By Erica Boccia
On November 14, 2013, Heritage Toronto presented a plaque to commemorate the heritage of Maple Leaf Gardens, the iconic arena at the corner of Church and Carlton Streets. At the core of the event were stories. Everyone in Toronto, it seems, has a story of Maple Leaf Gardens: Attending their first hockey game, seeing The Beatles in 1964, participating in political rallies, or celebrating their cultural heritage. Those stories live on at Maple Leaf Gardens, rehabilitated and converted by Ryerson University and Loblaw Compaines Ltd. into a multi-purpose sport and retail facility.
In the 1920s Conn Smythe had a vision to create a state-of-the-art ice palace for his Maple Leafs hockey team in downtown Toronto, similar to those that other teams in the National Hockey League had built. Unlike the Leafs’ home, Arena Gardens, the new venue would have the most modern heating and cooling systems, a public address system, broadcast capabilities, and seating for over thirteen thousands fans.
Construction began in June 1931 despite the worsening economy of the Great Depression. Initially, Smythe wanted to build the venue close to the waterfront but could not find property. He turned to T. Eaton Company, which had just built its new store at the corner of Yonge and College, and had land in the area to sell. With the backing of other investors, he purchased the option on the property and Eaton’s bought $25,000 worth of stock. One-fifth of workers’ wages were paid in preferred shares of Maple Leaf Gardens Limited, a management company that owned both the team and the arena. This provided added incentive to the some 700 men employed on the project to complete it as soon as possible. To speed construction, three steam shovels excavated the site and two concrete mixing plants were set up on location. The building was completed in five months and twelve days, using, a job that used 13,000 tonnes of steel, 13,500 cubic yards of concrete, and 1.5 million bricks and tiles.
Maple Leaf Gardens was designed by the architectural firm of Ross & Macdonald, along with associates, Jack Ryrie and Mackenzie Waters, and was constructed by Thomson Brothers of Toronto. Blending Art Deco and Art Moderne styles, the arena featured a post-and-beam rectangular frame to support a clear span, truss structured, rectangular-domed roof. This provided an interior free of columns, allowing unobstructed views from all seats. Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor Sir John Morison Gibson laid the cornerstone on September 21, 1931 and on opening night, November 12, the Toronto Maple Leafs played the Chicago Blackhawks in front of a crowd of over 13,000.
The cover of the opening night programme suggested that the building would host three events in particular: hockey, boxing and wrestling. As we now know, these would be only a few among the several varieties of events that the building would host over the course of its history. That said, Maple Leaf Gardens was first and foremost home to the boys in blue and white.
A new home did not bring immediate success; the first decade in the building was a roller coaster for the Maple Leafs, and they celebrated only one Stanley Cup victory. However, the 1940s and 1950s were, according to some, the best years in the franchise’s history. The rosters were filled with Leafs legends, and Toronto fans celebrated Stanley Cup victories on six occasions. It was not until the Punch Imlach years of the 1960s that the team could repeat the same success, when Frank Mahovlich, Johnny Bower, and Tim Horton became household names. The decade saw four Stanley Cups for the franchise, including their 1967 victory – the last time Maple Leaf Gardens would be home to the reigning NHL champions.
Professionals were not the only ones who skated on the Gardens’ ice. It opened its doors to many levels of hockey, including local high schools, universities, Olympic exhibition games, and international series. Likewise, those who could not make a Leafs game were seen in the stands on a Sunday afternoon, watching the feeder team from the Ontario Hockey Association, the Toronto Marlboros, which was known to groom young men toward becoming professional stars.
Even in its early years of operation Maple Leaf Gardens hosted a variety of amateur and professional sporting events that showcased the best of local talent. Wrestling was the second-most booked event at the Gardens. Whipper Billy Watson, The Sheik, and others become fan favourites due to their regularly scheduled fights and their championship title matches. Boxing matches were also a feature at the Gardens, most notably the championship bout in 1966 between Muhammed Ali and local hero George Chuvalo.
Indoor track and field meets became an annual event for twenty-five years, beginning in 1963, and thousands came to the Gardens to watch basketball, tennis, bicycle races, figure skating, lacrosse, roller derby, gymnastics, curling, soccer, and even an equestrian event. Starting in 1961, Maple Leaf Gardens also became a venue to watch major sporting events happening elsewhere in the world, such as boxing title fights and World Cup soccer finals, shown via closed-circuit on the arena’s giant screen.
From the moment Maple Leaf Gardens opened, its annual schedule of events featured an increasing number of concerts. Orchestras, jazz bands, and dances in the 1930s and 1940s were opportunities for people to forget, however briefly, about the depressed economy and the world war. For decades, Maple Leaf Gardens remained the largest indoor venue in Toronto, thus opera, ballet and circus performances filled the arena in the 1950s and early 1960s.
