Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame

You know you want to touch it...

The Hockey Hall of Fame doesn't want you to find it.
You can see the outside of its Great Hall from the street, easily enough. Walk down that sidewalk on Yonge and you're mere meters from the Stanley Cup. But that's not where the door is. No, to get inside, you need to go around the corner, into a mall, down the escalator into a food court, reverse direction (without signage) and then and only then will you see the two smiling young ladies who are happy to take your ticket money, sell you a program, and let you into the Hockey Hall of Fame. At no point did I need to wander into a disused lavatory with a sign that read "Beware of the Leopard", but it was a near thing.
***


I had never been to a Hall of Fame before, at least, not a major sports one. There's a Wall of Fame back at my high school, and it's got Reggie Jackson and both Netanyahu brothers on it, but that's not quite the same thing. No, this was my first full blown induction-speech-and-artifact-hoarding HoF, and I had no idea what to expect.
It's funny. I've been coming to Toronto for work for literally years, but I never really got anything more than a vague itch to go to the HoF until this time. Prior to that, the only contact I had with the place was sending a giant monster to stomp all over it in the Monsters Ravage America board game. (Which, incidentally, I highly recommend. The board game, not the ravaging). But the project I'm working on is sneaking closer to its finish line, and I don't stay up here over weekends much, and suddenly it occurred to me that by God, I should get my sorry butt up from behind a keyboard and walk over and see it because, well, that's what you do, damnit.
So I did.
And I had no idea what to expect.
***
The Hockey Hall of Fame sprawls. No, that's not quite the world. The Hockey HoF does the equivalent of walking into the living room and falling back onto an old comfortable couch, not caring if anyone sees it. There's no logical flow through the place - a gallery of international hockey here, a locker room devoted to the storied history of Les Habitants there, an interactive area where kids can try to stop slapshots from a projection screen or play Wii hockey, a couple of places to sit down and watch movies, sweaters and more sweaters and more sweaters under glass, and then somewhere in one of the galleries an exit, and next to it, the stairs to the Great Hall.
Most people rush to the Great Hall. It's where the Cup is, after all, not to mention the Conn Smythe, Vezina, and other trophies. (None of them looked like they wanted to be hanging out with the Lady Byng).
I went up there last. Instead, I wandered up and down, taking pictures of old-timey sweaters that demonstrated in horrific detail that say what you want about the 1970s San Diego Padres UPS Delivery Guy duds, hockey uniforms have always lapped the other major professional sports leagues in sheer "Sweet Galloping Moses, What Were They Thinking?" There was an impressive array of minor league gear, and attention to the international game as well. Gold medals. The "lucky loonie" built into center ice.  Tolkienesque statues of skater and goalie flanking the entrance to the atrium of legends. People squeezing behind Ken Dryden's donated old pads (at least, I think they were his) for photo ops. I went up and down, frequently retracing my steps as I tried to figure out the shape of the place.I'm fairly certain I saw the exhibit about the three-peating Swedish Olympic hockey team a few times. I'm pretty sure I saw the Thai national team hockey sweater at least twice. It's that kind of place. 
***
It's a very friendly hall of fame. The back area was all interactive stuff, and you could see kids in the bleachers cheering on complete strangers - kids in pads trying to stop fake slapshots. Lots of dads and kids, a fair number of moms and kids, occasional couples and occasional packs of boys-to-young-men.  I was surprised to see no other lone guys in there, but hey, it was a Sunday afternoon, prime family time, and us edgy loners are maybe more middle-of-the-week guys.
It did have a welcoming feel, though, at least once I found it. There was a sense of "going to Grandpa's, and he'll let you play with some of his cool old stuff but don't break it" pervading the place, an eagerness for people to enjoy it that I suspect is missing from more self-important shrines in Cooperstown and Canton.
 ***
The Great Hall is upstairs, and then up some more stairs, and then when you get there it's got stained glass up top and eleventy-zillion trophies in cases around the floor. Hockey has a lot of trophies, after all. Think about it and you can probably rattle off a couple - Hart and Vezina and a few others - but it's not until you stand in that room, with all of them gleaming at you like a platoon of Daleks who've just been through a car wash, that you realize just  how many there are. 
They're all differently shaped, too. Simple cups? Sure. Something that looks like a maple leaf that's on fire? Why not. A rocketship? I mean, I hope that's a rocketship? I guess so. And on and on and on, and you feel compelled to take a picture of every single one of them because you've started and now you can't stop and, whew.
***

So, there's a lot of trophies. 
There's also two Stanley Cups. 
That's actually not quite accurate. The original Cup is on display in what appears to be an old bank vault, doors flung wide open. The current Cup sits on a platform on top of another platform. There's a camera station in front of it -you can pay a few bucks to get your picture taken with the Cup. Or you can just have your friends take your picture with their cell phone and iPads - that's fine, too.
It really does gleam. That's one of the first surprises - it's hard to realize how magnificently shiny it is until you see it up close and blazing away. And then, because it's shiny, you feel like you have to touch it, and you reach out a finger, and then you stop, and turn to the docent who's watching you.
"Is it OK if I touch it?" you ask.
"It's fine. Just don't lick it or lift it."
"I won't."
"Then go right ahead".
I went right ahead. Found the spot on the Cup where the two victorious Flyers teams of the early 70s were commemorated and laid fingers on 'em. Took pictures of that, and of the Hurricanes' little slice of Cup statuary, too.
 ***
A guy, maybe early twenties, watched me as I took my picture. I heard him say "Flyers, Flyers, Flyers....where are they...right here! Awesome!"
"Flyers fan?" I asked him.
"Yeah!"
"From Philly?"
"South Jersey. You a Flyers fan, too?"
I nodded.
"Awesome! So cool to see another one up here!"
We parted on a mutual high, without exchanging names or other pleasantries.
***
You exit through the gift shop, of course, where you can pay $32.95 (Canadian) for a pre-weathered Dave "The Hammer" Schultz uniform tee. They know their audience; there's tons of retro Canucks jerseys in green and blue for sale mixed in with the newer ones, classic-style Penguins and Bruins tees in there as well. 
And there's the usual stuff, the snowglobes and the pencils and the fridge magnets and the team logo hockey pucks and it's all reasonably priced for a touristy gift shop and eventually I just grabbed some shirts and fled to the cash register before I smothered myself in hockey tchotchkes I'd regret later.
In line behind me was an older gentleman, buying a Flyers cap.
"Flyers fan?" I asked him.
He laughed. "Naah. Buddy of mine is, and he couldn't get here. So I'm fucking with him."
I laughed too. 
Then I paid, and then I went on my way.




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