The staff of the St. John’s Maple Leafs shambled around their offices in disbelief that morning of 9/11, haunted by the TV images of the Twin Towers burning and collapsing and victims jumping out of the flaming skyscrapers.
They were still coming to grips, along with millions of others, that security as they’d known it no longer prevailed, even in their cozy island enclave where the real world rarely intruded.
The first direct consequence was their year of planning festivities for a visit by the parent NHL Leafs to show off their city and new rink — the Mile One Centre — was either cancelled or sure to be curtailed. But team president Glenn Stanford assembled them for a more immediate, important task.
“We got word from the U.S. that a number of flights were coming in to St. John’s and the rest of our province, to Gander, Goose Bay, Stephenville,” Stanford recalled. “The City called us to say our building ‘might be used in a different capacity’. At that point we didn’t know how many planes, five, 10 … 15.
“At first our staff were really intimidated. KLM, Sabena, United … we knew there’d be a lot of passengers and many weren’t going to speak English. We knew we had room for about 5,000 people. But at our meeting, we reminded everyone that this is what we do, bring people into this building, get them comfortable, put them in the right place. This was really no different than any other event.”
Help from Toronto was already there. The Leafs promotions team and equipment staff had arrived a few days early to set up minor hockey clinics, public appearances and get the dressing room ready, and gave Stanford extra bodies to help turn the rink into a refuge.
The Leafs crew included community relations director Kristy Fletcher and husband Jim Neish, who’d tagged along to see some family in the area and to help run the clinics. They’d been visiting Jim’s grandmother in tiny Lamaline, about 3 1/2 hours south of St. John’s on the Burin Peninsula and driving back the morning of Sept. 11 to run a junior school event.
Just outside of town, they caught a snippet of Rod Black’s simulcast on Canada AM about the attacks.
“The amazing part was how quickly the city and Mile One came together,” Fletcher said. “The message was simple, we need all hands on deck. They were already preparing the massive ballroom at our hotel for people to sleep.
“When we got to Mile One, there were thousands of passengers.”
Stanford wished he could remember who had the conveniently simple idea to keep track of the displaced by assigning each flight a specific section of the rink, starting in 101 and going around the bowl.
“We were all assigned a desk and one by one, flights were shuttled to the arena,” Neish recalled. “We were given the flight manifests and literally passenger-by-passenger checked them in so there would be a record of their whereabouts.
“One of the most vivid memories I have was a soccer team from Uganda, who were on their way to New York to play, and trying to explain to them they were in Canada, but actually on an island in the most eastern part of the country.
“They were only wearing shorts,” Fletcher added, “and it was not warm in St. John’s in September. Certainly their confusion and everyone’s was obvious. One man asked me ‘Is this the end of the world?’ But there was an incredible calmness.
“Even though they’d been forced to land, kept on planes for several hours and shuffled to Mile One hungry and tired, they were friendly, cool and collected. I don’t know if I would’ve been.”
“Even though they’d been forced to land, kept on planes for several hours and shuffled to Mile One hungry and tired, they were friendly, cool and collected. I don’t know if I would’ve been.” — Kristy Fletcher
Stanford saluted the Red Cross and the city’s emergency response teams for having a game plan to feed and bed down so many in a short span.
“All the credit is theirs, that job was way above my pay scale,” he said. “Most people stayed elsewhere at night (in hotels or eager citizens’ homes) and every morning they’d check back in the rink.”
Leafs equipment men Scott McKay and John Van Beek helped run the chow line.
“Our hotel quickly turned into one of the most massive slumber parties I’ve ever seen,” Neish said. “What amazed me was how quickly the Red Cross swung into action. There were toiletries, pillows, blankets, sleeping bags, clothes as the passengers weren’t able to take their luggage off the plane. It almost made us feel guilty that we had a room.”
Back at the Air Canada Centre, the Leafs had gathered for team medicals on 9/11, then watched the tragedy unfold on dressing room TVs. Many tried to hold back tears.
“I just want to go home and hug my kids,” said winger Tie Domi.
After a couple of days where all planes were grounded, flights across North America resumed. Camp was abbreviated, but they could squeeze in the scheduled exhibition game against the Montreal Canadiens.
“The happiest call I received was from (assistant GM) Bill Watters saying ‘Glenny, we’re on our way to the airport,’” Stanford said.
These days, Leaf practices are off-limits to most of the public amid tight security. But in 2001, people from all over the world, some who’d never seen hockey, were at Mile One, some in pyjamas, treated to a 9 a.m. prime seat to watch Mats Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Alex Mogilny, Bryan McCabe and Curtis Joseph. Slowly the airport resumed operations. Announcements made at the rink for passengers to board buses for their re-scheduled flights were greeted with huge applause.
“The players would stop practice and tap their sticks on the ice any time a flight was called,” Stanford said.
One unexpected boost for the farm club was their team store was emptied of every sweater, cap, t-shirt and key chain as marooned visitors sought souvenirs of their unplanned stay. Some would return in happier times to reconnect with their hosts.
