Since 2004, signs have hung on the southeast corner of Maple Leaf Gardens promising an historic Loblaws Real Canadian Superstore. “Soon you’ll discover a store filled with fresh flavours, shops and services,” the billboards cheerily stated, but the Gardens at Church and Carlton has loomed a decrepit shell since it went dark in 2001, despite some minor action hosting the filming of Cinderella Man. The last Leafs game was on February 13, 1999, where they lost to the Chicago Blackhawks just as they did on opening day.
This week, Loblaws replaced the “coming soon” signs with billboards celebrating the opening of Maple Leaf Gardens on November 12, 1931. After much squabbling over what to do with the Gardens as well as unexpected structural issues that iced (ha!) existing renovation plans, Loblaws now claims that construction will now be commenced with the Superstore to open next September.
Plans now included a large LCBO store along Church Street, but any hope for a small 6000-seat arena put forth by the now-defunct Friends of Maple Leaf Gardens has disappeared. The new retail facility is also slated to have two levels of parking, some of which will sit on what was once the ice surface. The exterior will remain mostly unchanged.
Birthday wishes are bittersweet for the maligned behemoth. One one hand, it’s ugly, historically neglected and the site of a string of child molestation allegations, but it also hosted events like the first NBA game and noteworthy concerts by the Rolling Stones, The Beatles and Elvis Presley.
Many feel its low point was under ownership of the intensely loathed Harold Ballard, who jammed seats in any available nook so he could sell more tickets, but most famously cranked-up the heat and turned-off the drinking fountains during a Beatles show whilst charging triple price for drinks at the concession stands. Out of spite, Ballard also sold the Stanley Cup banners that hung from the roof and demolished Foster Hewitt’s legendary broadcast booth.
Seventy five years later, Maple Leaf Gardens is but a shadow of the grand arena built at the height of the Great Depression, once the centre of everything entertainment in Toronto. Conscious of some distaste for turning a landmark venue into a massive supermarket, Loblaws has been notoriously secretive about their plans for the site (perhaps to their own detriment).
With construction about to kick into full gear, the time for secrecy is over. Torontoist looks forward to seeing if the Gardens can finally be resuscitated into a site worthy of our respect.
Photo by Marc Lostracco.