Reason to Love Toronto: because Maple Leaf Gardens’ return to glory is about more than just hockey

Reason to Love Toronto: because Maple Leaf Gardens’ return to glory is about more than just hockey

(Image: courtesy Norm Betts/Ryerson University)
 

After the Maple Leafs pulled up stakes for the Air Canada Centre in 1999, the Grand Old Lady of Carlton Street sat vacant for 10 years, during which time it looked as though its uppers levels were destined for the wrecking ball. The Gardens may have outlived its usefulness as a pro hockey arena, but it still held a sacred place in the hearts of Torontonians. Over its 70-year lifespan, it became a repository for our collective sporting and musical memories—the site of eight of the Leafs’ 13 Stanley Cup wins, as well as concerts by Elvis, The Beatles, Hendrix, Bob Marley, Queen and Nirvana. It was a bare-bones kind of venue, a hollow vessel in which spectators could be left to create their own myths. That sentimentalism was one of the reasons Ryerson’s president, Sheldon Levy, sought to save the Gardens from its near-certain big-box transformation and return it to something of its former self. It was also a savvy recruitment strategy: what student wouldn’t want to lace up in the same place Bill Barilko scored his Cup-winning goal in ’51? Today, Ryerson’s new 2,800-seat arena, retaining some of the Gardens’ original seating and its famous rafters, will be open once a month for public skates—assuring its status as the city’s rink of dreams, past and present.