“If you’re going to get stuck somewhere for a week, this is the place,” noted winger Gary Roberts. “Both my grandmothers are from here and if I’m not related to half the people there, I’d be surprised.”
“But what happened is quite indicative of we here in Newfoundland. In a simple way, we look to straighten out a large problem. People need help, so how can we help? I think that defines us.” — Glenn Stanford
Leafs ownership wanted to do its part to reward the locals for their help. They heard the provincial government had a program to help health care and people in need, ‘Give To Feel Good’, which matched any public donation.
“(Leafs chairman) Steve Stavro asked us ‘How impactful would it be if we wrote you a cheque for $1 million?,” Stanford said. “When the Canadiens arrived for the game, they and Molson’s gave a lot of money, too. The night of the exhibition, Ken Dryden spoke so well and we’ll never forget the moment of silence for the victims (with the old rival teams standing together across centre ice).
“You think of Gander, which was featured in Come From Away, and how the size of their town doubled in that week. And you don’t really hear the great stories of what the people did in Stephenville and Goose Bay.
“But what happened is quite indicative of we here in Newfoundland. In a simple way, we look to straighten out a large problem. People need help, so how can we help? I think that defines us.”
‘IT WAS VERY EMOTIONAL FOR ALL OF US’
For Bryan McCabe, 9/11 quickly became a personal matter.
As the Maple Leafs defenceman watched the carnage on TV with teammates — on what was supposed to be a loose camp medicals day at the Air Canada Centre — he could only think of family.
“It hit really close to home because my brother-in-law, Brian McNamara, was a first responder in New York,” McCabe says, almost 20 years later. “My father-in-law, Robert Miele, is a retired fireman with their department. Brian worked out of Columbus Circle neighbourhood. He was on site (of the fallen towers) and going through the wreckage. My wife (Roberta) and I had just got married that summer in New York and still spend our summers there. It was very eerie.”
McCabe, now director of player personnel for the Florida Panthers, said he remembers the events “like yesterday.”
“It was kind of surreal. I’d started my testing process, sitting on the end of the trainers’ table, then seeing one of the buildings on fire. We thought it was caused by a small prop plane hitting it. Then we saw the second jet go in. You’re thinking ‘Oh my God, what’s going on’?
“It was very emotional for us all. Many had friends and family in that area, or who worked in New York City or were on a college team they played with. You realized hundreds of people were burning, dying. It was a horrible situation.”
“Newfoundland is known for opening its doors and being friendly, but they went above and beyond with helping all those people.” — Bryan McCabe
After a few days of being grounded, the Leafs flew to St. John’s for an abbreviated camp, where they encountered many stranded passengers at the rink watching their early morning practice.
“By the time we got there, at least it was a little break from reality for them. They got to see an NHL team practice. I’m sure staying at that rink for a week wasn’t anything glorious for them.
“I went up in the stands to talk to people, ask where they’d come from, what had transpired for them, did they have family and friends affected in New York. I’m sure it would be tough days, weeks, months, years after that for some.
“Newfoundland is known for opening its doors and being friendly, but they went above and beyond with helping all those people.”
PART OF THE 9/11 STORY
An old adage cautions journalists to report the news, not become part of it.
There was little choice for me on 9/11 when my Air Canada flight to St. John’s for Leafs training camp was re-routed to Moncton, N.B., due to what our pilot initially announced as “a security situation in the U.S.”
With the internet in its infancy, it wasn’t until sitting a couple of hours on the tarmac that we discovered the full extent of what happened in New York and the crashes at the Pentagon and in a Pennsylvania farmer’s field. We were released from the plane and bused to Moncton Coliseum with hundreds of international passengers.
As a domestic flight, our group was free to go, but I slipped back into the junior hockey arena to write on how the city was dealing with this crisis and how French, Dutch, British, Americans and a whole lot of other nationalities were thrown together by tragedy.
It turned out to be humanity’s best profile. Within a few hours, volunteers, emergency services had covered the arena floor and seats with cots and mattresses, while food, including baby formula, arrived by the truck load.
Dozens of coffee urns and boxes of donuts appeared (welcome to Canada!) while an Asian restaurant mobilized a buffet.
Residents were so anxious to help the stranded find more suitable accommodations in their homes that they came to the darkened rink at 2 a.m., gently shaking complete strangers awake to offer spare bedrooms.
But officials were fraught by concerns that the New York attacks were just the beginning of something larger. On the second day, rumours of a bomb in the rink forced evacuation.
That was a sweltering afternoon, but some guests made the most of being outside.
A Canadian Tire store had donated soccer balls and some young European passengers organized a tournament, flight against flight, a World Cup on concrete. A radio station’s plea to help the elderly visitors cope in the sun resulted in umbrellas and a load of baseball caps dropped off within the half hour.
A group of jolly French nuns were sitting around watching the soccer wearing hats for a local marina and tackle shop, just one of the sights I’d never forget before heading to the re-opened airport a couple of days later.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019