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My First NHL Game

While cleaning an old drawer, I came across this 1979 Polaroid of my parents and me in a Vancouver hotel room. This picture is taken just a few hours before attending my first National Hockey League game. After finding the photo, I started to reminisce about the game and our trip. There are vague memories of that day forty-two years ago, but I wanted to fill in the blanks. This single picture launched me on a journey back in time as I retrace my steps back to January 19, 1979.

As an eight-year-old, I liked the Vancouver Canucks, but the Toronto Maple Leafs were my favourite team. Toronto goaltender Mike Palmateer quickly became my favourite player as I watched him battle the Montreal Canadiens in the 1978 playoffs. In the photo, I’m wearing my Toronto Maple Leafs hat that I always had on. You could imagine my excitement when my brother told me that we were buying tickets to see Vancouver and Toronto at Pacific Coliseum. It was equally exciting that my parents took me out of school on a Friday to take the ferry to Vancouver.

I began this quest down the road of fuzzy childhood memories by tracking down the hotel in the picture. There is a vague recollection of something called the Coachman Inn, but I found no listing on the Internet. Then I recall my brother telling me the World Fat Guy Belly Flop Championship took place at the hotel. It sounded like something my older brother made up to mess with me, but I decided to do a quick internet search anyway. It turns out that my brother is correct because, in the mid-70s, North Vancouver’s Coach House Inn was home to the World Cannonball and Bellyflop Diving Championships. This event originated at the Bayshore Inn and attracted huge crowds, including celebrities like Andre the Giant. In the late 1970s, the championship moved to the Coach House Inn. NBC broadcast the event internationally with Billy Carter, brother of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, as a celebrity judge. The hotel is no longer around, but the Coach House Lounge continued at the same location. The lounge has a website, but Google says it is permanently closed. When I started this blog, I never thought I would be writing about the belly flop championships, but here I am.

Now get back to the game. My parents stayed behind while my brother drove the two of us to the Pacific Coliseum. The Coach House is located very close, with GPS confirming a six-minute drive across the Second Narrows bridge. The Coliseum is part of the massive Pacific National Exhibition grounds that include Playland, Empire Stadium and Hastings Racecourse. The parking lot is so far away that we hopped on a courtesy bus to take us to the front door.

At the Coliseum, we waited in line to get our Will Call tickets. We purchased the tickets a few weeks prior at Hillside Mall in Victoria. After a wait that seemed like forever, but probably less than five minutes, we made it inside. I will never forget the memory of walking into the Coliseum and standing at the top of the aisle overlooking the ice for the first time. It seemed so huge in person, compared to TV. I was in awe staring at this giant arena with all these blue and red seats. In 2020, I went to a Canucks game at Rogers Arena, and I still get excited walking in and seeing the ice for the first time.

Our seats were in the upper blues at the far end, where the Leafs shoot twice (unfortunately, I could not find the ticket stub). We sat near the top but had a great view of everything.

Mike Palmateer did not play, which was very disappointing, as Paul Harrison started in goal for Toronto. But it was great seeing goaltender Glen Hanlon play for the Canucks. He became my second favourite player after meeting him at a Victoria Shoppers Drug Mart autograph signing.

Before the game, the legendary Richard Loney walked on the ice to sing the national anthem. I learned that day to always stand-up and take your hat off for the anthem. After the opening faceoff, I remember being surprised there was no play-by-play broadcast in the arena. The crowd seemed quiet as they watched the action and erupted whenever the puck got close to the net.

I found the box score in the Daily Colonist, and this was one wild night. The game began with Cliff Oddliefson scoring the first goal for Vancouver. Borje Salming countered for Toronto as the period ended in a 1-1 tie. Although I have no memory of this incident, a huge fight took place between Dave “Tiger” Williams and Glen Hanlon. During the brawl, five players received penalties, and defenseman Dave Hutchinson of the Leafs received a game misconduct. I thought a fight involving the Canucks goalie would be a big story, but the newspaper never mentioned the incident. In the second period, Salming suffered a concussion after a questionable hit by Ron Sedlbauer that left Toronto with just four defensemen.

A goal by Walt McKechnie only twenty-seven seconds into the third period gave Toronto the lead. The Canucks evened it up and went ahead 3-2 when Jere Gillis scored with just four minutes remaining. It looked like the Canucks would claw out a victory, but the Leafs pulled their goalie with under a minute for one final push. With thirteen seconds remaining, I heard the loudest roar I have ever witnessed. The noise came from the Toronto fans celebrating as Tiger Williams put the puck behind Glen Hanlon to tie the game. Williams waved to the crowd as he skated down the ice doing his flamboyant goal celebration. The remaining seconds wound down as the final score ended in a 3-3 tie.

Williams had a prominent game with six penalties, the fight with Glen Hanlon and the game-tying goal. I became a Tiger Williams fan that night, and Canucks management liked what they saw because they acquired him in a trade one year later.

After the game, my brother and I went downstairs to the Toronto dressing room for autographs. In those days, players always signed for the fans. I found my autograph book and still have signatures from most of the team including, Lanny McDonald, Ron Ellis, Walt McKechnie, Tiger Williams and Paul Harrison. Even though he sat on the bench for the whole game, I received an autograph from my favourite player Mike Palmateer.

We drove back to the hotel and arrived just in time to watch highlights of the game on the local CBC sports. Surprisingly, I found that same CBC sportscast from that night on YouTube.

In recent years, I returned to the Pacific Coliseum for the 2007 Memorial Cup and in 2014 for a Vancouver Giants game against the Victoria Royals. Although it lacks the amenities of current arenas, the Coliseum is still one of my favourite places to watch a game.

A lot has changed since 1978, but my love for hockey remains. That one game forty-two years ago sparked a passion for the game that includes continues to this day.

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1 Comment

Nov 06, 2021

Great research, Craig! This was a fascinating read.

It seems so long ago when fans could interact closely with the players. My, how times have changed...

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