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Official Review by Robbie Raskin, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Originally constructed in 1931, Maple Leaf Gardens was home to scores of teams in many sports, most famously the Toronto Maple Leafs and for a brief time the Toronto Raptors. Dozens of famous historic events were held under the soaring white roof of the arena including the first NBA game, and game 2 of the 1972 Canada-Russia Summit Series. Almost 16,000 fans came out to see wrestling star Jim Londos fight in 1931 and Muhammad Ali boxed here in 1966. The Gardens was also a well-known music venue and one of the few venues outside of the USA where Elvis Presley performed.
Known as the "Cashbox on Carlton," by the '50s it had become enormously successful, but owner Conn Smythe sold his shares to a three-man consortium consisting of his son Stafford, Harold Ballard, and John Basset. In 1972 Ballard took control and a 'dark era' for Leafs' fans began and lasted until Ballard's death in 1990. The team's performance declined steeply during the 1970s, and soon after Ballard was convicted of fraud, tax evasion, and theft while pilfering revenue from the Leafs to pay for home and cottage renovations and luxury automotive purchases.
Ballard was known to be a bearish micromanager of the team and cut salaries, as well as violently opposing European players. In fact, the Leafs signed Swede Borje Salming while Ballard was in prison. Ballard refused to pay superstar players what they expected and lost many to the WHA. After getting into a series of disagreements with great Leafs' captain Dave Keon, he refused to re-sign him but would not allow him to play for other NHL teams and he was forced to retire from the NHL and play out his career in relative obscurity. Soon after, Ballard fired well-liked coach Roger Neilson, but told him to return with a paper bag on his head.
Ballard was also unkind to the Gardens; he threw legendary broadcaster Foster Hewitt's gondola into an incinerator. Earlier he had a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II removed and asked, "What the hell position can a queen play?"
Finally, in 1991, the Gardens were sold and eventually came under the ownership of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, who in 1999 moved the Leafs and Raptors to the new Air Canada Centre. After the Toronto Rock lacrosse team left, the once-proud cathedral to sport sat empty and crumbling. It was not until 2009 when supermarket chain Loblaws reached an agreement with Ryerson University, which has their campus just down the street, to renovate the Gardens with a flagship supermarket downstairs, as well as athletics and recreation centres for the Ryerson Rams interuniversity teams.
Now the Gardens are open once again and the best of the illustrious history has been preserved along with tasteful modern additions. Torontonians once again have a cathedral to be proud of and the games go on once more under the dome as they have for decades.
The modern hockey arena is known as Mattamy Home Ice, and is sponsored by the home developer. It is located highest up in the building, and is reached up a grand stairway from the atrium shared with the basketball facility and recreation centre.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Within the arena bowl there is a pair of standard concessions offering hot dogs, pizza, and sweets. A hot dog and pop here will run you a relatively reasonable $7. A nice added touch are bowls of help-yourself chocolates and marshmallows that are immensely popular with the younger fans. Down the escalators in the concourse is a cafe that offers healthy snacks and drinks for very reasonable prices as well. The seating bowl is licensed and Molson Canadian beer appears to be the favourite among university students at games.
Those in the know head downstairs to the Loblaws supermarket which has all kinds of food including a sushi bar, patisserie, tea bar, cheese wall, bakery, and even a gigantic chocolate 'iceberg' weighing over 250 pounds! Be sure to check out aisle 27, where the location of old centre ice has been marked.
Entering the second-floor concourse, fans are presented with music being played by a DJ who cycles through various genres. Also in the concourse are students from the Ryerson Student Union selling noisemakers and banners. Ryerson's mascot Eggy was making rounds as was another mascot from RBC Royal Bank's Let's Play Hockey fund. Together, they kept everyone entertained and smiling.
All throughout the building are huge photographs and montages of historic events at the Gardens as well as historic displays in cases. The best of which is the mural with paintings of the 763 Maple Leafs players to don the blue and white until 2007. The historic theme continues with beautiful heritage recreations of details like the antique window panes, original brick walls, and seats from the old Maple Leaf Gardens bowl. The domed roof has been repainted and the bowl is bright and accented with a videoboard on either end of the ice surface.
The old 'end blue' seats that towered steeply behind the nets are reincarnated at the new facility and they provide a unique perspective on the game for fans. There is also an alumni lounge at one end of the rink and, uniquely for university hockey rinks, suites at each corner of the bowl.
The only major knock, other than lower attendance, is the empty look of the dome. A nod to the past with a portrait of the Queen, or some recreated Stanley Cup banners would go a long way to fixing that.
Ryerson University prides itself on its downtown location and although the arena is a block or two north of the campus proper, it is certainly within the urban fabric. The arena is just east of eclectic Yonge Street and is within a ten-minute walk of vibrant Dundas Square and the massive Eaton Centre shopping mall. The neighbourhood is very safe as with most of downtown Toronto, and walking around at night after a game should not be a problem.
Ryerson's student body consists mainly of commuting students and the arena is a recent addition to student life, but with such an incredible venue the attendance should be higher. As it was, the arena was about two-thirds full on a Friday night and half of those in attendance were families or neighbourhood residents.
Ryerson students, who get free admission, should have filled the seats in this amazing arena. Attendance is usually higher when a Southern Ontario rival comes in to play because students want to see the facility. The match I reviewed featured Université de Québec ŕ Trois-Riviéres and there were a few visiting fans but it was a long way to come. Those fans that did show up were generally laid back but became excited and animated at all the usual moments.
The best way to get to the game is by subway and College Station is just down the street from the Gardens, at Yonge. The Carlton streetcar runs by the front doors and brings passengers in from the east and west.
The concourses are spacious and do not become too crowded during the game. As for washrooms, there are two on top of each side of the arena bowl and more within the concourses and they are entirely touch-free. Also, and almost worthy of an extra point, is the handsoap which smells very vividly of watermelon and is a must try! Seriously.
Tickets are $12 for those who are not university students, but Ryerson students get in free. $12 is on the high side of pricing for Canadian university hockey, but the arena is way above any other in the country and the investment is well worth it. Concessions are priced about average as are souvenirs and apparel.
Considering that the arena was a significant investment for the growing university, and seeing as the facility is worth a look even without the game being played, $12 is suddenly quite a deal.
Being downtown, $12 for an evening of entertainment is cheaper than most events you could spend your money on in the neighbourhood.
One extra point for the sensitive heritage restoration and attention to detail.
One extra point for the pricey modern accents to the facility paid for by Ryerson.
One extra point for the healthy choices available at the cafe.
One extra point for being the only Original Six arena still hosting hockey games.
One extra point for giving designation of 'King and Queen' of the game, who received signed Team Canada jerseys.
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