TORONTO – The sound of slapshots and blades carving the ice will reverberate through the roof girders of Maple Leaf Gardens for years to come under a plan to remake part of the storied building into a university sports complex.
The gold, red, blue and grey seating sections won’t survive the remodelling, but a new NHL-sized rink will be built under a plan that will also see recreation facilities and a grocery store occupy the former hockey temple on Carlton Street.
“You’ll be looking straight up at that roof as you play hockey, (at) the original Maple Leaf Gardens roof,” said Galen Weston, executive chairman of Loblaw Companies Ltd. (TSX:L), which bought the building in 2004.
“(That) will be quite a thrill for all of us who have the luxury of getting a chance to skate on this ice again.”
The $60-million Ryerson University Sports and Recreation Centre will be financed through $20 million from Ottawa’s economic stimulus plan and an equal amount from increased student fees. The remaining $20 million will come from a joint fundraising effort from the university and Loblaw, with the grocer pledging $5 million to get the ball rolling.
Seats from the Gardens and memorabilia will be auctioned off to help fund the project, said Weston.
The sports facilities will be on the upper level of the remodelled building. The grocery store will be on the ground level and the old arena floor will be dug up to create a parking garage, adding an additional $20 to $25 million to the bill.
After it reopens in the spring 2011, the Ryerson Rams men’s hockey team will play games under the same roof that was home to the Maple Leafs for decades, including 11 Stanley Cup championship teams.
“With today’s announcement we’re keeping Maple Leaf Gardens as a special place for generations of Canadians to come,” said Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.
The facade of the building will remain as well.
It’s through those doors that music fans also streamed in over the years, including crowds clamouring to see Elvis Presley gyrate and croon in 1957 and The Beatles perform in all three of their North American tours in the 1960s.
In addition to the rink, the sports centre will host a four-lane, 200-metre running track, basketball and volleyball courts with telescoping bleachers, a fitness centre, a gym and academic space.
“We are bringing Maple Leaf Gardens back to life,” said Ryerson president Sheldon Levy. “Our varsity sports and athletics will have the facilities and opportunities to excel.”
While the Maple Leaf Gardens sign will be kept, the fate of the big score clock is up in the air.
“It’s been dismantled. It doesn’t actually work. So, we’re going to need to think through exactly what we’re going to do with it,” said Weston.
Gary Miedema, a historian with Heritage Toronto, said he’s excited there’s a plan for the building’s future and that it includes an ice rink.
Maple Leaf Gardens is a sports and cultural icon, he said.
With its hockey broadcasts on radio from the 1930s through the 1960s, Maple Leaf Gardens was important to Canadian identity and was likely the best known building in the country second only to the Parliament Buildings, he said, quoting historian Michael Bliss.
“There’s so much hockey history that’s just central to not just the history of Toronto, but obviously important to the country as well,” said Miedema.
“There’s great stories of events that took place in there from The Who, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles playing in that building to political rallies including Prime Minister (Pierre Elliott) Trudeau.
“Then, of course, Winston Churchill spoke there in 1932.”
Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan and Bob Hope are also among numerous performers to have taken the stage there.
On March 29, 1966, Muhammad Ali fought George Chuvalo at the Gardens – Chuvalo lost the fight on a decision.
The Gardens, built by Leafs managing director Conn Smythe, opened in 1931, hosting its first Maple Leaf game on Nov. 12 that year, when the Leafs lost 2-1 to the Chicago Blackhawks.
In 1947, the first annual All-Star NHL game took place at the Gardens. In 1972, Team Canada beat the U.S.S.R. 4-1 in Game 2 of their Summit Series at the building.
The Leafs moved down the street to the Air Canada Centre in February 1999 and Loblaw bought the Gardens in 2004 from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.