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A pilgrimage to Toronto’s cathedral of hockey

The former bank that is now home to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto was Canada's biggest building when it was built in 1888. Exhibits chronicle the history of the game, right up to the Boston Bruins recent championship. (Sharon Matthews-Stevens for The Boston Globe) The former bank that is now home to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto was Canada's biggest building when it was built in 1888. Exhibits chronicle the history of the game, right up to the Boston Bruins recent championship.
By Mark Stevens
Globe Correspondent / September 4, 2011

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TORONTO - The McKinneys from Pittsburgh are standing in the anteroom of the Hockey Hall of Fame’s inner sanctum here.

They prepare to enter the Great Hall: mother, father, two teenage sons, dressed in sky-blue Pittsburgh Penguins jerseys.

Never mind no Bruins logos emblazoning their chests. Never mind nearly being seduced by pleasures offered by the rest of the museum.

They have taken shots at a virtual real-time goalie in the NHLPA (the players’ union) “Be a Player Zone.’’ They have measured themselves against the prowess of Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, stopping shots in the “Shutout’’ demonstration, a place of ersatz ice and boards that surrounds a rink so realistic you feel as if you are guarding the net on the blue ice at TD Garden. They have even played NHL 2K11 Hockey on Wii.

And they have had fun. But now they are entering the Great Hall, a shrine in this 60,000-square-foot space that boasts the world’s biggest collection of hockey memorabilia.

They enter the hall through an entrance framed by stainless steel that glitters like skate blades, past a display of goalie masks and a 9-foot-high statue of Canadiens Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden.

While you may never see a National Hockey League game in Toronto past the end of April (the Leafs have not hoisted Lord Stanley’s cup since man walked on the moon), the city still hosts the heart of hockey. So a trip to Toronto is an almost mandatory pilgrimage for Bruins fans. Here the Bruins, who won the Stanley Cup in June, are front and center. Here is the mask Thomas wore during the 2005-06 season, Mark Recchi’s home jersey, Bud Light beer bottles with the Bruins logo designed for the post-victory celebration. An overhead television monitor recounts Bruins history right back to 1924, when a Vermont grocery financier paid the league $15,000 for the franchise.

The Great Hall belongs to Bruins fans, at least until next June.

The Hall of Fame occupies a repurposed, imposing neoclassical gem that once housed the Bank of Montreal. At the time of its construction in 1888 it was Canada’s biggest building.

Visitors reach the Great Hall by climbing wide black and white granite steps. On the right is a 4-by-10-foot backlighted picture of the Bruins, grouped around the cup. Beside the picture an interpretive panel sets the tone.

“Welcome to hockey’s cathedral,’’ it begins.

Now they enter a room with a mezzanine, boasting polished oak panels with plaster bas-relief ornamentation, a massive vault with a black iron door, and a 45-foot stained glass dome.

A sort of altar cradles the spotlighted Stanley Cup. A multitude of other trophies share the hallowed space. Plexiglass panels serve as the backdrop for the cup, each a tribute to Hall of Fame players: Bourque and Bucyk, Esposito and Orr.

Beside me, a father holds his young son’s hand as they walk across the red carpet toward the cup. They pose for a picture. The boy considers touching the cup but pulls his hand away.

I came here years ago with my sons, now grown. I have a similar picture. My boys didn’t touch the cup either.

“We had an entire championship hockey team come here,’’ says the Hockey Hall of Fame’s Sarah Talbot. “They were jostling each other, pushing.’’ She laughs. “No one wanted to touch it, even by accident.’’

In hockey lore, if you touch the Stanley Cup before your team wins it, the team never will. And it matters not that this cup is not the real thing.

In the vault is an unassuming, though glittering, piece of silver. It looks more like a tea pot than hockey’s Holy Grail. “That’s the original cup Lord Stanley had designed back in 1893,’’ Talbot says.

Today the cup that graces the pedestal in the Great Hall is a replica of the presentation cup, which holds court here for part of the year.

I see the McKinney family again. Both sons touch the cup. “Too late for us,’’ says the father with a rueful laugh.

Mark Stevens can be reached at mark@thewriteman.ca.

If You Go

Hockey Hall of Fame
Brookfield Place, 30 Yonge St.
www.hhof.com
Open 362 days a year. Monday to Saturday, 9:30 a.m. - 6 p.m.; Sunday 10-6. Extended spring break and Christmas hours. General admission $17.50, seniors $13, youth $11.
Where to stay
Hotel le Germaine Maple Leaf Square
75 Bremner Blvd.
1-888-940-7575
www.germainemapleleaf square.com
At this boutique hotel the picture over your bed is an art photo of a hockey or basketball player and the ambient lighting in the sky-reaching lobby is red when the Raptors are playing and blue when the Leafs are in town. It’s right beside the Air Canada Centre if you want to take in a hockey game (they have special packages).
Fairmont Royal York
100 Front St.
1-866-540-4489
www.fairmont.com/royalyork
A five-minute walk from the Hockey Hall of Fame and convenient to other downtown attractions.
Where to eat
Real Sports Bar and Grill
15 York St., Unit 1
416-815-7325
www.realsports.ca
Right beside the Air Canada Centre. They have 28 kinds of draft beer, but the food is almost haute cuisine.
Wayne Gretzky’s Restaurant
99 Blue Jays Way
416-979-7825
www.gretzky.com/restaurant
They have a mini-museum tribute to the Great One and the ambience reminds you of those days of yore when you played pond hockey.