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A New Life for Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens

The main lobby of the former Maple Leaf Gardens sports a sculpture made of the storied arena's seats, as well as remnants of its stairways.
A mosaic history of Toronto Maple Leafs history decorates the escalators to the parking garage in the former Maple Leaf Gardens.

A reminder of what might have been for Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium

Two great hockey barns and sports and entertainment venues: Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium and Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. They both opened roughly around the same time. Work projects of the Great Depression. They both served the public well for over six decades. And they both ceased being the home of their primary NHL tenants within two years of each other, in the late 1990s.

Today the Aud is gone, some pieces of the grand old building preserved and mementos sold off, the site now being rebuilt as a remake of the canal system and the city street grid that was in place over a century ago.

Meanwhile, up in Toronto the old Maple Leaf Gardens has seen a much different fate. To much fanfare and critical acclaim, the complete reconstruction of the Gardens was completed this past August. Today the facility houses a mixed-use retail and sports center that has brought new life to the corner of Church and Carlton on the north side of downtown Toronto.

“We’ve created not only a sports venue but a student activities center which is in almost constant use,” boasts Nadine Ransom, sales and marketing coordinator for Ryerson University’s Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens.

The growing Ryerson University campus now counts more than 30,000 students, and for the college, their entry into the project in 2009 assured that a reborn Maple Leaf Gardens would come to its full potential.

The Toronto Maple Leafs vacated the Gardens in 1999 to move to the Air Canada Centre, and for much of the next decade, the building sat mostly unused. And continued to deteriorate. After many studies, the complex was sold to Loblaw Companies in 2004, with the idea of converting the entire structure into a massive superstore and parking. Other ideas were floated, including converting the building into an entertainment complex with cinemas and shops.

Many purists howled their objections, saying that the Gardens should continue to serve as a sports venue and still be a part of the culture and sports tradition of the city. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, then the owner of the Maple Leafs and the NBA Toronto Raptors, did not want the Gardens used as a competing entertainment venue to that of its own facility.

So split the baby in half—Ryerson came on board to take the upper portion of the building for a new hockey venue, sports and gym facilities, and a student center, while the main floor would house a Loblaws supermarket and a couple companion retail outlets. The store, now considered the flagship of the Loblaws chain, opened in late 2011.

Construction on the upper portions of the building continued throughout 2012. But not without some bumps in the road. A creek was discovered flowing directly through the basement of the building. A time capsule was unearthed behind the cornerstone of the 1931 cinderblock on Carlton Street. And most critically, the entire structure, which had been erected in a short span of six months, was being braced by the actual seats in the arena’s bowl.

“One of the problems we encountered from the get-go was that the tiered seats were engineered to hold up the exterior walls of the building,” explained Ransom. “Total gutting of the seating bowl was not an option, and in fact, we encountered numerous construction delays because every row of seats that was removed had to be done so in a painstaking process, and additional supports installed to buttress the building.”

Today the Loblaws store is a destination in itself and has just about everything one can think of. It is the quintessential urban supermarket that Buffalo’s downtown city-dwellers can only dream about. There are several specialty food stations that greet shoppers the minute you walk in the door. A “Wall of Cheese,” an artisan bakery, a patisserie, a tea emporium, a sushi stand, and one hasn’t even breached the area with ordinary groceries yet. Splashes of color are everywhere with food and produce displays in abundance. One can dine right inside the store, as a canteen dishes up everything from burgers and fries to wood-fired pizza, deli sandwiches, salads, and subs.

Every support pillar and every wall shows off memorabilia and history of what was once there. Right next to the shopping cart area and escalators to the basement parking garage, a large mosaic mural screams out Toronto Maple Leafs history. A clump of old blue seats on display near the main lobby was turned into a wall sculpture of a giant Maple Leaf. Exposed brickwork and wall paint remind visitors of where the old staircases used to be. And very understated in one of the grocery aisles is a dot on the floor—the actual spot where center ice was once situated.

There’s much more memorabilia upstairs, but, as Ransom said, “We wanted to capture the history of the building with murals and exhibits, but at the same time make our own mark that we are here. Thus our theme: ‘This Is Our House Now.’”

At the very top of the arena is a 2,600-seat hockey rink which is primarily the home of the Ryerson University Rams college hockey team. The signature crowned roof of the building is still in place. The seating bowl has all new seats, save for some of the original blue seats which are situated in end zone porches, which, by the way, were designed to replicate the look of the old seating bowl. “Keep in mind that the ice sheet has been raised three levels from where the old one used to be,” said Ransom.

The building itself can be accessed right through the original entry on Carlton Street. The marquee has been cleaned up and restored yet still retains its original look, much of the outside brickwork has been repaired and repointed, but the lobby looks vastly different than what once was. A simple yet elegant main entranceway contains exhibits and timeline murals, and a sweeping escalator to go to the second level, the main gathering area for the facility.

“This is almost like a common meeting spot for our students, and it is always busy here,” said Ransom. “We have a gym, a basketball court, a very ample sized fitness center and cafeteria style lounge. It’s been a huge hit with our student body. People love to come here just to feel the vibe and hang out. And best of all, it’s open to the public. Anyone can come inside and walk around and experience the place.”

Indeed, the basketball court on the second level bears pull-down bleacher seats which can accommodate up to a thousand spectators. “We had to insulate and soundproof the floor, so that shoppers right below us can’t hear the constant sound of balls bouncing,” said Ransom.

Maple Leaf Gardens was restored and reconstructed thanks to a combination of public and private funds, and healthy contributions from one deep-pocketed Ryerson University donor. The Canadian government contributed $20 million towards the $60 million reconstruction cost, and a gentleman named Peter Gilgan, CEO of Mattamy Homes Ltd., donated $15 million toward the project, thus the new name on the marquee.

The story of Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium is far more tragic. Following the departure of the Buffalo Sabres after the 1995-1996 season, the Aud was hardly used save for staging and storage areas for theater productions and filming of a couple commercials. Pieces of the building were harvested for display at the new arena, others saved for posterity. An almost decade-long dance with retailer Bass Pro Shops to remake the facility into a megastore was abandoned in 2007. In 2009, the Aud was finally demolished and carted off to a landfill.

Could Buffalo’s path have gone the same as that of Toronto’s?

“These kinds of projects are very complex. We had years of delays. Developers and preservationists clashed. It took a long time to get us to where we are today,” said Ransom. “But I can say this. This ice sheet is almost in constant use. Fans of old love to come here and explore the place and reminisce. There’s so much history. So much happened here. To be able to save this place for future generations was a true success story. And we here at Ryerson University are so proud to be a part of it.”

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