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Gardens of Stone

Photo by Яick Harris.

Ten years ago today, Maple Leaf Gardens hosted its final National Hockey League game. And ten years further on, we still haven’t learned the building’s ultimate fate—still haven’t learned what’ll happen to “the Grand Old Lady of Carlton Street,” the last of the famed Original Six arenas.
After the Maple Leafs lost 6-2 to the Chicago Black Hawks on February 13, 1999 (with Bob Probert, of all people, scoring the final goal), Maple Leaf Gardens fell into disuse and then into disrepair. In January 2007, a CFTO News story captured the building’s demise with startling poignancy. Yet despite the well-publicized sale to Loblaw Companies in 2004, plans to retrofit the interior as a grocery store are on hold. So now what? While the delay might only be temporary, it’s given us reason to hope that Maple Leaf Gardens might yet be salvaged as a venue for live entertainment. The recent closure of Yankee Stadium, undoubtedly America’s most famous sporting venue, should reverberate in Toronto, where Canada’s most famous arena is still standing, but where it might not be too late to prevent a similar occurrence.

Maple Leaf Gardens is seldom open to the public, despite remaining one of Toronto’s most sought-after tourist destinations. Last fall, however, the Gardens opened its doors on two separate occasions, for a concert in support of ONEXONE and for Nuit Blanche. During the latter event, the former playing surface was used as an art gallery—yet not surprisingly, for the majority of visitors the building itself was the main attraction. Those people were easy to spot. They were the ones who stood on the old ice surface and stared up into the building’s vast domed ceiling, the old scoreboard still hanging precariously in place. They were the ones who wandered up and down the west concourse, as clean and as well-lit as if it’d been used the night before (and with a giant 1999 Mercury Cougar ad still hanging overtop the escalators). They were the ones who gazed into the arena’s unlit seating area—almost half of its 16,300 seats still in place—and remembered previous visits. And if they weren’t obvious enough, they were the ones who wore Leaf jerseys.

Photo by sssteve.o from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

That one of the most famous buildings in Canada could still be standing in the middle of its biggest city, yet to all intents and purposes be mothballed, is baffling. Who’s to blame for this mess?
While they’re probably too convenient a scapegoat, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment must bear the brunt of the responsibility: after all, it was they who refused to sell the Gardens to anyone planning on using it for its intended purpose. That’s why they wouldn’t sell to Eugene Melnyk, who had designs on moving his St. Michael’s Majors into the Gardens. The decision was ostensibly based on the grounds that he’d represent “competition” to the Air Canada Centre; no one other than MLSE would envision a building whose primary tenant would be an OHL team as a potential threat. Of course, if moving the Majors downtown would’ve created “competition,” then surely moving the St. John’s Maple Leafs from Newfoundland to the CNE grounds—closer to the Air Canada Centre than Maple Leaf Gardens, by the way—and renaming them the Marlies was equally counterproductive. The difference, of course, is that the Majors aren’t owned by MLSE. The Marlies are.
Melnyk (who, speaking of competition, also owns the NHL’s Ottawa Senators) must’ve realized what MLSE seemingly refuses to acknowledge: that the Gardens, in addition to its association with the Leafs, is vital to Canada’s cultural history, a building where Elvis Presley and the Beatles performed, where Muhammad Ali fought and where Winston Churchill spoke. In addition, the building hosted the first-ever National Basketball Association game, the 1972 Summit Series between Canada and the Soviet Union, and eleven Stanley Cup Championship–winning teams. This is the history MLSE seemed perfectly willing to sacrifice when it sold the Gardens to Loblaw Companies, who made no secret of their eventual plan to gut the building’s interior. Meanwhile, our local government seems content to tacitly sanction the building’s demise instead of spearheading a proper retrofit.

Photo by jimmyharris.

