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New growth in Maple Leafs Gardens

The new Maple Leaf Gardens ice surface sits on top of a grocery store below. (Andrea Crofts)

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The new Maple Leaf Gardens ice surface sits on top of a grocery store below. (Andrea Crofts)

BY NEIL ACHARYA

For 68 years, from its opening in 1931 until it was shuttered in 1999, Maple Leaf Gardens was the beating heart of hockey in Toronto and much of Canada. Now, after 13 years of essentially laying dormant, the building on the corner of Carlton and Church streets has been resurrected and the sounds of hockey – the clamoring of sticks on pucks, skates cutting across the ice and bodies colliding into boards – can once again be heard there.

How that came to be is largely the vision of the president and vice-chancellor of Ryerson University, Sheldon Levy, a Toronto native who scrounged up money to catch the odd Leaf or Marlies game in his youth. The arena now sits at roughly at the same level of the grey seating section of the old Gardens, under the trademark domed roof. “When I was a little kid, I probably stood around here,” Levy said, pointing at the concourse overlooking the 2,796-seat rink, which sits on the top level of Ryerson’s Mattamy Athletic Centre.

After securing funding from the student body, government, individuals and corporate entities, Ryerson now boasts a new, gleaming, four-story athletic complex for varsity sports and all the school’s students. It came about after the school secured an initial partnership with Loblaw Companies, which bought the building from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in 2004. Its grocery store occupies the ground level, which housed the original ice surface.

 The second and third floors contain volleyball and basketball courts and a fitness centre. Literally topping it off: on the fourth floor is an NHL-sized ice surface for the men’s and women’s varsity hockey teams. To build an ice surface at such a height, the university turned to BBB Architects, which is presently renovating Madison Square Garden, where the New York Rangers play on an elevated rink. “They did an outstanding job of not only delivering on the design, but also the flexibility of having to deal with a heritage building,” Levy said. “They had the experience of having ice above ground level and all the complications, including the refrigeration issues and how you get rid of the water.”

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Former Maple Leaf Jim Dorey, who was invited by the university with several other Maple Leafs alumni to attend the Ryerson Rams’ first hockey game Sept. 8, noted the school has made a great impact by reopening the storied building. “This arena makes university hockey move up a notch,” Dorey said. “More parents are going to say, ‘I want my kid to go to Ryerson.’ University hockey is going to be challenging the American League as a ticket right here in Toronto.”

While the technical elements are impressive, the subtle aesthetic touches, not only in the rink but throughout the building, are equally remarkable. The seats in the north and south ends have a steep blue section in homage to the old building. Four floors below, there are pictures of notable players who once skated on the ice surface, from Wayne Gretzky to Tim Horton, and images of the many other sporting events, concerts, political and religious rallies that took place in the Gardens. Gracing the Carlton St. facade is a replica of the marquee from the 1930s.  Moreover, a good number of windows have been freed from their encasements. “What’s impressive is the way they have opened it all up,” said Bob Baun, who won four Stanley Cups in the 1960s with the Leafs. “I always realized there were a lot of windows in this building, but when I saw them all back in, that’s what hit me first off.”

Levy hopes the building will give Leafs alumni a sense of co-ownership and a place that feels like home. He expects the new Maple Leaf Gardens will make “a huge difference to the community” and wishes there will be a rekindling of the attraction that once drew so many people through the doors. “It’s highly important to the city, but also to Canada that hockey remain such an important part of our culture and our identity and this building can play an important role in it,” Levy said. “We have a responsibility to open it up to allow that to happen. I do hope people see this is a beginning of a freshness of hockey in Toronto.”

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