With Montreal in town, memories flood back

March, 5, 2010
3/05/10
6:10
PM PT
Montreal is in town tonight.

One hears those sweet words and all the youthful memories rush back in a vivid, colorful and joyful blur. The Sunday ritual was always the same, and back in those days it always seemed to be Sunday. There would be Mass in the morning, of course, followed by chores around the house, then a Giants game -- they were called the "football Giants" -- on that oversized TV set in the basement. Still black and white. The fuzzy images of the players flitting across a screen that was dwarfed by the balky cabinet that surrounded it.

And at some point, he would gaze up from his Times or from a big run or a reception on the screen and say it.

Montreal is in town tonight.

Or Toronto, Chicago, Detroit or maybe even the hated Boston Bruins, who back in those days used to battle the equally woeful New York Rangers not for one of the four playoff berths available in what was then a six-team -- the Original Six! --league, but to see who would earn the distinction of finishing in fifth spot, out of the basement. Now that was an achievement.

Of course, we'd heard that in a few years it would all change for Boston. There was a teenage wunderkind on the way, barely out of diapers, already in the system. Someone by the name of Orr. Bobby Orr.

Soon, the Giants game would end, and it would start to get dark outside. Upstairs we'd go, to change into jackets and ties and then into that station wagon that he always drove. Route 9W led from that leafy city suburb, across the George Washington Bridge and then onto the West Side Highway. We'd park the car in some dingy garage off Broadway or 7th or 8th Avenue and then we'd head over to the same joint for our pre-game meal.

Was it Tad's? Tad's Steakhouse? That sounds right. A mangy steak, an oily salad and a dripping, buttery hunk of garlic bread -- all for a buck ninety nine.

Montreal is in town tonight.

There was the short walk from Tad's over to the Garden, the old Garden. It was on 8th Avenue and 49th Street. Back then it seemed to be the center of the universe. The three-sided marquee above, shouting out that night's event, the letters placed by hand and sometimes off kilter:

Tonight. Hockey. Montreal. 7PM.

And everyone streaming in like well-dressed ants in hats and overcoats and scarves and wraps.

There was a sporting goods store right there near the entrance, or maybe part of the lobby. Gerry Cosby's. Providers of sticks, sweaters -- they were called sweaters back then -- and all the other required gear of the Rangers. And there was the goalie stuff too -- a special enticement for an aspirant to that position who just started to play, using a regular hockey glove to hold his stick, and jimmy-rigging a first baseman's mitt with a knee pad wrapped around his wrist for protection from a puck that wasn't caught just so. Cosby's always had the latest in gear, the waffle-board blocker, the elegantly designed trapper, the special goalie skates and the pads, handmade of leather and stuffed with horsehair and lovingly produced by a family somewhere up in Canada.

Never will be able to have that stuff. Never will be able to afford it. They were always the prevailing thoughts.

And then inside. Before the game. Getting in there in time for the warmups and watching as the players emerged from the tunnel at center ice. No helmets, of course. Every hair perfectly coiffed, jaws usually furiously working gum, toothless smiles for cheering hometown fans and baleful glares for those who jeered at the visitors.

There was an extra special fascination with the goaltenders, naturally. Johnny Bower, the ageless poke-checking wonder who guarded the nets for Toronto, Jacques Plante, the masterful tactician of the Montreal Canadiens and of course Lorne "Gump" Worsley, the beleaguered netminderfor the dreadful Rangers. With that military-like flat-top sitting above a perpetual look of anguish on his wide, open face, even when he wasn't tending goal.

Once asked by a scribe which team in the NHL gave him the most trouble, Gump immediately scowled, "The Rangers."

But the hero, the one that was to be revered, was Mr. Goalie himself, Glenn Hall, of the Chicago Blackhawks. He threw up before every game and then went out and worked miracles, at one point playing 544 straight games. Without a mask.

In years to come there would be a visit to the Blackhawks' locker room before a game. There was Bobby Hull, muscled, gregarious and gap-toothed, materializing at the entrance wearing long johns and a broad smile and introducing all the guys: His brother Dennis, Chico Maki, Kenny Wharram, Doug Mohns. and on and on. Hearty handshakes and backslaps from all.

But where was Mr. Hall, please? Oh, one is told, he's not big on pregame greetings. And the gaze is directed to a quiet corner of a raucous room and there he was -- sitting ashen-faced and empty-eyed, his bulky leg pads already strapped on, a metal pail between them, his trapper on his left hand, his right hand rhythmically pounding it with a puck.

Mr. Hall wasn't much on making eye contact, either, not even after what seemed like at least 10 minutes. He shut out the Rangers 1-0 that night.

Montreal is in town tonight.

The game would start and the players would fly up and down the ice. Blades on ice, sticks on pucks, doors to benches and penalty boxes banging shut. No pounding music between faceoffs. There was an old fashioned clock that ticked off the seconds of the game and that distinct tick-tock, tick-tock could be heard as play progressed, along with the shouts of the players, passing along directions, instructions, even warnings.

Everyone seemed to smoke. Not just cigarettes, but cigars too, and a heavy, dark cloud seemed always to sit just above ice level, hovering over the action, never disappearing. In between periods,there was no Zamboni. Not yet. Just a couple of guys in skates and matching Rangers hats and jackets, pushing a Rube Goldbergian precursor around at the end of each period -- a couple of steaming barrels, full of of hot water, a curtain of some sort trailing behind, laying down a shiny new sheet for the action ahead.

Life was so simple then, as clear and shiny and bright as the ice at the beginning of every game, every period.

The old Garden is gone now, so are those barrels and the old guys in their matching suits. Everything's different. But one thing will always be the same.

Montreal is in town tonight.

Wouldn't miss it for the world.

It's a chance to fall in love all over again.

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