Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor
TORONTO, ONTARIO — True story: I flew into Tampa Bay on business a few years ago when the Buffalo Sabres were in town and decided that I would get my National Hockey League fix there. As most Toronto locals know, getting tickets to the Air Canada Centre for a Maple Leafs game isn’t easy. Actually, it’s infuriatingly difficult.
In Florida, though, I walked up to the Tampa Bay Lightning ticket window 30 minutes before the game and asked if any tickets were available. The lady looked at me bemused. Her eyes said it all: Of course there were tickets left. Heck, for a few extra dollars I could probably purchase a seat on the bench with the players.
As I headed for my seat, a staffer looked me over and asked if I was alone. I told her yes and the next thing I know I was being upgraded to Level 1 of the arena. Without asking, I was moved 11 rows back and to the right of then-Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller. I was so close to this man I felt like I could wave to him and that he would wave back with his blocker and say a friendly, “Hey, how ya doin’ bro?”
No question about it — this wasn’t hockey night in Toronto.
The puck dropped on the 2014-15 NHL season on Wednesday and Canadians and visitors to the country are ready to watch the sport’s finest players hit the ice. It’s not easy for fans of any of the Canadian teams — or the New York Rangers or Chicago Blackhawks or other US teams with rabid fan bases — to get tickets to home games but the Maple Leafs are a different animal. The waiting period for Leafs Season Tickets is approximately 20 years and there are more than 4,000 names on the wait list. This means if you want a ticket you’re probably going to have to get lucky at the ticket window or hand over your right arm and left kidney to a scalper. To each their own but in my mind, it’s not worth the hassle or price for a team that hasn’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967 and seems capable of producing only one or two competitive seasons in a generation. And you just know this season is going to be a real gem — the general manager, Dave Nonis, is already trying to convince the world the team will fulfill its promise this season.
But television is free and I have no issue seeing my favourite team rack up losses if the only price I have to pay is watching those never-ending, mind-numbing Molson, Axe and Gillette commercials. Don’t be discouraged folks, there are great places to watch the game in Toronto that in my mind are just as much — if even not more fun — than watching it in person at the rink.
Toronto is a big city and there are several great places to watch hockey games and there’s no way we can list all of them, but these are a few good spots that come to mind.
Real Sports, Maple Leaf Square
(15 York St / 416-815-7325)
Game Experience: One of the best places in the city to watch sports. This public square has become a favourite place for Leafs fans to gather. The area is surrounded by residential buildings and office and retail businesses. There are three restaurants in the square and Hotel Le Germain. The west side entrance at Air Canada Centre is where you can find the gigantic 30-by-50-foot (9.1-by-15.2-metre) video screen overlooking the square. It’s here where up to 5,000 Leafs and NBA Raptors fans can watch the action and cheer for the home team.
Watching the game in the plaza is a good experience, but if you can get there earlier head into the Real Sports Bar & Grill. For the sports fan, this bar is something to behold. The space is large, and features all the sports action you desire, including Monday Night Football and the World Series. If you think the big screen outside is impressive, you’re going to love the 39-foot HD screen, bolstered by 199 HD TVs throughout the bar. Another cool thing? It’s not uncommon to see members of the city’s big sports teams here, including the Leafs, Argos, Raptors, MLB Blue Jays and MLS Toronto FC.
Menu: It takes an army of people to run a kitchen like this — especially on a big night — and the food is very good for a sports bar. Try the quesadilla sliders ($12.50), beer-battered onion rings ($10) or the fried calamari ($13.50). Several choices for main courses, including Cheddar Studded Meatloaf ($17) and Thai curry tilapia ($17). But for the true sports fans you can’t go wrong with wings (half dozen for $14.50) or a burger (Classic Cheeseburger $15).
Drinks: Draught beers cost $8. Among the feature cocktails is the Puck Bunny (Smirnoff Raspberry, Vodka, Cassis, Pom Juice, Lemonade, soda), $9.50.
(99 Blue Jays Way / Phone: 1-416-348-0099)
Game Experience: Owned by the Great One himself, the place oozes hockey. You’ll see tons of memorabilia on the walls, including pieces from Gretzky’s childhood and his historic pro career. There’s also a gift shop — some of you might find this fact a bit annoying, but there are some interesting items in there. But what you’re after is the bar. There are 37 HDTVs to watch the game, and the location can’t be beat — just a few minutes’ walk from the Rogers Centre and Air Canada Centre.
