The big game was sold out, but the days following the 9-11 tragedy didn’t seem like a time for games.
After terrorists attacked the U.S. and destroyed the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, a sullen world mourned and worried.
This left Ken Dryden, then president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, wondering what to do about St. John’s.
Was Sept. 17 too early for an NHL exhibition game at Mile One between Toronto and Montreal?
“Nobody felt quite sure that anybody had the right to play,” Dryden recalls vividly.
With the 10th anniversary of 9-11 days away, the coming week will be full of reflection.
The Telegram will publish a number of stories, and encourages readers to post their memories.
The first of our stories, Dryden’s, is not the most dramatic 9-11 tale, but it’s interesting because of the logistical and ethical challenges the hockey legend faced.
The Leafs were to hold a training camp in St. John’s and play that pre-season match against the Habs.
It was all to coincide with the opening of Mile One, the arena built in part for the Leafs’ farm team.
After undergoing physicals in Toronto on the morning of the 11th, the players — including Mats Sundin, Curtis Joseph and Tie Domi — were to fly to St. John’s that afternoon.
But then terrorist-commandeered planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington that morning.
The world changed.
The Leafs’ itinerary — like everything else depending on air travel at the time — was grounded.
The team began camp at its practice facility in Toronto, but still hoped to travel to St. John’s.
Days passed. Airspace remained closed. And the Leafs were still in T.O.
Dryden says it would have been easy to cancel the trip to St. John’s, but the organization wanted it to happen.
“It was a special occasion. And it wasn’t just a special occasion for people in St. John’s, it was also a special occasion for us. We wanted it to be there. We just didn’t want to shut it down.”
The team continued to work out in Toronto, waiting patiently for the skies to re-open.
As the Leafs learned about the hospitality Newfoundlanders were showing stranded passengers, there was added incentive to make the trip to St. John’s.
"We look forward to going there and doing everything we can to let those people know they’re appreciated throughout the world,” Domi told the Toronto Star.
The Leafs finally flew to St. John’s Saturday — five days later than expected.
Dryden remembers landing around midnight.
“What I remember most vividly was arriving at the airport and taxiing toward the terminal and seeing all of these planes. It was like a parking lot of these giant planes, and just one after the other, sort of wing tip to wing tip. We had known that planes were diverted to Newfoundland and some other places, but I don’t think it was until that moment that we realized the dimension of it and how many planes were actually diverted.”
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The team held an intra-squad Sunday evening and were to face the Canadiens the next evening, a day later than planned.
Still, Dryden was faced with questions about whether or not the much-anticipated, sold-out match should go ahead.
“After what had happened days ago, when do you re-earn the right to smile and to laugh and to talk to people and to do normal life things? And at what point is it still being disrespectful and, at the next point, is it something else?”
Dryden believes the teams and the fans felt that way, too. He was also sensitive to the fact Newfoundland had experienced Sept. 11 more directly than other provinces.
Because of that, he says there was a feeling the audience deserved something special, “to give thanks to people who had done as much as Newfoundlanders had done to make strangers feel not like strangers, but as friends.”
Dryden addressed fans before puck drop, “to say to people we all feel a certain way and we’re really not quite sure how to feel now.
“But, at some point, we knew that life has to go on, and in fact, that’s the most important demonstration, the most important reaction, to an event like (the terrorist attacks). What events like that are attempting to do is to shut life down. And at some point, you have to be defiant in saying, ‘No, you’re not going to shut our life down. We’re going to start living it again.’ ”
Dryden left the Leafs in May 2004 to run for the federal Liberals in the Ontario riding of York Centre. He won his seat and served as Paul Martin’s minister of social development for a few years. He remained an MP until this past spring.
Reflecting on Sept. 11, 2001, the deep-thinking lawyer and author says it was a reminder that huge damage can be caused by few people.
For centuries, he theorizes, conflicts were easier to solve because it was country against country, and battles generally happened away from where large numbers lived.
That’s not the case now, in the war against terror that’s followed 9-11.
“The ongoing powerful message is you don’t defeat things like this with traditional responses, but in finding a way where differences matter less and are not defining features. If they are, they become more magnifying.”
Even though the Leafs lost the exhibition game 3-0, Dryden says he felt good about it. Under the circumstances, he feels things happened as they should have.
“I think it was the right thing for us and the Canadiens, the right thing for opening the arena, the right thing for people in St. John’s and Newfoundland. … I simply remember very fondly and vividly, it was a real experience. Everybody has experiences around Sept. 11, where they were and what they were doing. This was one that was a little different.”