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Honouring a Hockey Shrine

By Robbie Raskin -- September 18, 2012 8:37 PM EDT

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For many fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the old Maple Leafs Gardens was the place where they saw the puck drop for the first time, and their heroes in blue and white took the ice. Opened in 1931, it took its place in hockey lore as a monolithic shrine that defied the doom and gloom of the Great Depression.

The list of Leafs to play under this roof is long and impressive; Armstrong, Bower, Conacher, Day, and it goes on and on though to Z. Not to mention the infamous Muhammad Ali - George Chuvalo fight. And the first NBA game ever. Elvis Presley's first international concert. Canada's first win of the fabled 1972 Summit Series. And on and on goes this list of historic events. Point taken. Maple Leaf Gardens is one of the most storied venues not only in hockey history but in all if sports. This is Canada however, and it's all about hockey.

For that reason, it was very bittersweet when the Leafs moved to the brand new Air Canada Centre in 1999. Fans admitted that the Gardens were small, cramped, and outdated yet there was something about watching hockey under that famous soaring dome.

For ten years after the final event at the Gardens, a championship win for the National Lacrosse League's Toronto Rock, the venue sat mostly quiet. The few events that did take place were small-scale and infrequent. Occasional concerts and trade shows as well as filming for CBC's figure skating show, Battle of the Blades was all that could be seen of the old building. Nobody was really sure what to do with the Gardens. Tear it down? Nobody thought it could still be used for hockey.

Then in 2009, Loblaws, a grocery store chain, purchased the Gardens planning to turn it into a store. People were upset that it would end up like the Forum in Montreal - with many stores but few references to the immense history of the building. The difference with Loblaws' pitch was that there was still to be hockey played in Maple Leaf Gardens. Toronto's Ryerson University was looking to up their profile and get their Rams athletics program out from under the shadow of the behemoth Unversity of Toronto Varsity Blues. This was a match made in heaven; the Rams playing at the Gardens while Loblaws got a flagship downtown store. The dream of hockey at the Gardens was alive again.

Flash forward to summer 2012. Under an enormous Canadian flag and Ryerson University banner stands Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressing gathered dignitaries as he officially cuts the ribbon on the new Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens. The facility is stunning.

Glimpses of the past are incorporated smoothly with the sleek new lines of the modern reconstruction. The facade has been lovingly restored upon entering the lobby, the spectator is greeted with an old section of wall with vintage red seats above. Once fans have ascended the escalator to the hockey concourse, they can walk along the spacious corridor to his seat amidst the 2,800 or so other blue and yellow seats reflecting Ryerson's colours.

The dome is freshly painted but hasn't changed one bit. The fan who sat in the 'end blue' section at the last Leafs game here will be overjoyed to find the section had been preserved, towering almost straight above the nets.

Below ice level lies the Rams' shining new basketball and volleyball court. It is thoroughly modern and has already attracted interest from American schools like Tulsa who now wish to play Ryerson to tune up for the NCAA season. Further down is the new Loblaws store, which is chock full of references to the history that played out there. The old centre ice is demarcated amid the aisles, each pillar showcases a famous event to take place over the years. Tables are covered in newspaper clippings of sports sections from across Canada.

All in all, the work done at Maple Leaf Gardens is inspiring and sets a benchmark for heritage preservation for buildings of all kinds. For Leafs fans it is a crucial pilgrimage to remind them of a simpler time in the sport. And for hockey fans anywhere, a trip to the Gardens is highly recommended to send the spectator on a trip down memory lane. The best part - it is happening now.

**Photo attributed to Jaydec at Wikipedia

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