Heart, soul and history: Farewell to Maple Leaf Gardens

The thing about dealing with death is that sometimes, it’s easier to handle if it comes suddenly.

You might not get a chance to say all your proper goodbyes, but at least you’re spared the process of watching a loved one wither away before your eyes.

Perhaps a sudden death would have made what is going on in Toronto right now easier to deal with: After ten years in bureaucratic purgatory, Maple Leaf Gardens is set to be redeveloped.

Ryerson University and supermarket giant Loblaw have agreed to work together to redevelop the site into an athletic centre and grocery store. The federal government has pledged to kick in an additional $20 million towards construction costs.

With this recent announcement, it seems that the wheels are finally in motion for the end of Maple Leaf Gardens. Since the Leafs left for Air Canada Centre in 1999, one could feel this moment coming.

Yet the longer that the building sat in disrepair, the greater optimism one felt that something, anything, could help save the Gardens.

Eugene Melnyk, owner of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators and St. Michael’s Majors of the Ontario Hockey League, tried to get his junior team in there earlier this decade. The site’s owners, Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, vetoed that idea. It was speculated at the time that MLSE didn’t want the increased competition for concert venues in the city.

And so the old lady lingered.

Sitting, waiting for a saviour that never came.

Now that it’s reached its final destination as a professional hockey venue, many longtime Leafs fans will feel a sense of discontent. Puck will still be played in the redeveloped building, but the interior of the site won’t bear a resemblance to the original floor plans.

With the loss of the Gardens, the NHL loses a connection to its founding history. The venerable venue is the last of the NHL’s original six arenas to remain somewhat in tact.

Montreal, a city that historically has been a lot better than Toronto in preserving its architectural heritage, shuttered the old Forum in 1996. The Boston Garden was demolished in 1997 and two years earlier, the Blackhawks left Chicago Stadium.

The other Original Six franchises, Detroit and the New York Rangers, had long since abandoned their original stomping grounds.

Like many of these arenas, the Gardens had its fair share of problems that forced the teams to move facilities.

For one thing, it had lousy sightlines.

I remember at the first Leafs game I ever attended, I wasn’t able to see the game winning goal—only the backs of adults in front of me as they rose for the Toronto two-on-one scoring rush. Not that it really mattered. The resultant roar of the crowd told me all I needed to know.

It never worked well as a basketball venue. That was a part of the Raptors insistence on playing at the woefully ill-suited SkyDome during their early years.

From all accounts, the concert acoustics were lousy.

Corridors were cramped, concessions limited and its washrooms inadequate.

All these factors meant that the building was incapable of generating sufficient revenue in the twenty first century.

But for all of its shortcomings, the Grand Old Lady on Carlton had a few intangibles that will never be replaced in the Toronto sports scene.

The place had heart.

Before the days of late-arriving platinum seated suits, the Gardens was jammed with hockey fans. Maple Leafs fans.

You couldn’t get a platter of sushi from underneath the arena bowl. Actually, you probably couldn’t get it anywhere in the building (not that there’s anything wrong with sushi).

Wanted to sit in a corporate box? You were banished to the rafters.

The place had soul.

It probably started with the brilliantly simple naming of the facility. Maple Leaf Gardens harkens back to a day before corporate sponsorships.

(The arena at which the Florida Panthers play is probably the most egregious example of the corporate naming trend. Now known as the BankAtlantic Center, the building has been referred to at various points in its 11-year history as the Broward County Civic Center, The Office Depot Center, and unbelievably, the National Car Rental Center).

The place had history.

For better or for worse, the Stanley Cup banners that hung above centre ice were a reminder of a tradition of excellence for Leafs teams to strive towards.

I can’t imagine how difficult a reminder they must have been during the awful teams that the Leafs, led by tyrannical owner Harold Ballard, iced in the 1980s.

But at least the Stanley Cup banners had relevance at that point. Hanging from the rafters at the ACC, they just seem like relics from a bygone era.

There will be some who won’t shed a tear over the official death of the Gardens. Certainly, it had some awful moments in its history.

But the old lady’s last song will hit a painful note for others.

Those who would trade a little bit of leg room for an incredible, historic hockey atmosphere any day of the week.


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