For many Torontonians, Maple Leaf Gardens was where they first saw their favourite musicians live on stage. In 1956, Bill Haley and His Comets were the first rock and roll show to perform in the Gardens. The following year, Elvis played the Gardens in his first concert outside of the United States. The Beatles played here on all three of their North American tours – in 1964, 1965, and 1966. When a Canadian rock concert promoter gained exclusive rights to the venue in 1970s, every major rock tour played the venue. Chart toppers of other genres made the stop as well, including Dolly Parton, Frank Sinatra, and Johnny Cash. Major stars from Italy, India, and Hong Kong, as well as dance performers from Poland, Ukraine, and Russia made appearances. Their shows reflected the increasingly diverse population of the city.
Though Maple Leaf Gardens was initially built for sporting events, its large seating capacity and public address system soon attracted bookings for all sorts of gatherings. Torontonians came to hear Winston Churchill speak in 1932. Three years later, political parties across the spectrum held rallies at the Gardens as part of the Canadian federal election campaign. Many other rallies would follow at both the federal and provincial level. During the war years, the doors were open to recruiting rallies, benefits to raise money for the effort and veterans, charity bingos, and dances for those who wanted a night of reprieve from the global turmoil.
Religious events were some of the earliest to be booked at the venue and drew some of the largest crowds. In 1945, the United Church of Canada celebrated its 20th anniversary. The following year, Roman Catholics celebrated the first Torontonian to be elected Cardinal. An overflow crowd would come to hear the evangelist Billy Graham speak in 1955. Over the years, Maple Leaf Gardens maintained a close relationship to the community and hosted ceremonies and celebrations for a variety of faiths and denominations.
As the city diversified and grew, so too did the Gardens. Renovations allowed for more seating, additional concession stands, and the installation of escalators. At street level, the original Church Street businesses were closed in the early 1960s to provide space for the Hot Stove Lounge, and most Carlton Street shops were also closed, leaving just one sporting goods store. Inside, gallery boxes were added, legroom between seats was reduced to provide space for additional rows of seats, and a second level of seating was added to the north and south ends. This refreshed Maple Leaf Gardens for the coming decades, but the arena eventually faced the same fate as its predecessor on Mutual Street: NHL teams elsewhere were building newer and larger arenas. In 1996, Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. took on Larry Tannenbaum (co-founder of the Toronto Raptors) as a partner and it was renamed Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment shortly thereafter. The new entity then began planning for a new home for their franchises. The new conglomerate of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment began planning for a new home for their franchises. Ground broke for the Air Canada Centre in March 1997 and the Maple Leafs moved in two years later.
On the evening of February 13, 1999 the Maple Leafs played their last professional hockey game in the Gardens, appropriately against the Chicago Blackhawks against whom they had opened their home. A historic parade of Stanley Cup flags travelled that night from the Gardens to the Air Canada Centre. Following a public auction of the arena’s fixtures and memorabilia in November 2000, the doors to Maple Leaf Gardens were closed to the public and to more than 60 years of history being made.
The adaptive reuse of Maple Leaf Gardens, completed in 2012 by Ryerson University and Loblaws, fundamentally altered the arena’s interior, but is acknowledged for its respect for the historic character of the building’s exterior. Moreover, it continues to be an important and vibrant hub in its neighbourhood and future generations will be able to enjoy the living legacy of Maple Leaf Gardens. Conn Smythe likely never imagined that this National Historic Site of Canada would have such an impact on generations of Torontonians or that the events it hosted would reflect the city that was changing beyond its walls.
Maple Leaf Gardens was the recipient of a Heritage Toronto Award of Merit. The award was received by Ryerson University and Loblaw’s projects partners including ERA Architects, BBB Architects, Turner Fleischer Architects, exp Services Inc., Buttcon Ltd., Clifford Restoration Ltd., and Nor-Am. Congratulations to all involved!
Bradburn, Jamie. “Historicist: Opening the Gardens.” Torontoist. 14 Nov. 2009.
Toronto Public Library, Construction: a journal for the architectural, engineering and contracting interests of Canada, xxiv, December 1931
“Maple Leaf Gardens National Historic Site of Canada.” HistoricPlaces.ca.
Diamond, Dan. Maple Leaf Gardens Memories & Dreams, 1931-1999. Toronto: Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, 1999.
Obodiac, Stan. Maple Leaf Gardens: Fifty Years of History. Toronto: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981.
“Bidders Try to Score at Maple Leaf Gardens.” CBCNews. 20 Nov. 2000.
Heritage Interpretation Panels, ERA Architects for Ryerson University