leafs. When I played there, walking around the halls, looking at the history, it was just great to be a part of.”
Xcel’s hallways pay tribute to the ‘State of Hockey’ and its past. Godin proudly showed me the different levels — grassroots, high school, college, Olympic and pro. Herb Brooks is immortalized with a statue in the short walk between Xcel and the Wild head office, once home to a private men’s club that also has a restaurant named after the famed coach.
The Minnesota area is rich in covered rinks, many of them dating back to the 1930s and still in use. The White Bear Hippodrome was built in 1926 as part of the Ramsey County Fair complex and is the oldest in operation in the Twin Cities area.
Yet, during the pre-game warmup, the lower bowl around the Leafs end was a dozen rows deep in
Toronto colours. George Gushulak and his nephew, Blair Pacheco, drove down from Winnipeg and always try to get to a few NHL games a year. Vancouver is their next destination . At his bachelor party 25 years ago, Don McCall’s best friend gave him a Leafs sweater with his name on the back, along with his age at the time. On the sleeves is the date of his wedding and McCall still wears that to every Toronto game he attends with wife Michelle. On this night, they included eight-year old grandson Mason for the six-hour drive from Thunder Bay. It was Mason’s first live game, showing off his Mitch Marner sweater and Leafs toque.
But it’s the Thunder Bay contingent out-numbering those who’d made the closer drive from Winnipeg. One fan from there was in head-to-toe Leafs garb. I approached four other guys who looked as though they’d been sampling local craft beers rather than the popular mini-donuts hawked around the rink. They’d just arrived from the Ontario side of the border that morning.
I always explain who I am and what my 82-game Leafs project is all about before asking for interviews, getting names and taking pictures, but at that point, the leader of the quartet suddenly backed out saying: “No way, man, no way.”
He wouldn’t even face me, while the others had no reservations telling me all their great Leafs moments. Curious what had set him off, I later approached him — without my camera.
“Hey, are you violating your parole restrictions or something and can’t be seen?” I joked.
He assured me it was nothing personal.
“Listen, if my wife finds out I snuck away and am here with these guys, I may as well be on parole," he explained. "She’ll kill me.”
When we all stopped laughing, he gave me a hug and a big ‘Go Leafs, Go’ and we watched a 5-3 Toronto victory.
Jake Gardiner is interviewed recently during a 3-on-3 outdoor tournament in St. Paul, Minn., that he and his dad, John, started up last year during the Maple Leafs’ visit to the Twin Cities. Top, Mike Wilson (left) poses with Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau.