Historicist: Opening the Gardens
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Historicist: Opening the Gardens

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Photo by Cold Cut from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The success of Battle of the Blades has brought Maple Leaf Gardens back into the national spotlight. The show’s mix of glamour and excitement fits some of the visions Conn Smythe had for the building when it opened its doors to the public seventy-eight years ago this week. Built in an almost unimaginable span of five months, the building that became a temple for generations of hockey fans is a testament to the executives who used their persuasive skills to raise the necessary funds during the Great Depression.
From the dawn of the National Hockey League in 1917, its Toronto franchises had called the Arena Gardens on Mutual Street home. By the late 1920s, its small capacity (eight thousand seats) and lack of amenities like reliable heating led Smythe to push for a new facility at any opportunity. Larger arenas in Chicago, Detroit, and New York allowed those teams to offer higher salaries to top players, which made Smythe fear that Toronto’s limited financial resources would leave the team uncompetitive. He also felt the arena’s drawbacks prevented a higher-quality clientele from attending games. As he told the Star’s Greg Clark, “As a place to go all dressed up, we don’t compete with the comfort of theatres and other places where people can spend their money. We need a place where people can go in evening clothes, if they want to come there from a party or dinner. We need at least twelve thousand seats, everything new and clean, a place that people can be proud to take their wives or girlfriends to.”

Sketch of Maple Leaf Gardens as it was first unveiled in the press. Source: The Telegram, March 5, 1931.

By early 1931, Maple Leaf Gardens Limited was established to raise funds for a new building. The first site considered was near the foot of Yonge Street, but the property was not for sale. The company then looked at land that had belonged to Knox College on Spadina Avenue north of College Street, but opposition from nearby residents spearheaded by future Toronto mayor Nathan Phillips scuttled those plans. Smythe then approached Eaton’s department store, which had just opened its College Street location and was open to drawing more customers from a nearby arena, even if its clientele might not be the type of people they hoped to attract to their frou-frou new store. Eaton’s initially offered Smythe the block north of Wood Street, but he insisted on land the company owned at the corner of Carlton and Church due to its direct access to streetcar service. Maple Leaf Gardens ended up with an option on the property, while Eaton’s received twenty-five thousand dollars worth of stock.
Beyond the clout of fellow Gardens directors such as mining executive J.P. Bickell with other businessmen, Smythe used all of his powers of persuasion to convince others to invest in the new arena. As Trent Frayne described him in a 1999 Globe and Mail profile:

Smythe wasn’t a big fellow, but he could dominate a room. His bright blue eyes were his most revealing physical aspect—warm and welcoming sometimes, colder than ice cubes other times. He was often intimidating, as often charming. He was described once by a friend as a “practical mystic. He believed in playing hunches and he believed in luck; mix his superstitions with his practical ability and you had him, a belligerent Irishman.” He was stocky and big-chested. He wore pearl grey spats and an off-white Borsalino fedora. He could be somewhat acerbic.

Smythe, Bickell, and the other executives prodded local business titans to invest, despite questions about the timing of building a $1.5 million facility. As Elias Rogers Coal head Alf Rogers asked Bickell, “Don’t you know there’s a depression on?” (Rogers eventually bought twenty-five thousand dollars worth of stock). When construction bids were tendered, the Gardens found itself $250,000 short of financing the lowest offer. When Smythe came out of a meeting with the Gardens board and bankers indicating that they felt construction should be delayed for a year, Maple Leafs business manager Frank Selke ran down to an Allied Building Trades Council meeting on Church Street. Selke, who also served gratis as the business manager of an electrician’s union, proposed to the attending unions that any labourers who worked on the Gardens would receive 20% of their pay in Gardens stock instead of cash. Few objections were raised toward Selke’s scheme and he proceeded to sign agreements with twenty-four unions. When word of this plan reached Sir John Aird of the Bank of Commerce, he agreed to fund any lingering shortfalls. Workers who held onto their shares would have eventually made a nice little profit, as prices fluctuated from the fifty-cent range in the mid-1930s to the hundred dollar level by the end of World War II.

Left: dignitaries gathered to lay the cornerstone of Maple Leaf Gardens. Left to right: William MacBrien (former president of the Maple Leafs), Ed Bickle (vice-president of Maple Leaf Gardens), W.D. Ross (lieutenant-governor of Ontario), Reverend Dr. John Inkster, J.P. Bickell (president of Maple Leaf Gardens), and Victor Ross (a director of Maple Leaf Gardens). Source: The Mail and Empire, September 21, 1931. Right: photo by arc23 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Construction began on June 1, 1931 and proceeded at a rapid pace. Haste was necessary, as the facility had to be ready for the Maple Leafs home opener on November 12. Over 1,200 labourers, 750,000 bricks, and 77,500 bags of concrete were required to build the Gardens. The cornerstone was laid by Ontario Lieutenant-Governor W.D. Ross in a dignitary-laden ceremony on September 21. “Toronto,” said Ross, “is, and has been for years, a sports centre. Our position on Lake Ontario, our National Exhibition, our general enthusiasm for sports of all kinds—amateur and professional—make this city the ‘logical location’ for a building worthy of our record, of cur[rent] need and of our ambition.”
Bickell then stated the aims and idealism behind the Gardens, as well as complimenting Ross. We don’t recall some of the following aspirations being trotted out when the Air Canada Centre came to be, nor did the name W.D. Ross roll off the tongues of Leafs fans.

