Maple Leaf Gardens is going the way of all old National Hockey League arenas in the 1990s. The Gardens will host its final NHL game this week, after which hockey’s Maple Leafs will join the National Basketball Association Toronto Raptors at the gleaming, $265million Air Canada Centre farther downtown. Like other modern arenas, the Leafs’ new home will be larger, more comfortable and produce bigger revenues for both teams’ owners. But the Gardens holds such an allure among hockey fans that scalpers were getting $5,000for a pair of choice seats last week. Longtime Maclean’s columnist Trent Frayne, who covered his first Leaf game in 1942, doubts the Air Canada Centre will have the same impact on the country as the old shrine on Carlton Street.
Once, Maple Leaf Gardens was the finest, squeaky-cleanest hockey arena on God’s crowded footstool, but that was during a 30-year period that ended when greed, still the greatest blight in pro sports, took over the elegant premises in late November, 1961. Beginning there, it kept on growing and where it will stop, who knows?
Maple Leaf Gardens was transformed from practically a cathedral into a cash cow when Connie Smythe, whose drive got it built in 1931, turned over his shares three decades later to three men—his son Stafford, Stafford’s buddy Harold Ballard, and a friend of theirs, John Bassett. Profits and ever more profits became the new trio’s goal. New seats were squeezed into odd spaces, aisles were shrunk, and even two whole new sections were improbably hung against end walls where once
had loomed a platform for a giant pipe organ and a towering picture of Elizabeth the Queen in tiara and beribboned splendour. In this fashion, about 3,000 seats were added.
Nowadays, a glitzy new ice palace has risen in Toronto festooned with luxury boxes, the miniature recreation rooms currently the brightest gleam in the acquisitive eyes of bigsports franchise owners. When the Gardens hosts its final NHL game on Feb. 13, it will become ... what? Try a practice facility for the Maple Leafs, a home rink for an ignored junior hockey team, and even the resurrection of box lacrosse (box lacrosse?).
Meanwhile, the old lady just stands there, still a clean, imposing pile of what the building contractors said in 1931 were 750,000 yellow bricks. But inside, the Gardens resembles an
overdressed hooker, all incandescent lighting and blinking neon and flashy ads. The building can’t be dismantled because in 1990 it wás declared a historical site under the Ontario Heritage Act by the Toronto city council. Nobody can tear it down or alter it substantially without the council’s approval.
Way back when, Conn Smythe made a good choice of architects, the Montreal firm Ross and Macdonald, which had designed Toronto’s Royal York Hotel and Union Station. This time, the firm used an advanced cantilever form and designed an open, pillarless structure that climbed 15 storeys from ice level to vaulted roof. The aisles were wide and the 12,586 seats were roomy enough for the widest bottoms.
Seating was divided into four sections, coloured red, blue, green and grey, and for hockey fans the price, by today’s mind-boggling standards, was not bad. The red boxes and lower seats cost $3 each, the blues were $2.50, the greens $1.75 and the greys 90 cents. (By early 1999, rails and boxes, painted a mustardy colour called gold, cost $121 each. The old blue section, now red, costs $93 per seat, the greens $53, and the nose-bleed section, still grey, rose to $26.50). In
the airy confines unhindered by posts, fans had an unobstructed view of hockey or anything else Smythe put before them.
Such as six-day bike racing featuring Victoria’s celebrated redhead Torchy Peden, the fastest man on two wheels; Jack Kramer’s annual pro tennis tour revealing Gorgeous Gussie Moran, she of the revolutionary lace-trimmed panties; the Sadler’s Wells ballet with the matchless Dame Margot Fonteyn; and an annual week-long visit by the Metropolitan Opera’s full company. Also, the lunacy of pro wrestling regularly lured 300,000 suspects a year.
In 1934, Winston Churchill came to the Gardens while on a lecture tour and so did Tim Buck, leader of the Canadian Communist Party, who arrived direct from prison that same year to stand on a stage banked with red carnations. The evangelist Billy Graham ran revival meetings there, Robert Stanfield became Conservative leader there, the Beatles and Elvis Presley played there, Maria Callas sang there, and also Paul Robeson. Jean Harlow, a
sort of pre-Marilyn Marilyn Monroe, played in a revue there.
Smythe tried pro lacrosse but it didn’t work. One night before a Gardens lacrosse game involving the Montreal Maroons, sports columnist Ted Reeve, who played for the Maroons, was asked by a teammate how the crowd looked. Reeve, a Toronto native, poked his head out the dressing-room door and reported: “Fine. He just lit a cigar.”
For Smythe, cleanliness was assuredly godliness. Two painters were on the job year-round, splashing hundreds of gallons on the seats and walls. Every day all winter, 35 staff workmen scoured the interior with vacuum cleaners, mops, brooms, brushes and dust cloths. Smythe believed the boxes ought to be occupied by people dressed for the sort of evening they would enjoy at the opera or theatre. Women often wore mink wraps over formal gowns and men on occasion showed up in tuxedos. One early winter, Smythe sent a note to subscribers noting that the quality of recent attire seemed slightly below par.
Of all the moves Smythe made that brought attention to the Gardens, nothing compared with his decision to hire Foster Hewitt as
the Maple Leafs hockey broadcaster. With that voice of his, that unique, spare style, Hewitt turned the Gardens into a tourist attraction as revered as any building in Canada. Outlanders used to climb out of their berths on the transcontinental train hauling into Toronto’s Union Station from the West at 7 a.m., and the first thing they’d ask, emerging onto Front Street and peering up at the Royal York Hotel, was: “Say, how far is it to Maple Leaf Gardens?”
Those of us who grew up on the Prairies listening to the Hewitt voice on Saturday nights will never forget him coming on the air and greeting us. “Hello Canada, and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland,” he’d say in that measured way of his. “The score at the end of the first period is...”
And then he’d tell us, the millions of us spread right across the country, brought together in living
and kitchens and bathtubs and cars on lonely dark farms and in small snow-packed towns, and in big, brightly lit cities from one ocean to the other, all of us in our mind’s eye watching the heroic giants on the ice below.
That was so long ago that the game was already a half-hour old before the broadcast came on, long before television.
Unlike the nine guys who seem nowadays to infest broadcast booths in pro sports, Hewitt worked alone. He didn’t try to give voice to every pass and each scramble and every goaltender’s save but, instead, to describe the essence and the significance. His voice floated on the crowd’s roar, lifted by it, reflecting its mood. And always there was a sense of impending excitement.
That’s another thing gone from the famous old pile of 750,000 yellow bricks, that unique sense of impending excitement that Hewitt sent out at night from Smythe’s showpiece. But that was such a long time ago and now they are gone. All of them. All gone. □
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