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Fans Bid Farewell to Gardens

February 14, 1999

TORONTO (AP) _ From tears to belligerence, emotions ran high at Maple Leaf Gardens on Saturday night as sometimes raucous fans gathered for the historic arena’s final NHL game.

Outside, hordes of revelers pushed and shoved their way into the yellow stone building as a lone trumpeter played the funeral march.

Scalpers commanded $600 for the worst seats in the house and nobody batted an eye.

``This is history,″ said Phillip DuPre, who shelled out $1,500 for a pair of mid-level seats for himself and his 13-year-old son, Jon. ``I grew up watching the Leafs here. No price is too high for tonight.″

Inside, fans wept openly and fights broke out over game programs, which sold out long before the puck was dropped for the Maple Leafs and Chicago Blackhawks to end NHL hockey’s 68-year history in the building.

``Ladies and gentlemen, just bear with us for a few minutes _ please!″ urged program vendor Rich Bremner, clearly alarmed as hundreds of people crowded into a corner of the arena seeking $10 glossy game programs.

``It never changes here,″ complained bystander Beth Kerchove, who waited in line for 20 minutes to buy a corned beef sandwich. ``They never accommodate their fans and they never had enough programs.″

As a shoving match broke out in line, a policeman beseeched the zealous fans to calm down.

``Please, we don’t want anybody to get hurt here,″ he said with a nervous smile. ``We’re all here to have a good time.″

Some customers grew belligerent when they were told they could only buy one program each. Worried vendors tried to reassure them that programs were still for sale at city book stores.

``At the end it got a little bit tense,″ said constable Peter Phillipo of Toronto police, who often works at the Maple Leafs games. ``But we don’t anticipate many problems.″

As the nostalgic post-game show was still going on, thousands of fans encircled two city blocks, shut down for the celebration. They played street hockey, waved flags, cheered and chanted.

Two teen boys caught up in the revelry, scaled the Maple Leaf Gardens sign and did a little dance. They came down after five minutes and were not caught by police.

``These people are like fleas on the big dog,″ said constable Tim McMannus, one of a line of cops circling the crowds’ perimeter.

The home team’s 6-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks didn’t seem to diminish the spirit of the evening.

``Bad game, good party,″ said Peter Florian, who had painted blue leafs on his face and dressed for the occasion in a goalie’s mask and blue and white team paraphernalia.

A hush fell over the crowd just before game time.

Ellie Reason, 86, began to weep as announcer Paul Morris noted that it was the last night for the Maple Leafs and the Gardens.

``I came here the first year it opened, in 1931,″ said Reason, decked out in a Maple Leafs jersey. ``But I was from Quebec, so I was a Canadiens fan.

``The fans used to yell at me when I cheered for my team, and call me a swamp singer: a frog. But my husband brought me over to the other side.″

Reason’s son, Jim, said he bought pricey tickets for himself and his mother because he had such fond childhood memories of attending games with his parents.

``A hot dog and a soda and I was happy in the greys (the worst seats in the house),″ he said.

Beneath rows of black-and-white photos of former Maple Leafs greats in the arena’s hallways, vendors hawked T-shirts, sweatshirts, collector’s plates and silver and bronze commemorative coins.

T-shirts reading ``I was there for the last game, February 13, 1999″ were selling fast, said vendor Ernie Williams.

``We’re cleaned right out,″ Williams said at mid-game. ``But we anticipated this. We set up at 10 a.m. and we’ve been going all day.″

In the audience, thousands of fans wearing Maple Leaf colors resembled an uneven blue-and-white patchwork quilt. They sang songs, snapped photos and cheered at the most minor of plays.

``Everybody’s talking to each other,″ marveled Maureen Bellmore, 27. ``It’s crazy, everybody’s sharing in the moment, everybody’s so pumped.″

Bellmore was particularly happy that the Maple Leafs were leaving the fabled hockey shrine on a positive note.

``They’re doing incredible this year, which makes this night all the more exciting.″

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