Field Notes: ThumbLeague Echoes Maple Leaf Gardens of Old
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Field Notes: ThumbLeague Echoes Maple Leaf Gardens of Old

Where you can find some relevant NHL hockey, sort of.

On Sunday evening, NHL action returned to the former Maple Leaf Gardens—sort of.

No ticket scalpers stand outside the historic arena that now houses a Loblaws grocery store and Ryerson University’s Mattamy Athletic Centre. Masses of bejerseyed fans aren’t filing into the hulking art deco building at Carlton and Church either. But inside Eggy’s Summit, a narrow room overlooking Mattamy’s indoor basketball courts, familiar sounds echo this venue’s storied past.

Piercing whistle blows, organ music, and the roaring of crowds emanate from five flat-screen TVs. They’re joined by the sound of something less familiar: thumbs tapping console controllers relentlessly.

“It all comes down to execution with the fingers,” says Will Boulougouris after getting walloped 5-1 in a match of EA Sports’ NHL 16, the game of choice here.

Boulougouris was a bit rusty. He’s cut down on playing video games while he focuses on building up ThumbLeague—an informal e-sports league that on March 20 held its first tournament—with his brother George and friend Paul Duchich.

Thirty-two gamers registered leading up to the inaugural ThumbLeague event, with most who did so turning up to play in the five-round knockout NHL 16 tournament this past weekend. All were men, but Duchich says ThumbLeague, which has loose plans for a few more events this year, will work to change that. “We’re going to try to appeal to the women’s market, slowly,” he says.

Competition was stiff, just ask Ryerson student Ibrahim Nasser, who plugs away at the game for an average of 10 hours a week. “I was on a 27-game winning streak before I got here,” he says, but that didn’t stop him from getting knocked out in the first round.

There was a lot on the line in these 12-minute games. Those who came out were competing for cash prizes—first place took home a couple of tickets to a Leafs game and about $400—as well as a chance to test out their skills against unfamiliar opponents. “Everybody plays only against their own friends, and that’s not really a gauge of who’s a champion, or who’s the best,” says Will.

Will, who counts George and Duchich as teammates in an IRL men’s hockey league, mentions one thing that’s a game-changer in both e-hockey and the real thing. “Awareness,” he says. “If you can see the plays before they happen, then you’ve got an advantage.”

The Washington Capitals are a popular choice at the inaugural event, as are the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks. The Maple Leafs less so. “People are playing to win, I guess,” snipes Will.

Empty cans of Molson Canadian accumulate, but the atmosphere is hardly boisterous. As 7 p.m. approaches, a row of half-a-dozen onlookers is perched on stools, intently watching the finals.

The battle for third place is winding down. A bearded guy in a baseball cap shifts around anxiously, his legs shaking. He has good reason to be nervous. His team, the Maple Leafs, is losing 4-2 with about two minutes left in the bronze-medal game.

Then, someone shouts, “Go Leafs, go.”

Evidently the unwavering optimism of Leafs Nation lives on at 50 Carlton Street.