TORONTO – Daniel Smith was about six people from the front of the growing line of healthcare workers waiting to enter Scotiabank Arena.
Smith, an operating room manager for the Scarborough Health Network, had his hands stuffed in his pockets, one of them clutching a lucky charm — a Canadian silver dollar from 1967, the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup.
“When I woke up this morning, I tucked this in my pocket,” said Smith, who won a ticket through an SHN draw. “I didn’t put it in my pocket to get a ticket today. But I put it in my pocket just to wish the Leafs luck because I’m a bit of a nerd like that.
“I guess I got some luck because I’m here right now to cheer the Leafs. I’m a real Leafs fan and I don’t even have words to describe how I feel right now.”
His lucky coin wasn’t enough. The Leafs, who saw their 3-1 series lead evaporate, were eliminated with a 3-1 loss to Montreal.
Smith was one of 550 fully vaccinated health-care workers who attended Monday night’s Game 7 between the Leafs and the visiting Canadiens in their first-round playoff series.
Some fans cheered once they passed through security and into the venue. Others posed together for pictures to commemorate the first crowd permitted at Scotiabank Arena since the COVID-19 pandemic brought the sports world to its knees in the spring of 2020.
It was a moment of hope, some of them said, that was a long time coming.
“The last year has been pretty tough. It’s not the way we normally operate. It’s been hard on the staff,” Smith said. “But I think this being our first opportunity is sort of light at the end of the tunnel, things are opening up and we feel good.”
Premier Doug Ford’s office said Monday morning that the front-line workers received both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine more than two weeks ago and would go through screening and other precautionary measures.
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the Maple Leafs’ ownership group, covered the cost of tickets. They were all given a blue Leafs jersey, provided by Scotiabank, plus white towels, snacks and beers.
They were split into two sections, in the top of the lower bowl behind each net. They twirled their towels for much of the night, and danced when they spotted themselves on the Jumbotron.
The crowd was obviously nowhere near the capacity for the 19,800-seat arena. The in-game announcer encouraged the 550 to “make it sound like a crowd of 5,000.”
Some 2,500 people were in the stands in Montreal when the two teams last clashed on Saturday for Game 6. That was the first crowd for a game in Canada this year.
“I wish I could have 2,500, but the docs said 550. We’ll take that,” Ford said.
Samantha Timpano, who clutched a sign that read “We BeLeaf, St. Michaels Internal Medicine,” said the past 14 months have been “just work, home, repeat. Stress levels have gone up and down. But we’re all full of hope now.”
That hope had Timpano, a lifelong Leafs fan, feeling emotional as she waited to go in.
“I was a little bit tearful walking over, it’s really exciting, and it’s, yeah, something really, we’re really grateful to be part of it,” said the occupational therapist. “It’s funny, this time last year, people were like banging pots and pans cheering for us. And now we get to be the first ones cheering on Toronto’s team, so it’s pretty cool.”
Cathy Stinson, who works for the Scarborough Health Network, was the first in line to get in. Dressed in an autographed Leafs jersey, she shuffled her feet excitedly, and clapped her hands when the buzzer sounded that the doors were opening.
“This is awesome. I feel so incredibly lucky, the past year and a half. locked down, this is wonderful,” she said.
Zachary Veitch, a medical oncologist at St. Michael’s Hospital, was one of the few front-line workers who arrived in a Canadiens jersey.
“It’s gonna be emotional for everyone, right? Just that release, but hopefully the Habs come out on top,” he said, with a laugh.
Leafs forward Joe Thornton said playing in front of fans was “a long time coming.
“A lot of vaccinations have been rolling out. Can’t wait for more people to start coming to this building. It’s going to be fun to play in front of, I know it’s only 500, but hopefully we’ll build off this and continue to get more people going forward.”
Leafs forward Jason Spezza was looking forward to the support.
“I think it’s just a great sign for where we’re headed as a society. I think it’s a great way to recognize the health-care workers for all the hard work they’ve done to get us to this point where they’re allowed to come in,” he said. “And then as players, obviously we enjoy playing in front of people.”
The front-line workers made for the first crowd at a major Toronto sporting event since the pandemic began, and only the second NHL crowd in Canada. Toronto remains in lockdown amid a third wave of the pandemic.
Other Canadian professional sports were forced to relocate to the U.S. to avoid cross-border travel. The NBA’s Toronto Raptors played their season out of Tampa, Fla. Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays started their season playing home games in Dunedin, Fla., and will call Buffalo, N.Y., home starting on Tuesday.
Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC, CF Montreal and Vancouver Whitecaps have relocated to Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Sandy, Utah, respectively.
Major League Rugby’s Toronto Arrows are now based in Marietta, Ga.
Canadian pro teams in many leagues outside the NHL have a larger majority, if not a full complement, of rivals in the U.S., making cross-border travel a requirement if they are to play in Canada.
In the NHL, American teams have been allowed to have crowds throughout the playoffs.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 31, 2021.