Those creaky stadiums hold precious memories

The other night, after more than 67 years, Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto hosted its final National Hockey League game. It was the last remaining of the original six arenas built for the charter members of the NHL. It was an old barn, but a wonderful old barn.

At issue is the demise of the great, glorious, and grand old sports venues. Where have they gone? Like rainbows, they just go.

Throughout professional athletics, we're losing the heart of the sports experience.

Memories of maneuvering over snowbanks to get to MLG never will dim. Staring down at the ice, it was easy to remember Rocket Richard, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky skating their magic.

It was 47 winters ago that Maple Leaf defenseman Bill Barilko created what may have been the finest moment ever in the old barn. Somehow, he managed to blast a Stanley Cup-winning goal in overtime against Montreal from just past the blue line. Stunning. Toronto won 11 Stanley Cups in the building.

The litany of extinct structures is dreadful. The Forum in Montreal has gone to hockey heaven. The old Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium, once dazzling hockey and hoops cathedrals, are history.

It's a sportwide sorrow. In football, San Francisco's storied Kezar Stadium was dumped. So, too, wondrous Cleveland Municipal Stadium, opened in 1932 and perfectly situated to feel the full effects of those numbing winds off Lake Erie.

Baseball's list of the missing is long - Cincinnati's Crosley Field, Pittsburgh's Forbes Field, Philadelphia's Shibe Park. Deserving of a sentence of its own is the Polo Grounds in New York. So, too, Ebbets Field in Brooklyn. Milwaukee's County Stadium shuts down at the end of this season. The two oldest baseball stadiums, both built in 1912, are heading toward oblivion - Detroit's Tiger Stadium will have its last game Sept. 27 and Boston's Fenway Park is on the endangered species list.

This all leaves Wrigley Field, built in 1914, as the only unthreatened dowager. But it has been hard to take Wrigley seriously ever since 1988 when it thoroughly debased itself by allowing lights to be put in. Wrigley now seems more like a painted lady.

When you peel down to what matters, the problem is as we continually chip away at what was, we harm what is, and far more importantly, what will be. It's not that we owe homage and reverence to the past because it's old. Rather, loving sports means understanding and appreciating them for what once was.

That's how life is. You can't understand England without understanding Winston Churchill. But it's almost a thing of the past for grandparents, parents, and children to have sat in same stadium seats for decades, the old reveling in memories of seeing Otto Graham quarterback and the young reveling in the now of watching Peyton Manning. Most great-grandchildren will never get the chance to participate in such sweeping continuity and nostalgic camaraderie. The loss is serious - theirs and ours. Our bricks- and-mortar stewardship has not been good.

We understand that owners want new facilities so they can have more luxury boxes and make more money. That's fine. Making money is not a felony. And it's not terrible to go to a sports event in a shiny new facility with improved parking, bathrooms that might pass a health inspection, and much better sightlines.

Baseball fans, for example, flock to exquisite new facilities in Baltimore, Cleveland, Denver, and Phoenix. Each is nifty. Each, however, has a history the length of the life span of a wooden match. Great esthetics but no souls.

A nice compromise can be the renovation of these storied venues. Yankee Stadium was built in 1923, renovated by 1976. Of course, now the team wants to move to somewhere new and plastic. The Green Bay Packers' Lambeau Field is continually worked on so that it has become a huge shadow of its former self, but at least its past and present are one.

In Denver, the Super Bowl champs will be leaving Mile High Stadium (circa 1948) for some glitzy corporate-named stadium in a few years. What is being taken from fans is the chance, decades from now, to sit in Mile High and gaze down on the field and relive those times and places when John Elway filled our hearts with joy and the end zones with touchdowns.

True sports fans love the past simply because it's important. That's why they still refer to the new Madison Square Garden in New York.

It was built in 1968.

*Please send your comments to looneyd@csps.com

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