New life for the Gardens

Hockey shrine now home for Ryerson University Rams

30.03.2013
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The new ice rink below the roof of the Maple Leafs Gardens. Photo: Denis Gibbons

TORONTO – It was built during the Depression and opened in 1931. Now one of hockey’s greatest shrines – the scene of 19 Stanley Cup finals and eight NHL All-Star Games – is starting a new phase of its life.

The last NHL game played at Maple Leaf Gardens was on Feb. 13, 1999, with the Chicago Blackhawks defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs.

After the Leafs moved to their new home, the Air Canada Centre, there were discussions about tearing the Gardens down, but historians prevailed and several proposals were made for its continued use.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment sold the building to the Loblaw company in 2004. Five years later Ryerson University leased space from the new owners.

In the end, it was decided to have a three-tier facility with a Loblaw supermarket on the ground floor, a basketball court and fitness gym on the second and a much smaller hockey rink on the third.

Ryerson now is the major tenant. Its men’s and women’s hockey teams, figure skating team and basketball teams have made it their new home.

The official opening of what is now called the Mattamy Athletic Centre took place in September of 2012.

Located on the third level, the new arena is the highest elevated ice pad in Toronto, situated 100 feet below the famous dome of the Gardens.

While the old NHL rink accommodated about 16,000 fans, the new one is cozy with just 2,620 seats.

The Ryerson Rams, who play in the Eastern Division of the Ontario University Athletics Conference, also practise at the facility daily from 4 to 6 p.m.

Graham Wise, head coach of the Rams, said he’s impressed with the renovated facility.

“They did a brilliant job on the rink,” he said. “It’s user-friendly and it’s close to the campus for the kids. It used to take as much as an hour in heavy traffic for the team to get to George Bell Arena. It was taking two hours out of their day just traveling to practice.”

Ryerson’s main campus is only four blocks away from the Gardens.

Wise was a member of the 1969-70 Toronto Marlboros junior team, which lost to the eventual Memorial Cup champion Montreal Junior Canadiens in seven games in the playoffs. His son Jamie is one of Ryerson’s star players.

The Marlboros also used Maple Leaf Gardens in those days.

Wise said every time he enters the old shrine it feels like he has gone full circle.

“It’s still a thrill seeing the old building from the outside with the marquee and it’s great that they’ve maintained some of the old Maple Leafs pictures on the walls.”

“When I walk into the building, I still look at that old dingy roof,” he said. “I hoped some day someone would sandblast it and paint it.”

The Rams attracted a crowd of 1,100 for a game against their cross-town rivals, the University of Toronto Blues, with the help of a special $3 beer night promotion for students.

Retractable seating for more than 1,000 is a feature of the basketball court, which also is used for volleyball. A fitness centre; studios and a high-performance gym also occupy the second floor.

Ryerson, which didn’t have a varsity hockey team until 1958, used to have the smallest amount of athletics space for any school in Toronto. Now it is the envy of visiting teams.

The new facility has wide concourses at the top of the seating, making it very easy for fans to move around.

Wise got his wish when the 30-metre domed ceiling was painted a clean light grey. It also was fitted with powerful new lights. Painted at centre ice, instead of a maple leaf, is Ryerson’s ‘R’ for Rams.

Some shoppers wondered why Loblaws staffers were directing them to Aisle 26 of the huge supermarket. It turns out there is a spot in the aisle which used to be centre ice in the old Gardens.

Much to their surprise, while carrying out the renovations workers came across an old copper box, which contained a time capsule deposited behind a cornerstone in 1931.

Among the items they found inside were:
  • A four-page letter typed by the directors more than 80 years ago describing the design and construction details of the new arena;
  • A stock prospectus for Maple Leaf Gardens;
  • Four newspapers from September 21, 1931 including the Toronto Daily Star, The Globe, The Mail and Empire and The Evening Telegram;
  • Three official hockey rule books, one each for the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, the Ontario Hockey Association and the National Hockey League;
  • A Red Ensign flag, which at that time was Canada’s national flag;

Maple Leafs Gardens got a new life and hosts the hockey and other sport teams of the Ryerson University. Photo: Denis Gibbons

The capsule now is on display in a glass case in the hallway of the ice rink.

Four of the original six NHL rinks – Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium, Detroit Olympia and an earlier version of Madison Square Garden have been demolished and the Montreal Forum was converted into shops, restaurants and a movie theatre.

This is the only Original Six building that still has an ice surface.

The former home of the Leafs was gutted back to its original windows and walls.

The new facility is primarily for Ryerson students but will also be accessible to the community. It is available to rent for $300 an hour prime time — $192 after 11 p.m.

The reconstruction created a lot of nostalgia.

One woman asked to take her son’s picture against the building’s yellow brick wall. His great-grandfather, a bricklayer, was one of the approximately 3,000 workers who helped construct the arena in 1931.

Mattamy Homes, which was in charge of the renovations, was awarded the naming rights to the building, now called The Mattamy Athletic Centre.

Like Maple Leaf Gardens, the new facility also is hosting some non-sporting events. The Ontario Liberal Party leadership convention, at which Kathleen Wynne was elected the province’s new premier, was held there on Jan. 25 and 26.

From an international perspective, one of the most memorable evenings at the Gardens was the first time a Soviet team played there on Nov. 22, 1957.

Facing the Whitby Dunlops, an amateur team, the Moscow Selects (a version of the national team) took a 2-0 lead in the first few minutes.

That infuriated Whitby coach Wren Blair, who gave his players, including future Boston Bruins coach and GM Harry Sinden, a tongue-lashing.

“You guys should go to the box office and pay the $10 admission fee, the same as the other spectators at Maple Leaf Gardens,” he screamed.

The lecture worked. The Dunlops scored seven straight goals to win 7-2, and later that season won the gold medal for Canada at the 1958 IIHF World Championship in Oslo.

Maple Leaf Gardens also hosted Game 2 of the historic 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, a couple of matches from the 1976 and 1991 Canada Cup tournaments and the New Year’s Day fixture between Canada and Finland at the 1986 IIHF World Junior Championship.

DENIS GIBBONS


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