Menu: The wings are good ($13) as are the burgers ($14).
Drinks: Draught beer prices range between $5.99-$7.99. Bottled beer is $5.29 (Canadian, Coors, Blue, Bud Light). The Great One Caesar (2 oz), $10.99.
The Loose Moose
(146 Front St West / 1-416-977-8840)
Game Experience: Sitting right on Front Street, the Loose Moose is long-time favourite in Toronto. It gets a little ridiculous here on game day, so it’s not a bad idea to make a reservation if you’re planning to visit with friends. On the bar’s website, it boasts that it has the most draught beers downtown and can accommodate as many as 800 people.
There are over 50 local, craft and import beers on tap, and there are five new HD TVs behind the main bar. It’s also a good bar to occasionally spot people — I was in there one night when legendary coach Roger Neilson and members of the Philadelphia Flyers came in for dinner and sat beside our table. I think he ordered wings. I looked at the coach and nodded. He nodded back. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is as close as I got to the NHL.
Menu: You can come alone and have a nice time, but the Moose has always felt like a place that’s better with a few people and is a good spot to share dishes. Try the Jumbo Chicken Wings ($11.87) or Nachos ($16.84 for beef or chicken).
Drinks: Bottle of Canadian will cost $5.75. Alexander Keiths IPA on tap will cost $7.49.
(144 Front Street West / 416-585-2121)
Game Experience: Another really good Front Street location. This is a restaurant, not a bar or a pub. I’m not a huge fan of the brand names — I always feel like once you’ve been to one you’ve pretty much seen them all. But Jack Astor’s on Front Street — right beside the Moose — is a good spot to watch the game. There are lots of televisions, the atmosphere is outstanding on game night with all the Blue and White jerseys around, and the location rocks.
Menu: Pizza is excellent here. The Easy Sell (pepperoni and cremini mushrooms, $13.98) and BBQ Chicken Pizza ($15.63) are good bets.
Drinks: Draught beer will cost $6.68-$8.57.
(120 Lynn Williams St / 1-647-340-8008)
Game Experience: Like Jack Astor’s, I realize this isn’t a pure sports bar, but Williams Landing is slowly establishing itself as a hot spot for the community that seems to be building a new condo every week. While you won’t find as many televisions here as you do in other sports bars, there are more than enough screens — and the food is just as good. It has a nice vibe and a party atmosphere but on the downside for the hard-core fan the place isn’t primarily a sports bar.
Menu: Try the beef landing sliders ($12), the edamame beans ($9) or the bliss burger – house-smoked pulled Ontario pork, smoked mozzerella, tomato relish ($17).
Drinks: Molson Canadian $6.75, Guinness $8
Wheat Sheaf Tavern
(667 King Street West / 1-647-694-0985)
Game Experience: Okay, fair enough — this isn’t exactly a modern place compared to Real Sports. But it does have lots of history. Even though the building has been modified and ownership has changed hands several times, people have been drinking here even before the birth of Canada, with a sign above the door reading “A Toronto tradition since 1849.”
During the years when the Toronto Blue Jays played baseball at Exhibition Stadium, this was one of the hot spots to go after the game. I can only imagine the celebration that took place here in 1967.
Menu: Calamari with tzatziki ($9.95) and Sliders (3 per order, $8.95).
Drinks: Draught beers cost approximately $6 per pint.
(145 John Street / 1-416-597-2695)
Game Experience: Another solid sports bar on bustling intersection of Richmond and John streets. This very unique bar, which features a bowling alley on the main floor, has 52 TVs, lots of comfortable seating and a large bar. There’s also a section with games, including ping pong, bubble hockey and foosball.
Menu: Outstanding appetizers to wash down the beer and tasty sandwiches. Try the Ballroom Nachos ($14.99) or the Tailgater Sliders ($14.99). You also won’t go wrong with the Ballroom Burger, with smoked applewood bacon, Canadian cheddar and an onion ring ($14.99).
Drinks: Domestic bottles, $4.42; premium draught, $7.08. The Ballroom Cherry Cola (Bacardi Torched Cherry Rum, Red Stag Cherry Bourbon, Cola, a dash of Vanilla and topped with a Cherry) costs $10.62.