For decades, Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens was a showcase venue for hockey in Canada. But when the Toronto Maple Leafs sought a new home, the venerable Gardens complex was renovated to fit modern needs—truly an arena that lives on.
The original Maple Leaf Gardens opened at the corner of Church and Carlton on Nov. 12, 1931, the largest arena in the world at the time. Built by the legendary Conn Smythe, Maple Leaf Gardens not only hosted Maple Leaf legends like Ted Kennedy, Dave Keon, Tim Horton and Darryl Sittler, the arena also hosted the first NBA game (November 1, 1946, with the Toronto Huskies hosting the New York Knickerbockers in BAA action) and a slew of high-profile performers, including Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Winston Churchill gave a speech there, and Foster Hewitt famously broadcast games from a gondola hanging from the arena rafters. You can see it in the postcard below.
But over time the Maple Leafs outgrew the 15,746-fan capacity at Maple Leaf Gardens and sought a replacement. While Maple Leaf Gardens was the last Original Six arena to be still in use when Air Canada Centre opened, it escaped the fate of other Original Six arenas and was left standing. In Detroit (the Olympia), Boston (Boston Garden), Chicago (Chicago Stadium), New York City (the third Madison Square Garden) and Montreal (the Forum), the Original Six arenas were all torn down once the NHL teams moved to more plush surroundings. But Maple Leaf Gardens avoided the wrecking ball, with developers working on an imaginative multiuse plan.
In January 2010, the arena interior was gutted, leaving behind the memorable rafters and arena walls. The space was divided into multiple levels. At the main level, a Loblaws grocery store was constructed, with more retail space installed above. At a third level, a new arena was constructed: Mattamy Athletic Centre, home of the Ryerson Rams hockey team. In all, what was once a large NHL arena became a four-level facility generating daily activity.
There are reminders of that arena history throughout. Down Aisle 25 you’ll find a red circle, showing where the original center ice was located. You’ll find sculptures made of old arena seats and posters advertising great acts to have played the Gardens in the past. An iconic Maple Leaf Gardens sign still sits at an entrance, and the legendary rafters still sit above the ice at the arena level.
The Maple Leafs have not turned their back on the Gardens. Last month the team held an open practice at the new arena, and references to the Garden days remain strong in team marketing.
This article originally appeared in the weekly Arena Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the free weekly newsletter