Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Maple Leaf Gardens: A New Life

As the lyrics to the Dinah Washington classic tune states, "what a difference a day makes."

This certainly is applicable when examining the renovations at Maple Leaf Gardens. As pointed out previously, the interior makeover has been shielded from traffic within the neighbourhood. Also, it appears as though a portion of the exterior work was delayed to coincide with the opening of Loblaws on the main level.

Developments started to heat-up during the week of November 21st, when work was being conducted on the domed roof. On November 23rd, the Maple Leaf logo was removed from the roof. As the exterior of the building comes under heritage protection, it was not necessary for the Leaf emblem to disappear. It was placed on the structure in the 1980s during the Harold Ballard regime. For some reason, the powers-in-charge has elected not to return the insignia to the top of 60 Carlton Street.

On the same morning, came an installation which was powerful enough to stop one in their tracks. Think of a driver behind the wheel of his or her vehicle slamming on the brakes to avoid a wayward child in their path. Walking along Carlton Street took on the feel of being in a time warp. It is a moment, once you have come to a complete halt, where you look away and give your head a shake. Then, peer-up once again, hoping the initial glance wasn't a figment of your imagination. At this point it all sinks in. It is like seeing an old friend who comes back into your life after an extended absence. In this case, the old pal is the marquee covering the main entrance to the iconic edifice. And believe me; I'm not exaggerating the impact this has on anyone with an appreciation for history.

One word can be used to describe the new marquee - stunning! Under the direction of ERA Architects, who specialize in heritage architecture, the final product is both eye pleasing and appropriate. Project Architect, William MacIvor, nailed this one by selecting the correct era on which to base adaptive reuse of the marquee. Having written in the past about the marquee, it is of significant interest and is often referred to as being the face of Maple Leaf Gardens.

The Gardens marquee. Photographed on Nov. 30, 2011.

MacIvor, who obtained a Masters degree in architecture while attending Dalhousie University, wrote about the process in his blog. His entry following the installation provided insight into how things came together. "The original canopy from 1931 did not include the lightbox (which was added in the following decade), and the marquee has been subsequently modified numerous times over the life of the building." MacIvor explained the original drawings dating back to 1931 were engaged to provide vital information.

The lettering of - Maple Leaf Gardens - "was painstakingly recreated from historical photographs," wrote MacIvor. This certainly was achieved and is clearly evident when viewing an image from a by-gone-era. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words and the photographic evidence in his blog confirms how accurate the reproduction is when compared to the past.

In what appears to be a gathering of Leaf captains, the above photo seems to date back to the late 1950s. On the extreme right is Sid Smith, who wore the captains "C" during the 1955-56 campaign. The first individual on the left is Hap Day, who holds the honour of being the first Leaf captain. Thus, it isn't a stretch to determine the approximate circa of the photo. An examination of the picture demonstrates how precisely the replica matches the one behind Conn Smythe and company.

Upon choosing a design, the next step was to pitch his vision. In this regard, MacIvor wrote, "it was decided in consultation with municipal staff from Heritage Preservation Services to restore the signature element to its iconic, longest running version; the one which is most clearly defined in the public consciousness."

Having viewed the final product last week, I was staggered by this new addition to the Carlton Street landscape. There is little doubt the new/old design has brought new life to the building. I observed many people, young and old, taking the time to look-up and take in the marquee. At night, with the lights switched on, it is absolutely striking! Watching the shopping crowd coming and going, it seemed as though the wonderful sights and sounds of a Toronto Maple Leaf game night had returned. Memories of a large hockey crowd flooding out of the Gardens following another evening of NHL action flashed before me.

The marquee at night

The following week, there was another explosion of important news pertaining to the 80-year-old building which opened on November 12, 1931 with the Maple Leafs playing host to Chicago.

First-up was Ryerson University with a preview of their new rink on November 29th. Neatly tucked under the dome, the space will seat 2,600 spectators and will resemble a miniature version of the original bowel. It will be known as Mattamy Home Ice after the company owned by major financial contributor Peter Gilgan. It will serve as the new home of the Ryerson Rams hockey team. Future work is expected to be completed by spring of 2012.

Next on tap was the opening of Loblaws at Maple Leaf Gardens on November 30th. The grocery store takes in 85,000 square feet and devours the entire first floor. I was fortunate enough to be part of a tour conducted by Mario Fatica who is Vice President, Planning development & Approvals for Loblaws. Right off the bat, I informed Fatica my main interest was the hockey/historical aspects of the renovations.

However, I can't help but comment on the vast variety of products and services available to the public. From a consumer point-of-view, the store will definitely be an asset to the community. In addition to providing enough food to feed an army, there is a pharmacy, in-sore dietitian and medical clinic.

