This month marks the tenth anniversary of the opening of the Air Canada Centre, the waterfront home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Toronto Raptors, and the Toronto Rock and the preferred stadium for visiting top-forty artists. The ACC first opened with a Leafs game on February 19, 1999, a 3-2 win over the Montreal Canadiens (which, amazingly, came within a day of not being aired on account of a CBC technicians’ strike).
The $265 million building, initiated by John Bitove’s Toronto Raptors in 1997 and completed by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. (MLSE) in 1999 after they bought the NBA expansion team, was paid for entirely with private money, avoiding the usual public/private partnership headaches that often accompany large sports infrastructure projects (see: Vancouver 2010). Of course, Toronto in the late 1990s was a bit different than Toronto today: the local economy was booming, and corporation-friendly Mike Harris and Mel Lastman, who controlled the province and city respectively, were never going to intervene with the initial stadium plans or with MLSE’s mammoth purchase of both the ACC and the Toronto Raptors.
And certainly by the late 1990s a new stadium was necessary for both clubs—the Leafs had outgrown the aging Maple Leaf Gardens and the Raptors needed a more regularly available venue than the Skydome. But even without the use of public money, not everyone was happy with the prospect of another waterfront stadium. For some, the ACC, built on the spot where the art deco Canada Post Delivery Building stood [PDF], was a symbol of the city’s aggressive attempt to reshape the city by developing a lakeside playground for Toronto’s nouveau riche. (As if to underline the point, in July 1997 Toronto literally dug up its historical foundation—the discovery of the ship Commodore Jarvis by the ACC excavation crew, sunk in Toronto Harbour back in 1921, inspired Michael Redhill’s novel Consolation, a book about Toronto’s disregard for its past.)
Since its construction, there has been some mumbling from sports fans as well. Critics have pointed out that middle-class fans have been priced out of the rink and court-side seats, leaving a sea of suits with eyes on their BlackBerrys instead of the game and generally diminishing the fan atmosphere, something players themselves have noticed as of late. A few other fans miss the rugged feel of the Gardens. But few can deny the Air Canada Centre has been a model of function and purpose over the past decade, a boast backed up by twenty-five industry awards during those years given both for its sporting and musical accommodations. And while some fans, heritage preservers, and anti-development types still grumble, it may only take one (very elusive) Stanley Cup or NBA Championship for the ACC to become a bona fide Toronto landmark.
That, or a full-stadium riot at a Rolling Stones concert.