A Saturday Doubleheader

Photographs by Joseph Hammond
[T]he Concert Hall of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel is of a modernized art deco style, and there are still vestiges of the original elegant, stately 1930’s charm, certainly in the delicate crystal chandeliers, hanging from a coffered ceiling soaring above the thin, Easter-palette, patterned carpet. It is beautiful, and sultry, reminiscent of the Cyprus Club which Philip Marlowe visits in Raymond Chandler’s hardboiled 1939 classic, The Big Sleep.

Circular tables draped in a deep blue cloth are jammed in every available space, almost assuring that throughout the evening, one might expect a bump or two as dinner-goers sidle between matching blue-clothed chairs, each one filled by a Ryerson University alumnus.

Far from such choreographed chaos being an annoyance, Ian Horne, President of the Ryerson University Alumni Association, articulates between appetizers and the main course, that this packed house is a sign of Ryerson’s growing alumni base, important in building a world-class university. He says, “I’ve been going to these things a long time, and this is the first time I had to wait in line to register, that is great!”
Standing in the soft yellow lighting, Joseph Hammond, the photographer who had accompanied me, remarked that it felt as though we had walked into a Christopher Nolan film, and there were several regal figures who might have passed as an elder Bruce Wayne among the hundreds of Ryerson alumni assembled.

Among them, seated at a table just ahead of the temporary stage set up in front of the long, modestly arched windows, sits a man with a refined silver-grey beard, trimmed neatly almost to the chin, and a broad, angular nose, which suggests an aura of authority about him. His face is the same one we saw upon the boards directing us from the hotel lobby, up the lifts to level C, and into the hall. His name is Edward Burtynsky, he is tonight’s keynote speaker at the 2012 Ryerson Alumni Association Dinner, and he is a well-sought-after man.

The chance to see one of the great photographers of the modern era is what initially piqued the interest of Ryerson Folio, and it is what led Joe and I to the crowded hall on a Saturday night, ignoring the late calls to a journalism pub night at the Ram in the Rye.

Yet, alumni weekend rapidly became more than the endeavor to meet Burtynsky, and I happily fell into a very long, but ultimately rewarding day, moving seamlessly through generations of Ryerson history.

[F]itting then, that my day begins at the Mattamy Athletic Centre (MAC), whose historical development has been raked-through innumerable times by media and general passersby alike, and whose generational impact cannot be overstated on the families who watched the Toronto Maple Leafs compete within these walls.

Not long past noon on the western concourse of Ryerson’s gleaming new arena, the twenty-one members of the Rams 1962-63 men’s hockey team are inducted into the Ryerson Athletics Hall of Fame, the seventh such ceremony, and the second induction of a hockey team, after the 1958-59 provincial champions were enshrined in 2009.

Over ten seasons, from 1953 to 1963, the Rams hockey teams brought home seven provincial championships, and were finalists in two other years. The Rams could have won eight titles had they not conceded the 1961-62 trophy to McMaster, because the players had exams to write so could not make the game. The hockey team became Ryerson’s most dominant sporting dynasty, a feat unparalleled since, especially considering that the 1962-63 squad, under Hall of Fame coach Ron Scarcello, went undefeated en route to the last title-winning season in Rams hockey history.

During the reception in the Alumni Lounge, which offers a wonderfully unimpeded view over the ice, Scarcello pulled me aside, glad to recant stories of games and some of his considerable antics in the five years he coached the hockey team, from 1959 to 1964, and before that, when he played for the Rams while an Architecture major.

Only a year removed from graduation himself, Scarcello says his young age allowed him to become “one of the boys”, which meant he was well-liked by his players, and that he was able to pull a lot of shenanigans with them. At this, he puts his hand over my writing pad and leans in to say, “Don’t write some of these stories,” with a wink and a half-joking laugh.

In truth, they were funny tales of boys will be boys, circa the early 1960’s, and a reminder of just how little we can get away with in school today. Some of them, like the story of a salacious Frosh Week in his second year, develop a sense of the lively, affable character of Scarcello, a charisma which made him destined to be a strong motivator:

“My second year, everyone knew me because of the hockey team, so I went to this one event. They had all these pretty ladies lined up, and they were picking out guys for a kiss. Only none of the guys wanted to go up, so I turned my jacket inside-out and had a ball up there with them! Everyone was laughing because they knew I was a second year so I shouldn’t have even been there!”

After laughing with Scarcello over a few more of the countless memories he has, I realize that we have spent a good deal of time talking, and was that not current men’s hockey coach Graham Wise, wanting a word with you, quite some time earlier in our conversation?