The first visual relating to hockey is found near the escalators, located to the right as you enter via the corner doors at Church and Carlton. Affixed to the east wall is a huge blue Maple Leaf. The Loblaws press release describes the artwork as a "three dimensional sculpture created from stadium chairs." This is a nice touch and pays tribute to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

The Maple Leaf sculpture
 Prior to making my way into Loblaws, I soaked in a view of the exterior from the south-side of Carlton. Ducking around traffic, I got a clear look at the entrance. Immediately, I recalled vintage photos of the United Cigar Store, an inaugural tenant at Maple Leaf Gardens. United Cigar Store first appeared as part of the new hockey palace in the 1932 Toronto city directory. The exact location being 438 Church Street at the corner of Church and Carlton. The following pictures tell the tale between 1931 and 2011.

Church and Carlton - 1930s

Church and Carlton - 2011

From the same vantage point, by the escalators, one can focus on several other historical related features incorporated into the Loblaws store. As the interior was stripped bare to accommodate renovations, original concrete walls are now in full view. Old light fixtures which hung above ice level have been put back into operation. Storefront windows have been designed to mirror as closely as possible those from the past.

Contained within is a cafe/canteen for hungry and thirsty shoppers to take a break and contemplate their next move. In these ares, there are a couple of things to capture the eye of hockey fans. Depicted on one wall is a replica of artist John Richmond's mural which was located in the Gardens lobby. In 1994, the piece was put up to pay "homage to historical moments and star players." Since the wall on which the original was created on fell victim to the gutting process, photographs were reviewed to obtain accuracy in the reproduction.

After finding a table under the mural, one can rest their weary bones on a gold or red seat salvaged from when the Leafs vacated the premises.

The counter tops to a number of tables contain historical photos under glass. While munching on a treat or savoring a fine beverage, a history lesson is readily available.

As we reached aisle 25, Mario Fatica pointed to a red circle on the floor. My first impression was a painter, in a hurry to finish last minute touch-ups, over filled his tray and there was no time to correct the mishap. This thought quickly vanished as our tour guide articulated the significance of this circle. At that moment, Mario and I were standing at the exact location where thousands of face-offs took place to start thousands of hockey games. Yes, we were firmly planted at centre ice in the old Maple Leaf Gardens.

Once told this, my first move was to get a sense of my surroundings relative to the previous layout. To my right, the player benches and the penalty box to my left. Gazing straight ahead, I conjured-up the image of goalie Glenn Hall going through his pre-game rituals prior to the puck drop for period one. Returning to reality, I was looking south and could see the new windows exposing Carlton Street.

Marking centre ice in the old Gardens

Perhaps fueled by my nostalgic journey back to the Original Six era and preparing to face-off against Stan Mikita and the Hawks, several suggestions came to mind. Without hesitation, I passed them onto Mr. Fatica.

Noticing the second floor - home to Joe Fresh, LCBO and President's Choice Cooking School - Foster Hewitt's broadcasting location popped into my head. How about a reproduction of the Hockey Night in Canada gondola, allowing shoppers to glance-up and see a tribute to a broadcasting and hockey pioneer?

Throughout the Loblaws store a great amount of signage is done in stenciling. This form of lettering was very popular in the early years of Maple Leaf Gardens. I recommended to Fatica that the name of each Street - Carlton, Church and Wood - be stenciled on the applicable wall. In a way, this could make the store seem more intimate and serve as a guiding light for those who lack a sense of direction.

A sample of the stenciling

Another acknowledgment of the past is six columns draped with posters saluting major events. One of these honouring a concert held on May 10, 1975 when Frank Sinatra performed at the Gardens.

Unfortunately, no area of the interior was deemed to have heritage value. Thus, the glorious art deco lobby was demolished. Its survival would have only enhanced the experience of visiting 60 Carlton. Beyond the architectural importance, the space could have been used as an information desk and benefit customers by supplying coat check services.

Somewhere there must be room for a Gardens museum. It is my understanding this is in the cards as part of future development plans. The history and artifacts of this building shouldn't be hidden away, but made accessible to all.

My grade for this project so far? For all concerned - Loblaws, Ryerson and the Federal Government - they deserve a solid A-Plus. In hockey terms, they have scored the game-winning-goal.

One only has to think of the alternative.


  1. Hello,

    I am hoping to confirm with you where you found the image of the Maple Leafs captains outside of the ACC. Please advise as I am looking for the permissions information for publication.

    Thank you for any help you can provide.

    All the best,

  2. Kimberlee, could you please send me an email, so I can provide you with the information. hkythenandnow@gmail.com


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