TORONTO - Toronto's storied Maple Leaf Gardens will soon resound again with the clash of sticks and pucks as a new hockey era begins for the venerated sports complex, this time as the home of the Ryerson Rams.
Hockey will be back at the Gardens in the spring for the first time since 1999, when the National Hockey League's Maple Leafs moved to the Air Canada Centre after nearly seven decades at the old arena.
"This is a new chapter in a book now, and being part of this history is pretty cool," said Tie Domi, who played in the last game the Leafs hosted at the Gardens.
Though the ice has not yet been installed, the centrepiece of Ryerson University's new athletic complex was open for a preview Tuesday.
"History's history. We all know its the Gardens but at the end of the day these people have found a way to make it a real destination and I think it brings Ryerson up a real notch in the varsity world for athletics," Domi said.
"It's going to be a real great destination for downtown Toronto and I think it revitalizes the whole area."
The multi-use Maple Leaf Gardens will house a giant Loblaw's grocery store, Joe Fresh clothing outlet and LCBO, in addition to the Ryerson complex. The retail space is scheduled to open Wednesday.
The revamp has been a drawn out, years-long process fraught with controversy and complications as Ryerson, Loblaws and Torontonians debated about how the space would be used.
While the arena is slated for a grand opening in May, the bleachers are still just concrete slabs with wooden railings and work tables are still strewn above the stands. But there are glimpses—the flood lights on the ceiling and cables at centre ice that will support the scoreboard—of what the complex will look like when crowded with students.
"This building has a tremendous history and what it needs now is a tremendous future," said Sheldon Levy, Ryerson's president.
"All Torontonians have fond memories of this place, and I know I certainly do because throughout the 20th century, the Gardens played host to the city's great concerts, its great events and its great champions."
Ryerson's new recreation complex will be called the Peter Gilgan Athletic Centre at the Gardens after the founder and CEO of Mattamy Homes, who gave the university $15 million. His donation is among the largest gifts ever made to Ryerson. Two of Gilgan's children are Ryerson graduates and two others are current students.
"For decades to come this building will serve the students of Ryerson and the people of Toronto in a way that probably none of us can imagine," Gilgan said.
"We only expect more and more people to move into the city as time goes on and facilities like this are going to really help to provide a social fabric to the city."
The NHL-sized rink itself is called Mattamy Home Ice, in honour of Gilgan's homebuilding company.
The rink, currently just a concrete surface, scattered with pallets of wooden construction beams, is on the third floor of the partially-renovated arena.
Ryerson's athletic facility's gym, which will house its varsity basketball and volleyball teams, will be located on the second floor.
Gilgan's donation helped fund millions of dollars in redevelopment costs, along with contributions from the grocery giant, $20 million from Ryerson students and $20 million from the federal government.
Ryerson students voted to pay an extra $126 per year in athletic fees for the new facilities. The university's varsity athletes had been travelling to an arena several kilometres away in Toronto's west end to practice.
"For as long as I've been at Ryerson, our hockey and figure skating teams haven't had ice available near our campus for practice or for games, and our varsity gym is cramped," said Carli Yim, a senior member of Ryerson's women's varsity volleyball team.
"All of the athletes cannot wait to work out, practice and play in this amazing new facility."
The historic former NHL arena was long known as the Carlton Street Cashbox because it was always full of rabid hockey fans during Leaf games.