We exchange goodbyes, and Scarcello leaves me with one last story, of the time he met former Rangers star Ott Heller. It was during a doubleheader at Varsity arena, and Scarcello was particularly distracted by his team’s play during the first game, so much so, that when the opposing coach offered his hand, Scarcello rebuffed him. “Well, I turn to look at him, and it’s Ott Heller. Ott Heller mind you, I had his hockey card!” Scarcello searched out Heller to apologize, and in the kind of moment where time and happenstance converge into history, in the corridor he noticed a few guys who had been heckling from the stands all game, at the same time as a cleaner was taking out a bucket of water. “So I grab the bucket and really gave it to ’em!” The hecklers did not much like being soaking wet, so advanced upon the coach. “We got into it pretty good, and would ya believe it, there was Ott Heller helping pull guys off me and everything!”

Climbing the four floors on my way to the induction, I had cautiously hoped that, as if in some Roger Angell inspired story from the ballpark, I would stumble into a captivating game of ‘remember when?’ among the throes of old memories, when in fact, the entire day was constructed of them.

“Remember the Waterloo game, when that huge guy, must’ve been eight feet tall, kept bugging me?” Jack Morgan awaits an answer from Alex Fex. Morgan, whom they call Black-Jack – because his hair was black and his grisly beard was blacker – was the star goaltender on that ’62 – ’63 team, while Fex was the bruising enforcer. Wearing a green jacket emblazoned with the Ryerson insignia, Fex measures his answer thoughtfully. “You threw both your gloves at him, and that bought me time to get there, otherwise I wouldn’t have fought him, he was a strong guy.”

President Sheldon Levy, whose commitment to athletics has yet to waver, reminded Morgan of another, equally astounding man, upon whose tireless efforts Ryerson grew.

“Dr. Kerr never missed a home game for as long as I can remember. He would come into the dressing room and just stand there and smile,” remembers Morgan of the former Ryerson principal.

I felt an odd bit of nostalgia for an era I was never a part of, a yearning to be able to share in the stories of that team, to be able to say I remember when Bill McKenzie scored the opening goal of the final championship series with Waterloo, but that captain Jim Hayward stole the show, and next morning’s headlines, that night.
Morgan’s throaty laugh brings me back to the lounge, where in a remarkably poignant piece of scheduling, a young junior team is taking to the ice for a Saturday practice. “I remember Dave Woodburn would load up the boys in his pickup truck, and there was so much bonding going on during rides to the arena.”

It was Fred Shero, former General Manager of the Philadelphia Flyers who once said, “win today and bond forever.” It is in that spirit which former player Jon Taylor keeps the guys informed on alumni events, such as the annual alumni golf tourney that five or eight of the teammates attend each year.

The gentlemen drank plenty of the available cabernet merlot, and then, as slowly they made their way back to their lives, in Sudbury, in Vancouver, all over the country, a few turned toward the ice. They did the only thing I could expect them to do: laced up the leather and began to skate. Some, like Fex, and former third-liner Paul Cook, wore their unmistakable green blazers, others blended into the crowd of alumni and community skaters, family and friends, generations once again sharing in the mystery of the Gardens.

Although the Mattamy Athletic Centre, in all of its glass, open concourse modernity, is a far cry from the cramped, aging wooden barns where Rams hockey teams of old plied their trade, the men around me, all of whom were past retirement, seemed at home.

Scarcello scans the room, then leans into me again, laughing. “They haven’t grown up. I haven’t grown up. Here we are old-grown men, and they still call me coach!”

[C]oach, and the rest of the team are to be honoured twice more – once at the men’s hockey season opener on October 19, the other, later this evening at the Alumni Dinner. In this way that men’s team became a part of the narrative on meeting Burtynsky, and I found myself thinking of that ’62 – ’63 team as Joe and I made our way into the Concert Hall for the next chapter of the day, this one titled the Alumni Dinner.

The soft chime of silverware on porcelain fluttered throughout the evening, providing a resonating undertone as host Nneka Elliott, a Radio and Television arts alum of 2006, made her opening remarks, before turning our attentions to the grand stage, to the right of my standing spot by the entrance door. Joe had by this time wandered off to meander his way between the sea of tables, capturing images of the night.

Under the flickering light of candles and the inconsistent flashes of camera bulbs, four third-year students of the Ryerson Theatre School took to the stage singing of dreams, of spectacular nights, of the Beatles, and an encore rendition of Lean on Me, which had the crowd clapping along, enchanted.

