On Saturday, March 9, 2013, Heritage Toronto unveiled a plaque to commemorate Arena Gardens – also known as the Mutual Street Arena.
By Jamie Bradburn
According to veteran Star sports columnist Jim Proudfoot, when Conn Smythe built Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931 he was determined that the Maple Leafs’ former home on Mutual Street would never host another professional hockey game. One morning, he sent a message to staff at the old venue offering all of them work at his new facility. The catch? The jobs were only available until Smythe left for lunch at 12:15 p.m. The staff raced up to the construction site on Carlton Street, leaving no one behind to watch the furnace that powered the building’s ice-making equipment. When the flames died out, the pipes burst and destroyed the ice plant.
If the tale is true, Smythe achieved his goal. Pro hockey was never again played at the Mutual Street site. But it wasn’t the end of a building that adopted many guises over a 77-year history. Whether the venue on the west side of Mutual Street between Shuter and Dundas was called the Arena, Arena Gardens, Mutual Street Arena or The Terrace, it provided entertainment for generations of Torontonians.
Opened on October 7, 1912, the Arena’s initial backers included Casa Loma lord Sir Henry Pellatt and entertainment impresario Lol Solman. The debut attraction was the week-long Toronto Musical Festival, which offered comedy, opera and orchestras. Globe critic E.R. Parkhurst found the orchestra-style seats set up on the rink “as comfortable as those in any concert hall.” The 5,000 attendees on opening night enjoyed a program featuring works ranging from Bizet to Saint-Saens as performed by a 62-piece orchestra and half-a-dozen singers from the Boston Opera Company. The city’s papers heaped praise on the building’s acoustics—the Globe noted that “both solo singers and an orchestra can be heard in nearly part with clearness.”
Concerts were a sideline to the Arena’s role as a sports venue. It was the largest indoor rink in Canada and only the third to use artificial ice. Two professional hockey teams, the Blueshirts and the Tecumsehs, delayed their entry into the National Hockey Association (NHA) until the rink was ready. The Arena’s first pro match established Toronto’s eternal rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens. Previewing the Christmas Day 1912 game, the Star observed that Blueshirts manager Bruce Ridpath had “gathered together a number of fast youngsters who are keen to show their ability, and may spring a surprise on the Canadiens.” A crowd of 4,000 saw the home team fall to the Habs 9-5.
Hockey caused Arena officials plenty of grief when Eddie Livingstone entered the picture. First as owner of the short-lived Shamrocks then, from 1915, the Blueshirts, Livingstone quarrelled with his players and fellow owners. When a team representing the 228th Battalion was summoned to fight in Europe and forced to drop out of the NHA in February 1917, the league jumped on the opportunity to rid itself of Livingstone by suspending the franchise for “transgressions of the rule.” Livingston sued, beginning a decade-long series of legal battles. That fall, the remaining NHA owners formed a new league, the National Hockey League (NHL), and asked Arena management to run a new Toronto franchise which would borrow Livingstone’s players for a year. After winning the 1918 Stanley Cup, the new team didn’t return the players to Livingstone, which spurred more legal sideshows. The team adopted the name “Arenas” soon after, then changed to the St. Patricks (“St. Pats”) in 1919.
On February 8, 1923, the Arena served as the backdrop for the first radio broadcast of a hockey game. Following a recap of the first two periods of a game between North Toronto and Midland, Norman Albert called the third period for radio station CFCA. Unlike modern sports coverage where the game takes precedence over regular programming, CFCA’s owner, the Toronto Star, promised listeners that “there is no intention to shorten the regular musical program on any night when a hockey game is being broadcast.” The two period recap/one period live format was repeated when CFCA produced the first broadcast of an NHL game six days later, which saw the St. Pats beat the Ottawa Senators 6-4.
On February 16, 1923, Star reporter Foster Hewitt called his first hockey game, which saw the Toronto Argonauts beat the Kitchener Greenshirts 5-3. The future Hockey Night in Canada icon was assigned at the last minute. His first booth, a four-foot-square glass box next to the penalty box, was equipped with a stool and a telephone. According to Hewitt biographer Scott Young, the box was so cramped that “when he sat on the stool his knees seemed to be around his ears.” Designed to keep out the crowd noise, the glass fogged up, hindering Hewitt’s play-by-play.
In 1927, when Conn Smythe bought into the struggling St. Pats and renamed them the Maple Leafs, the Arena was outdated. The building lacked heating, so its temperature depended on outside conditions. Players cursed whenever the rink was too cold, or when a heat wave made the ice slushy. Capacity was at least 10,000 seats below that of rinks recently built for the NHL’s new American franchises, such as Detroit’s Olympia and New York’s Madison Square Garden. Fans endured box seats that were little more than wooden benches. Smythe was also irritated by contract conditions which severely limited the Leafs’ ice time and gate receipts. Leafs star Ace Bailey later noted that his favourite memory of the Arena was leaving it and winning the Stanley Cup during the team’s first season at Maple Leaf Gardens.
Other activities filled the void of professional hockey in the building, such as basketball, bicycle races, mass meetings, tennis and wrestling. None made up for the lost hockey income. Bond defaults and unpaid taxes led to a takeover by the City of Toronto in the mid-1930s. The facility was leased to W.J. Dickson in 1938, whose family would operate it for the rest of its existence after he purchased the site outright in 1945. A roller skating rink that sparked many romantic relationships was later installed, while big band performers like Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller filled the seats.
Following $3-million worth of renovations in 1962, the arena was divided into three storeys and renamed the Terrace. While roller skating remained, new additions included a parking lot and Canada’s second largest curling facility. Unlike other local venues, memberships weren’t required to curl—like a bowling alley, all sheets were available for league and recreational matches. Curling and skating remained draws until The Terrace closed in April 1989, after which the building was demolished to make way for condos and Cathedral Square Park.
The site’s history has not been forgotten. In 2011, Cathedral Square Park was renamed Arena Gardens.
Additional material from The Lives of Conn Smythe by Kelly McParland (Toronto: Fenn/McClelland and Stewart, 2011), Lords of the Rinks by John Chi-Kit Wong (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), Hello Canada! The Life and Times of Foster Hewitt by Scott Young (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985), the October 7, 1912 and October 8, 1912 editions of the Globe, the December 6, 1962 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the December 25, 1912, February 9, 1923, and April 29, 1989 editions of the Toronto Star.