We know the Gardens is a problematic edifice: its location, not to mention its size, makes it an expensive building to run, especially in the absence of any money-spinning tenants. Yet this much remains clear: the Gardens’ history demands that the building be preserved as close to intact as possible. The fact we’re even talking about the possibility of sacrificing more than seventy years of Canadian heritage in favour of commercial enterprise epitomizes the narrow-mindedness, soullessness, and incompetence that has overshadowed Maple Leaf Gardens since it was effectively shuttered ten years ago. Torontonians cannot allow this building, which occupies so central a role in both Toronto’s and Canada’s cultural history, to be turned into a grocery store. For now, the anniversary of the building’s final hockey game invites us to remember its past—and to hope that something can be done to preserve its legacy in an appropriate manner, not just for Torontonians but for all Canadians.


  • http://undefined dowlingm

    Excellent article, particularly this: “Meanwhile, our local government seems content to tacitly sanction the building’s demise instead of spearheading a proper retrofit.”
    I guess it’s hard to politicians to stand up for the retention of MLG because of the child abuse scandal and it’s an easier option to pretend it’s not there. Any time the Mayor talks about hockey – and he does – he should be pressed on this. The local councillor (Rae) has stated that “the community is excited” about a Loblaws so he’s not going to be any help.
    I also wonder if another entertainment/hockey venue would be more troubling to the Deputy Mayor’s pet (the Ex/Ricoh) as it would be tempting to MLSE to relocate the Marlies from the middle of nowhere to a location of higher visibility.
    If I had power in the City I would have taken every opportunity when MLSE came looking for City permissions or money in the last few years – Maple Leafs Square, BMO Field, Lakeshore Lions – to link it to a removal of the conditions of sale to Loblaw with respect to Maple Leaf Gardens.
    In turn, I would facilitate Loblaw in finding an alternative downtown site for a supermarket – my vote would be for killing the depressing edifice that is the TTC-owned Toronto Bus Terminal, moving it into the proposed Harbour Street shared facility with GO and building a tower with a Loblaws at its base. Alternatively, convert one of the surface parking lots in the Yonge/Gerrard area.

  • http://null Vincent Clement

    Meanwhile, our local government seems content to tacitly sanction the building’s demise instead of spearheading a proper retrofit.
    That could be because your local government has more pressing issues such as increasing social service costs and an ever growing list of infrastructure projects including expansion of TTC services.
    Why don’t you start a non-profit group and start soliciting donations to privately purchase and retrofit the Gardens? You point out the building shouldn’t be used for a grocery store. You mention Melnyk but other than that you are quiet. Par for the course at Torontoist – ‘something needs to be done – whose money can we steal, er, use?’

  • Stephen Johns

    @dowlingm: thanks for the compliment! You raise an interesting question: why on earth didn’t MLSE move the Marlies into Maple Leaf Gardens instead of into Ricoh Coliseum? I’m sure there’s a valid explanation, but it seems like such an obvious idea…
    @Vincent Clement: firstly, I’d argue that protecting seventy-plus years of cultural heritage is pressing in its own right. Secondly, people have been fighting for Maple Leaf Gardens: for instance, the Friends of Maple Leaf Gardens spent most of 2004 advocating for a proper retrofit. Ultimately, any attempts at purchasing/renovating Maple Leaf Gardens would have to involve various levels of government and millions–many, many millions–of dollars. Getting a grassroots movement up and running would be a start, but it’d require all sorts of cooperation in order to be successful; on that front, and speaking strictly for myself, that doesn’t seem very likely.

  • http://null h

    Excellent. You raise many good points, and many interesting questions.

  • Steve Keys

    I had always hoped they’d lay down the ice and let people comes and skate there a couple of times a year like Nathan Phillips Square. Would be cool to say I skated in Maple Leaf Gardens.

  • http://null McKingford

    While I think it is fair to bemoan that MLG has sat idle, unused for the last 10 years, I don’t understand the fetishist need to preserve its status as a hockey venue.
    Buildings change – often for the better. Nobody complains about the loss of a warehouse that is converted into lofts. While it might, imo, be preferable to keep the outer facade of MLG as is, I don’t see any pressing need for another downtown arena – especially since it would sit unused as an arena for the overwhelming majority of the time; so lets get moving on revitalizing the building, but lets get over the loss of the arena.

  • veektah

    I don’t know how you can compare the loss of a warehouse to the loss of MLG.