The theatre school’s production and operations manager, Peter Fleming, is leaning on the wall next to me. We exchange knowing glances – the likes of which are transferred between people who know just how much preparation is required to pull off a performance such as the one we are hearing, or in fact, the difficulty of organizing the entire alumni weekend: the look of two proud Ryersonian’s.

It is the look Horne hopes to engender on everyone’s faces as he makes his speech. The look that Adam Kahan, Vice President of University Advancement, hopes to capitalize on, by imploring the alumni to purchase a seat title in the MAC, to support an exponential progression toward an elite educational institution. It is the look which President Levy has on his face, each time he talks about the Gardens, as he often does in his speeches of late, but also the same look he has when he takes us on a three-dimensional rendered tour of the yet to be completed Student Learning Centre. It is the first time anyone, including the board of directors, has seen with some degree of Simsian detail (that of the popular PC game franchise), each level of space that has been given over almost in its entirety to students.

Ryerson is growing, and with over 67 000 applications each year for only 7500 undergraduate spaces, it is a rapid transition, requiring a strong-willed administration and backing from the over 130,000 alumni, who have all at some point walked through Kerr Hall just as we do today.

President Levy reminds us about all of these things during his time at the podium, and the casual, affable and witty manner with which he speaks seems to endear him to the folks at my particular table at least, as we tucked into chicken and scalloped potatoes.

At table with us is Meredith Jordan, an Alumni Relations officer, by whose grace Joe and I were able to find a seat at all. She gestured for us to get up, then leaned in, as if to tell a secret of particular import. “Do you want to meet him?” Him could only mean one person, and Joe and I exchange furtive looks of equal parts astonishment, anxiety and well, a little giddiness. Jordan leads us to the front of the hall, to table seven I believe, where we shake hands with Burtynsky himself. It is as if we had been granted royal audience, and thinking on it afterward, such a simile seems hyperbolic, but at that moment, it was how I felt.

Burtynsky was due to speak right after desert, so we had little enough time to talk, but he happily tells us how meaningful it was for his works to be studied in Ryerson classrooms by image arts students, some thirty years since he had studied the works of past photographers with the same reverence. He tells us that no matter how the path meanders, if you have a goal in mind, you will get there. I ask him whether he has gotten to the level that he had dreamed for himself back when he graduated from photography, class of 1982, and the answer is an unequivocal yes. We shake hands once more, and over a delicious custard desert, Joe and I vow to speak with Burtynsky at length after his talk. That, of course, is another story altogether.

We are chewing the last mouthfuls of desert, when, at nearly half-past nine, it is finally time for Burtynsky to step on stage. Joe wonders if he can fit in a cup of coffee before the talk, but thinks better of it and bolts away to some unseen corner of the hall to get his photographs. I anxiously grab my notepad in anticipation of a flurry of fine words about Burtynky’s life, his works, and muses.

He is part of the one per cent of photographers whom are able to fly around the globe, making a living by selling their works, but his talk begins with stories of his humble upbringing, and the friends he made at Ryerson. Then he launches into a colourful retrospective on his most prominent series, those of oil, mining, quarries, and his latest, water.

The standing ovation closing his talk is well deserved for one of Ryerson’s most famous alums, but his are not the words I remember most clearly when all the plates have been cleared, and alumni are filing out of the doors. That honour I hold for Horne, whose words were delivered near the beginning of the evening.

At the end of his speech, Horne holds his wine glass aloft, and leads the entire hall in a simple toast: “To Ryerson!” The resounding reply is swallowed by the merry clinking of hundreds of glasses before being swept away in a chorus of competing voices. It is the sound of the class of ’72 meeting the class of ’67. It is the laughter of the ’77’s at table with the ’82’s, and booming from several tables near the stage, are the stories of that ’63 hockey team and the ’62 class of Architecture and Technology. It is, above all, the sound of a university building a strong united base, upon which to grow.

As I sit near the speakers, blaring a jarring samba/soul/pop mix, absently watching staff clearing tables and packing equipment, jotting final thoughts on my pad in the blue light of a projector, I reflect on my juxtaposition between the then and the now. I resolve that in the years to come I will be sitting in perhaps this very same blue-clothed chair, telling this story, or perhaps a more interesting one to come. I suppose that is the essence of the evening; that the groundwork for building a strong future at Ryerson, is laid upon the continued strength and support of those who have come before.

Joseph and I are among the last to leave the hall, and as we exit through the doors we are greeted by Alumni Relations staffers; Jordan, Erin MacDonald and Florence James, on whose gracious help we relied to fill our bellies, introduce us to guests and make sure we had everything we needed. We thank them humbly, before heading out into the blustery Toronto night, after a successful twelve hours.

Photographs by Joseph Hammond for Ryerson Folio