People in this hockey-mad city will do anything to get Leafs tickets -- even if it means taking seating in sections designated for the disabled, or so it seems to me. Take last Thursday's (April 18) playoff game between the Leafs and Islanders at the Air Canada Centre (ACC).
The disabled sections (there are six in all at the ACC) are supposed to be closely monitored by arena staff and officials to ensure that wheelchair-bound patrons like me are actually getting the seats. At least that's what the ACC's Web site says.
I arrive at the game to find the seat next to me occupied by an able-bodied man with a press pass. Beside him are four young guys who appear to be perfectly healthy -- and rather uncomfortable when I ask how they got wheelchair seats.
The rest of the section, save for one wheelchair-bound man and his guest, is vacant -- which comes as a surprise to me since I was told when I called to get a second ticket for a friend a week ago that the section was sold out. That's why I'm here tonight alone.
I wheel around to another wheelchair section to find a similar scenario, only worse.
Here sit two people in wheelchairs, each with a companion, while the rest of the section contains able-bodied people, most of whom are injured players or press who apparently could not be seated in the press box. I also count 10 vacant seats. From this vantage point, the usher I sidle up to tells me he can see about 12 people in folding chairs seated in the lower-level disabled area.
I have a lengthy chat with him. He tells me that he and others have complained about able-bodied people taking up spots that are supposed to be for disabled patrons at nearly every game, but their voices are not being heard by higher-ups.
He says nothing is done to monitor who occupies these seats. Basically, anyone can call Ticketmaster and order them.
The Ticketmaster agent I call tells me that "people are told when buying wheelchair seats that the ACC has the right to remove able-bodied people if they show up with these tickets."
It's hard for me to believe they're evicting people. I've attended about 2o regular-season games so far this year, including a few on my own because only single tickets were available. The wheelchair seating is full to capacity with able-bodied people most of the time.
This would be acceptable to my mind if the ACC policy of putting unsold tickets on sale a couple of hours before game time for anyone wanting them were a reality.
But I can't recall in the three years that I've been attending games at the Hangar ever going to the box office on the day of a game and finding accessible seating available.
Popular Citytv newsreader David Onley, who also sits on the ACC's accessibility advisory committee, says that even he "finds it hard to get tickets."
Judging by the overwhelming number of folding chairs set up in each of the wheelchair seating areas, it seems ACC staff are "expecting" able-bodied people to be occupying a good portion of the disabled seating.
Michaella Petrik, the ACC's fan advocate, whom I'd contacted to inquire about how they monitor the sale of wheelchair tickets for Leafs games, says the issue has come up periodically at staff meetings.
She leaves the following message on my voice mail:
"Not everyone is confined in a wheelchair (in these seats). We've had instances where people (sit there) who are extremely scared of heights to the point of passing out, can't walk stairs, have hip replacements.... So not everyone there is necessarily confined in a wheelchair, but they would have difficulty sitting in regular seats for a number of reasons.
"Our event supervisors regularly watch. We've actually been able to catch an instance where a gentleman faked the (need) to sit in a wheelchair. After he got rolled out to the smoking area he miraculously managed to get up out of the wheelchair. We try our best, but honestly, it is difficult."
Chris Overholt, vice-president of sales and service for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, is more difficult to pin down. I call half a dozen times before I get a response.
He admits that "despite our best efforts... there's no easy way to police this game-to-game."
As for injured players taking up disabled seatingat last Thursday's game, Overholt says it's the first he's heard of it.
Bob Hunter, a senior VP and general manager at the ACC, assures me he'll have staff take a tour of all the wheelchair areas next game. Hopefully, I won't end up going alone to that one because some able-bodied person has snapped up the ticket.Leafs fans will do anything to get tickets,
including faking a disability.