Hockey lives once again at the place that was formerly beloved as Maple Leaf Gardens.
And though visiting forward Kevin George was the one to score the building’s first goal in 13 years, the home team Ryerson Rams would narrowly prevail 5-4 over the University of Ontario Institute of Technology Ridgebacks.
That was thanks to sophomore centre Jason Kelly’s powerplay goal that properly launched the new home with its first win in an exhibition game on a Saturday night.
The game was part of the grand opening festivities commemorating Ryerson University’s new Mattamy Athletics Centre featuring various school dignitaries and alumni both of the school as well as Maple Leaf Gardens as they paid homage to both its history and its future.
But despite it being merely an exhibition, it was still a highly spirited contest.
Highlighted by the spectacular comeback in the third period by the home team after trailing for the majority of the game, it was befitting the first official hockey game at the corner of Church and Carlton streets since the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs lost to the Chicago Blackhawks 6-2 on February 13, 1999.
“A lot of guys prepared for it as if it was more than an exhibition game,” said Ryerson captain Andrew Buck. “I know I did.”
“It’s the first game,” said George. “Everyone is pumped up and everyone wants to win the first game back at the Gardens. So we said from the start that this game would have play-off intensity and it was.”
The Rams ran into penalty trouble early on in the game, surrendering an early 5-on-3 to the visiting UOIT. And the visitors made them pay.
Third-year winger George scored the historic first goal at the new building with a wrist shot from the side of the net at 6:03 of the opening period during the dying seconds of an extended powerplay.
The puck was then whisked away to be donated to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
George, was all smiles over the honour and eager to tell everyone he knew about his new place in hockey history.
“It was amazing,” said an excited George after the game. “The arena is so nice and so historic that that’s all I wanted to do in the first couple of shifts, to score.”
Ryerson captain Andrew Buck was a little disappointed that the first goal scored at the new arena was not by a Ram.
“That first goal was something that everyone wanted,” said Buck. “It was mentioned a couple of times before the game and guys were talking about and I think there might have been a bit of money on the line about it. But whatever, I think everyone is just happy to be playing here.”
Ryerson didn’t have to wait too long for the team to score its first ever goal in the building.
Five minutes later at 11:26, sophomore defenceman Brian Birkhoff fired a laser over the shoulder of UOIT starting goaltender Bryce O’Hagan on the powerplay to tie it, sparking a loud and happy celebration both on the ice and off.
But unfortunately, the hero was soon the goat. While Birkhoff was handling the puck in his own zone, UOIT left-winger Luke Vanmoerkerke stripped him for a partial breakaway.
Vanmoerkerke shot the puck just wide of the net, but Birkhoff collided with his goalie while attempting to make the block, giving UOIT fifth-year senior Tony Rizzi an open net to shoot the rebound into to give the away team a 2-1 lead.
Birkhoff later made amends, later tying the game once more in the second period with his second goal, only for his team to waste his efforts two minutes later by allowing a sloppy short-handed goal at 8:21 to sophomore forward Jesse Stoughton.
Though the Rams had outshot UOIT 17-4 in that period, they still trailed by a goal going into the final frame. However, the Rams weren’t worried about the deficit to start the third.
“We stay pretty confident no matter what the score is,” said Buck. “So we were confident that if we kept playing our game, the pucks were going to go in.”
Ryerson coach Graham Wise said a team is always heading in the right direction when it’s outshooting the opponent.
“So it’s just a matter of don’t get discouraged, keep doing what you’re doing and we’ll get the results.”
Thirty seconds into the final frame however, George seemed to have put the game beyond Ryerson’s grasps, scoring his second goal of the game to give the visitor’s side a two-goal advantage.
But the game quickly turned. A mere 15 seconds later, sophomore Jason Kelly brought Ryerson back within one with a goal on a scramble in front of the UOIT net.
And from there, beneath the iconic roof that once housed such greats as Bobby Orr, Frank Sinatra and Mohammed Ali, the Rams put on a dominating performance in the third period.
“We sort of ran out of gas,” said George. “I know we kept trying hard but they wanted it more today.”
Less than two minutes later, Ryerson tied it on a powerplay goal from sophomore Mitch Gallant, who was the beneficiary of a spectacular rush into the zone by second-year centre David Grant.
And then, after a number of quality chances by the Rams, Kelly emerged as the game’s hero. At 7:41 of the third period, Kelly scored the game-winner on a hard shot from the face-off circle that trickled five-hole past the UOIT goalie and over the line.