  • http://null dowlingm

    @3 – when MLG was sold, the Marlies were in St. John’s.
    @6 – I don’t think it necessarily has to be a primarily hockey venue in the way the old MLG was, but rather a Ricoh type venue with a smaller capacity and built for flexibility. However, if MLG is refitted for a non-hockey use, I think it’s time for the murals at TTC College to be relocated.

  • http://null dowlingm

    @2 – Melnyk talks a good game but I doubt his ability to deliver. I mean the guy talks out loud about putting an MLS team in Ottawa. Yeah right… not to mention his standing in the business community taking a knock over Biovail.
    However, while the City already is in the sports venue business (BMO, Ricoh for two) it could act more as a facilitor – City sells Metro Terminal to Loblaw to fund Harbour St., Loblaw sells MLG to Rogers or someone else in the venue business but not MLSE because of their near monopoly. In return for being shut out of ownership/operation MLSE could be offered prime tenancy for the Marlies with first option on dates.
    Having a bus terminal that doesn’t look like a dungeon and a TTC-connected entertainment venue not on King St. should be pluses for the City overall. Would be a downer for the Ricoh folks but I’m sure something could be thought of.
    Kyle Rae’s gentrifying constituents may have something to say, of course…
    Alternatively, convert the building to another badly needed structure – a City of Toronto Museum.

  • http://undefined Stephen Johns

    @1/8/9: also re: Eugene Melnyk, he told people who were calling for the Ottawa Senators to be blown up to find their own bomb and blow themselves up instead. That’s gotta be one of the immortal quotes of sports ownership. Also, re: the Marlies being in St. John’s when the Gardens closed, that’s a fair point; for some reason I thought they moved to Toronto prior to the building’s sale. Having said that, I’d have thought MLSE would’ve looked into reacquiring Maple Leaf Gardens (not knowing if that’d be plausible, of course…).
    Using the building as a mid-sized concert venue is another intriguing idea. Even if the Gardens could’ve be salvaged for hockey, it’d certainly be an awesome place to see a show.

  • sesquiotic

    My wife coaches figure skating, and she knows excruciatingly well how little ice is available in downtown Toronto — especially for anything other than hockey. She wrote a letter to Kyle Rae way back when the Loblaws was proposed, pleading for action to make it something more valuable to the community (the area is already well enough served by grocery stores, just not Loblaws ones). He or a staffer sent a rather curt, even snarky, reply that he couldn’t and wouldn’t influence a private business arrangements. I found that altogether disingenuous; the city is indeed in a position to make such deals more or less favourable and easily conducted, especially when it’s a building of this kind of significance. If it had the money, it might be in a position to step in and do something good… If it had the money. But any time it tries to get the money to serve the citizens, many of the very citizens who would benefit and who are even asking for those benefits stand up and scream about taxes. Well, and what does pay for government initiatives, if not taxes?

  • http://null joeclark

    Useful intellectual exercise: Every time you read the word “heritage” or “history,” substitute “Martin Kruze.”
    Your architectural symbolism isn’t everybody’s architectural symbolism.

  • Rick Harris

    Good article — I had the privilege of exploring MLG for an exhibition we’re holding in Februrary. I was amazed that Harold Ballard’s ghost still haunts the place. His name (and date of death) is emblazoned at centre ice. His bunker remains sealed but visible. His presence lingers.
    It would be nice to see the place repurposed and brought back to life. I have confidence that Loblaw Companies will do the right thing.
    I took the photograph leading the article. If you’re interested we will be holding an exhibition of photography called Building Storeys. This will feature properties such as MLG, the Canary Restaurant, The Guild Inn and more. These properties are considered significant by Heritage Toronto. You can find more information on the Heritage Toronto site.

  • Stephen Johns

    @Rick Harris, thanks for letting us use your picture! I’d love to see the rest of your MLG photography; I checked out what was up on Flickr, but if there’s anything else it’d be awesome to see.

  • Rick Harris

    Olena Sullivan has some great pictures from the same shoot:

  • http://null CanadianSkeezix

    I’m not sure you should be so quick to discount Melnyk’s ability to deliver. I was in Ottawa yesterday, and the article on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen stated: “Melnyk’s group has all but locked up a conditional MLS expansion franchise if an acceptable stadium is constructed. Several other potential competitors from across North America have dropped out of the running.”