The Air Canada Centre, located in the heart of Toronto's downtown core, is the home of the Maple Leafs and the priciest tickets in the NHL. With platinum seats going for a staggering $400, it's no wonder that fans in attendance often sport a suit instead of a sweater, and an expense account instead of vocal chords - because let's face it, at times during a Leafs game, the only people cheering sit way up at the top of the building.
I've been to quite a few games at the Air Canada Centre over the past few years, and yes, I'll admit it, most often because a certain "suit", who may or may not be my father has been able to score tickets. I've seen the Leafs down the Flyers in OT during the playoffs and more often than not, especially lately, I've seen the Leafs fall in defeat.
Although I've seen hockey games in other buildings (Madison Square Garden, HSBC Centre), I'd never had the luxury of visiting a rink in hockey's sun belt. This past Saturday, I left the sunny warm beaches of Fort Lauderdale for the icy cold of the BankAtlantic Center to watch the Panthers vs. Isles. I entered with a slew of expectations. I expected the crowd to be small, it was. I expected the tickets to be cheap, they were. I expected the crowd to be quiet and disinterested, I was flat out wrong.
Sitting just behind the net, only five rows down from the top of the building, I watched and listened as fans in a building that was probably at a quarter of capacity, used every ounce of energy they had to fuel a comeback for the hometown "Cats". Every time the Panthers pressured, every big save, every hit, every odd-man rush was met with a surge of enthusiasm by the crowd. And not just at the top where I was seated, from the 100 level to 500 level, the fans were into the action. I realized then, that I felt a sense of pride as I watched, that these people weren't just Panthers fans, they were true hockey fans and I was glad to be a part of them.
I felt a sense of comraderie in the building that simply isn't there at Leafs' game. I wanted to let loose and cheer on the home team, a feeling that if it exists at the ACC usually feels forced or ends up being stifled by a lack of participation by the other people in the crowd.
After allowing two quick goals in just five minutes in the first period, the Panthers rallied with four unanswered goals to make it 4-2. Late in the third period, the Panthers ran into penalty trouble and allowed the Isles back into the game with two power-play goals. After an exciting but uneventful overtime, the Panthers finally secured the victory with a shootout winner by Nathan Horton. The building erupted.
As I left the building and road the escalators down to the entrances, the fans were chanting "Let's go Panthers". I spoke to a die-hard Panthers fan who mentioned he has had season's tickets for years, he explained that the die-hard fans are always this rowdy and if the Panthers could only ice a winning-team, the fans would return. I told him that in Toronto, it didn't matter if the Leafs iced a losing team, the fans would always return. He looked at me with a sort of disbelief and in that moment, I'm pretty sure he pitied me just a little bit.