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Air Canada Centre, Leafs roster both under renovation as training camp nears

TORONTO - When you take a tour around the Air Canada Centre and listen to the extensive renovation plans Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment have for the arena, it's hard not to start drawing parallels to the organization's NHL team.

The building is currently receiving a multi-million dollar upgrade that is expected to be completed by next September. The timeline for the Maple Leafs roster to be rebuilt is much longer than that.

With the Air Canada Centre set to celebrate its 10-year anniversary in February, MLSE decided to put even more money into the building than usual this off-season.

An $8-million scoreboard and control room upgrade has already been installed while construction is underway for what is to become a large atrium entrance that will feature a 60-by-40-foot screen overlooking an outdoor plaza.

The company sees the renovation as a reward for its fans.

"We have great support here," said Bob Hunter, who runs the ACC. "The fans continue year after year to give us that support. I mean it's like an 'IOU' in our books, we owe it to them.

"When you're sitting at home watching your high definition television and you come down here and you see 10-year-old technology, (it's) not the same. It's like keeping up with the Joneses - you've got to continue to reinvest."

Ideally, the Maple Leafs would have the kind of team that complements the building, which has more than stood the test of time over its first decade.

Even with a week to go before training camp opens, it's already pretty clear that it won't happen this season. Interim general manager Cliff Fletcher sat down for an informal chat with reporters Thursday morning and spoke candidly about a team that is likely to experience some struggles this season.

Like their arena, the Maple Leafs have gone through plenty of changes over the summer with the acquisition of a dozen players, five coaches, two front office staffers and two scouts.

It's just the beginning of a rebuilding process so no one should plan on watching playoff hockey at the Air Canada Centre next spring.

"The bottom line is, we have only one top six forward ... and that's (Nik) Antropov," said Fletcher.

There will be competition for lineup spots during training camp and the Maple Leafs could end up with as many as 10 players 25 and under this season.

It sounds increasingly unlikely that first-round pick Luke Schenn will be among them. Fletcher says the 18-year-old defenceman would have to "overwhelm us" to crack the lineup this season.

As a result, the most overwhelming thing on display in the coming months will likely end up being the new scoreboard hanging over centre ice. MLSE purchased Mitsubishi's latest model and increased the videoboard's light display by 800 per cent in the process.

The company also invested heavily in the control room that operates the scoreboard to ensure it had the top technology available.

"This will be the best videoboard/control room combination of any arena in North America," said Curtis Emerson, a control room engineer. "We will set the standard for this season."

It will take a little longer for the new atrium to be completed. The Air Canada Centre was built for $265 million using entirely private money and one of the few regrets MLSE was left with afterwards was that there wasn't enough room for a more impressive entranceway.

MLSE later partnered with two other companies and purchased more land around the stadium to make it happen. A 54-storey condo is currently under construction along with an office tower and the planned atrium will complete the area.

When it's finished, there will be restaurants and a permanent broadcast studio for Leafs TV and Raptors TV in addition to the giant video screen, which will show games involving the home NHL and NBA teams.

"It's about creating a plaza," said Hunter. "It's about creating a fun, exciting square. That's why we had so much support from the city because they believe it's overdue."

Maple Leaf fans that have been waiting more than 40 years for a Stanley Cup will certainly argue that a championship is even more overdue.

Unfortunately for them, it sounds like the building is going to be one of the best in the NHL long before the team is.

"There is no fast track here," said Fletcher. "The key is patience. ...

"And we will have patience."


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