This building, with which I trust your name will be long associated, perhaps might be regarded as a civic institution, rather than a commercial venture, because its object is to foster and promote the healthy recreation of the people of this British and sport-loving city. It represents the combined efforts of all sections of the community. Capital for its creation has come very largely from those who are actuated by a spirit of civic patriotism, rather than a desire to reap financial benefit. No less a high ideal has inspired those who labo[u]r is creating it, for I am glad to tell your Hono[u]r that the members of the various trades employed are becoming part-owners of the enterprise by accepting a substantial portion of their remuneration in stock. There is I believe no precedent in any similar project for this happy situation.

Sources: (left and top right) The Mail and Empire, November 12, 1931; (bottom right) The Telegram, November 9, 1931.

Long lines formed when season tickets went on sale on October 14. Selke and Smythe dropped by the queue to observe the buyers. Selke related to Globe columnist Bert Perry the specific seating needs of one family, who were fans of Leafs tough guy Red Horner:

One subscriber was telling the ticket-seller that he wanted tickets for his wife, his daughter and himself. He mentioned that his daughter, a high school student, was a great hockey fan, and she was particularly fond of the playing of Red Horner, the youthful defense player of the Leafs. It was his desire to obtain seats that would be located as near to Horner as it was possible to get during a game, so he finally decided to take them right behind the penalty box. And that is where he got them.

Opening-night ceremonies at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Mail and Empire, November 11, 1931.

Despite minor delays, the Gardens was ready to greet a sold-out crowd of over thirteen thousand eager to see the Leafs take on the Chicago Black Hawks on opening night. Early in the day, Smythe wandered from line to line to observe the reactions of those seeking rush tickets. His queue jumping drew the notice of a police officer, who escorted Smythe off the premises until his identity was established. A later starting time was planned so that patrons had enough time to acquaint themselves with the seating plan. When the 48th Highlanders and Royal Grenadiers band played “Happy Days are Here Again” at 8:30 p.m., Smythe felt that “the scene was pretty much as I had imagined it in my rosiest dreams.” After the bands finished, Mayor William J. Stewart presented the team with floral horseshoes on behalf on the city. The dignitaries who followed bored sections of the crowd—the Telegram later admonished those fans for their rude behaviour in heckling Bickell and Ontario Premier George Henry, noting that “they made it pretty clear that they had come to see a hockey game and didn’t care much about speeches.” As for the audience in general, Perry observed:

With its row upon row of eager-eyed enthusiasts rising up and up from the red leather cushions of the box and rail seats, where society was well represented by patrons in evening dress, through section after section of bright blue seats to the green and grey of the top tiers, the spectacle presented was magnificent. The immensity of this hippodrome of hockey, claimed to be the last word in buildings of its kind, was impressed upon the spectator, and those present fully agreed that Toronto had at last blossomed forth into major league ranks to the fullest extent.

Source: The Telegram, November 13, 1931.

The structure may have awed attendees, but the on-ice product didn’t. Mush March of the Black Hawks scored the first goal early in the first period. The Leafs tied the score late in the second period thanks to Charlie Conacher, but fell behind for good when Vic Ripley scored early in the third period. The Leafs outshot the Black Hawks but the sterling goaltending of Chuck Gardiner allowed Chicago to come out on top. Gardiner’s performance was remarkable given the game was stopped for fifteen minutes during the second period when Conacher collided with the goalie (during this time, NHL teams rarely carried a backup). Though Gardiner’s arm was severely injured, he made it back on the ice and was applauded by the crowd.
Despite the loss, the building was generally agreed to be a success. After a slow start and a coaching change, the Leafs also proved to be a success by the end of the 1931/32 season, when they brought the Stanley Cup to their new home.
Additional material from Maple Leaf Gardens: Fifty Years of History by Stan Obodiac (Toronto: Van Nostrand Reinhold Ltd, 1981); If You Can’t Beat ‘Em in the Alley by Conn Smythe with Scott Young (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981); The Story of Maple Leaf Gardens by Lance Hornby (Champaign: Sports Publishing Inc., 1998); and the following newspapers: the September 22, 1931, October 15, 1931, and November 13, 1931, editions of the Globe; the February 13, 1999, and February 17, 1999, editions of the Globe and Mail; the November 11, 1931, edition of the Mail and Empire; and the November 13, 1931, edition of the Telegram.