AT the corner of Yonge and Front Streets in downtown Toronto is a shrine to what may be this nation's most loved heritage: ice hockey. Inside, but not on display, are the battered leather ice skates Wayne Gretzky - hockey's "Great One" - wore as a two-year-old. So are the bronze castings of his tiny feet.
This is a place for Canadians to pay tribute to their heroes. Even on a sunny August day, thousands of Canada's hockey faithfuls forego beaches and parks to descend to an underground mall where they enter the sparkling US $19 million Hockey Hall of Fame.
The old hall of fame sat out of the way at Toronto's Exhibition Place, several miles away on the shore of Lake Ontario.
The new high-tech hall opened in June and was four years in the making. Twenty-five percent of the money was contributed by the National Hockey League (NHL); the rest came from corporate donors.
Every bit of crucial memorabilia since organized ice hockey began in the 1880s seems to be here: the tired leather gloves of hockey legend Gordie Howe, the only man to play 26 years in the National Hockey League; the protective face mask of goalie great Jacques Plante; the 1931 poster of Toronto Maple Leafs' star "King" Clancy, just to name a few.
The hall includes a tribute to ice hockey in 32 countries - from Japan to Russia to the United States. At least 500,000 fans are expected to visit this year, about 40 percent of them from the US, says marketing manager Christine Simpson.
Yet the heart and soul of this place is clearly Canadian. Most NHL players are Canadian born and trained.
Of the 289 hall-of-famers, at least 253 were born in Canada, says Craig Campbell, assistant manager of acquisitions. Thus the hall is a significant, albeit small window into the Canadian psyche.
After shelling out $7.50 (Canadian, US $5.70) apiece at the door (C$5.50 or US $4 for children), a stream of visitors is halted by a large video screen showing a highlight film of pad-crunching body checks, slap shots, flashing skates, and sharp stops amid showers of ice particles. An excited announcer constantly exclaims "he shoots, he scores!" as a green laser beam scrawls the image of a hockey player skating below the screen, followed by a map of Canada.
Shuffling one-by-one past that eye-popping opening, typical hockey fans are already agog, wide eyes slightly glazed as they drift into hockey heaven; into a display on the evolution of hockey equipment, for example. Or the display of goalies' face masks that resemble those of tribal warriors. There is even an exact replica of the Montreal Canadiens' team dressing room.
At the nearby "Coca-Cola Rink Zone" hockey nuts find themselves in a miniature ice rink (sans ice) getting outfitted with arm pads and a stick to play goalie. Video pucks whiz toward them while a computer keeps score. Sound-and-video booths let sports announcer wannabes select from hockey's greatest moments, narrate them, then play the tape back.
Liberal use of video screens and computerized "interactive" high-tech displays appears designed to make the game even more alluring to Canada's youth, if that is possible.
Ten-year-old Kyle Rank is unsuiting himself after playing video goalie for the third time. "What can I say? It's awesome," he remarks, of the museum-amusement arcade. He has been playing organized hockey for five years already.
But there is another, less- glitzy side to the museum - the Bell Great Hall. No one is a better guide to that hall than 76-year-old Tommy Gaston, a hockey aficionado whose distinction at the Hall of Fame comes from the more than 50-years'-worth of hockey memorabilia he saved, much of it contributed to the hall.
"This is the shrine of hockey," says Mr. Gaston with reverence as he and a visitor enter a large open room with mahogany walls and a stained-glass dome. The hall houses the National Hockey League's most coveted trophies, which sit gleaming under glass enclosures atop their individual pedestals. "It's beautiful, eh?" marvels Gaston. "Just like a cathedral."
But all the other trophies pale before the "Holy Grail" of hockey: the NHL's huge silver chalice called the Stanley Cup. First donated by Lord Stanley of Preston (England), the cup was presented to the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association in 1893. The cup was won again this spring - a century later - by a Montreal team, the Canadiens, who won it for the 24th time.
On its perch under floodlights, the cup sits grandly apart from the other trophies. A guard stands nearby.
Also watching over the cup, their faces and career profiles etched into a wall of glass behind them, are the "Honored Members" who appear to gaze as intently on it as they might have in their lifetimes bent on gaining it.
"In the old days there was more stick handling and it was a brainier game," Gaston says as he reflects on the likes of Francis (King) Clancy, Bobby Orr, Glenn Hall, Phil Esposito, and the others. "It's a lot faster these days, they shoot a lot harder, and they're dressed like gladiators."
Who's the greatest player he ever saw? Gaston says his favorite is Clancy, the spark plug of the Maple Leafs in the 1920s and 1930s.
But he admits that the ageless Gordie Howe, whose professional career spanned more than two decades, was the best. "He was playing into his 50s," Gaston says, a touch of sentiment in his voice. "I think he's the greatest of them all."