Gardens of Stone
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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.