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Last rites approaching for hockey's last temple

It had to happen sooner or later.

Sooner or later, all the old buildings must go. Next month, the last of the great hockey arenas will be put to rest. Maple Leaf Gardens closes after 67 years.

It had to happen sooner or later.

As the countdown begins to the final night, everyone involved in hockey wonders why it can't be later.

Each day we draw just a little closer to the end of an era. After the Lightning plays here tonight, only four games remain. Appropriately, the final game will be next month _ on the 13th. One day before Valentine's Day.

It will be a bad-luck day to break your heart.

"I wish it could stay up forever," Lightning coach John Cullen said.

Walk past 60 Carlton St. in downtown Toronto and you don't even realize you're walking past hallowed ground. It looks like just another building, with fading yellow and brown brick. Maybe it's a warehouse? An old church?

You would be right on both counts. It is a warehouse _ it stores some of hockey's greatest memories. And it is a church _ a church of hockey.

"Being a Canadian, having the opportunity to play in Maple Leaf Gardens is like going to church on Sunday," Pittsburgh's Tyler Wright said. "Every Saturday night, the whole family would sit around watching Hockey Night in Canada, and it was usually at Maple Leaf Gardens. It'll be sad to see it go because it means a lot to hockey history.

"There are a lot of memories where you remember being there, but you actually weren't. You were just watching on TV."

Next month, you won't even be able to see it on TV. They're tearing tradition down.

And with it goes a way of life in Canada. It's the building where grandfathers taught fathers and fathers taught children the national pastime of Canadians.

Saturday night. Hockey Night in Canada. Maple Leaf Gardens.

There's even a display in the Hockey Hall of Fame, located just a few miles from the Gardens. The scene: a family watching Hockey Night in Canada in front of the fire in a typical Canadian living room. The game on the screen coming live from Maple Leaf Gardens.

"The greatest building in hockey," said Cullen, a former Leaf. "I grew up an hour from there. My father played there. Yet it was so special to go to a game there growing up. We went once in a blue moon and it was a big deal to go there.

"It still is a big deal to go there. It's hockey."

"It's the cathedral of Canadian hockey and I think for players around the world," Anaheim's Paul Kariya said. "It's been around so long. I remember as a kid watching Hockey Night in Canada and watching the Maple Leafs play in here."

But tradition is giving way to progress, legend moving out of the way for technology. There's more money to be made across town, in a bigger building with swanky suites, plush dressing rooms and a commercial name: Air Canada Centre. It will be big and comfortable and have state of the art scoreboards and what have you. The concession stands probably will sell 18 kinds of coffee and chicken salads and sushi.

"Maple Leaf Gardens has a tiny dressing room with concrete floors, a small shower room; it's dusty and dirty and cold," Tampa Bay's Rob Zamuner said. "But it has that special flair. There's no other building like that."

It's not remembered for a specific incident, as the Orange Bowl is known for Doug Flutie's Hail Mary or Candlestick Park is remembered for Dwight Clark's catch.

It's not noted for special nuances such as Wrigley Field's vines or Fenway Park's Green Monster.

It's not even known for housing great teams, as Boston Garden did with Bill Russell's Celtics or Yankee Stadium did with the Babe Ruth's Yankees.

In fact, a Stanley Cup final game hasn't been played there since 1967.

But it holds something better: memories. The legendary rock group The Who performed what was supposed to be its final concert there in 1982. A Who's Who of hockey has played there for the past 67 years.

Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau played against the Leafs. Ace Bailey, Charlie Conacher, Syl Apps, George Armstrong, Dave Keon and Lanny McDonald played for the Leafs. Legendary coaching matchups included Toronto's Conn Smythe against Montreal's Cecil Hart. Conn Smythe, Hart? Those are awards now in the NHL.

"That's what I remember _ the players who played there and the coaches who coached there," Lightning coach Jacques Demers said. "When you think of hockey, you think of coaches like (Toronto's) Punch Imlach.

"I remember coaching there and all the battles with (Toronto coach) John Brophy. I've coached playoff games there with St. Louis and Detroit. The fans are right there. You can hear every whisper, every conversation. That's what I'll miss _ the memories.

"There's no other building like it."

The Gardens holds only 15,642 for hockey. Most seem to be about 10 feet from the ice. Those behind the net have to pay attention lest they get a slap shot in the chops. Drop a pen from the creaky press box and it will land on the ice. No doubt scores of rats will have to relocate when the wrecking ball knocks down the old place.

It's cramped, dingy, dirty, dusty, cold and damp.

And the favorite building of just about every player in the league.

"These old buildings have character and atmosphere," Anaheim's Jim McKenzie said. "The Pond (in Anaheim) is great. The fans are great and very supportive and amazing fans. But until the Pond gets old and beaten up and dirty and dusty and all those other things old buildings have, it's not quite the same."

There are no old buildings left. The Forum in Montreal is gone. The old Chicago Stadium is a parking lot now. Boston Garden is memory. Now we look to the Nassau Veterans' Memorial Coliseum, for crying out loud, to provide tradition.

When Maple Leaf Gardens closes next month, the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, constructed in 1966, will become the oldest building in the NHL.

"But," Demers said with a sour look, "it won't be the same thing. You can't compare a building like that or any of the buildings today to a place like Maple Leaf Gardens. When that goes, it won't ever be the same."

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.