Maple Leaf Gardens: The interesting second life of Toronto’s legendary arena

Marquee in front of the former Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, now Mattamy Athletic Centre

If you’re a Toronto Metropolitan University student attending an activity at the school’s Mattamy Athletic Centre, or if you’re a downtown resident shopping at the local Loblaws grocery store, you might not know that you’re within the walls of Maple Leaf Gardens, one of hockey’s most revered venues.

Then again, how could you not know? Reminders of the building’s past glory are everywhere, right down to the preserved marquee at the front of the building on Carlton Street.

Just walk through the Mattamy Athletic Centre, or take a look around the Loblaws, and you’ll see tributes and exhibits detailing the old Maple Leaf Gardens almost everywhere you turn.

If you’re compiling a list of the most venerable, historic arenas in NHL history, Maple Leaf Gardens has to be at or near the top. Opened in 1931, it served as the home of Toronto’s beloved Maple Leafs for nearly 70 years before the team moved a few blocks away to a new building, now known as Scotiabank Arena.

During their tenure there, the Leafs won 11 Stanley Cups, and a host of legendary hockey figures came through these walls, from King Clancy and Charlie Conacher to Conn Smythe and Punch Imlach, to Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour.

I can proudly say I have seen a Leafs game at Maple Leaf Gardens. It happened in the late 1990s, not long before the team moved out.

I was in college, visiting my cousin, a Toronto native, while on spring break. By then my desire to see games everywhere had been fully formed and I was willing to pay whatever hefty price needed to get inside — which, if memory serves me right, wound up being north of C$100.

That wasn’t surprising at all because of the Leafs’ popularity and the relative small size of the arena (capacity 15,726), but of course, it was a barely manageable amount to fork over for a college student. It was worth it for me, though, the moment I stepped inside.

There was something about the atmosphere — of course I sat near the top of the arena, behind one of the nets, but the deck was so steep that you really felt like you were on top of the ice. The Calgary Flames were the opponent that night, so only the Canadian national anthem was played before the game, and it hit me at that point that I was watching a truly “foreign” sporting event. As a novice sports traveler, that blew me away.

Because this was such a formative event in my life of traveling for sports, I had watched from afar as the Maple Leafs settled into their new arena in the early 2000s and wondered what would happen to the old barn.

Turns out, the people of Toronto wondered the same thing for a time, as Maple Leaf Gardens sat dormant for several years. But what eventually happened to it is a great example of urban renewal and preservation of historic buildings.

A plaque at the Mattamy Athletic Centre commemorates the history of Maple Leaf Gardens

Maple Leaf Gardens after the Maple Leafs

The Maple Leafs moved out of the Gardens and to the new Air Canada Centre during the 1998-99 season. However, the Leafs’ management group, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), continued to own the building, and refused to sell it to any group that intended to use it as an entertainment venue in direct competition with their new arena.

Loblaw Companies, operator of the largest chain of grocery stores in Canada, purchased Maple Leaf Gardens in 2004. Its intention from the beginning was to place a grocery store within the building, but critics believed that converting the arena into a primarily retail space would cheapen its historical significance.

Toronto Metropolitan University, then known as Ryerson University, eventually entered the picture and agreed to develop part of the arena space into an athletic facility in conjunction with Loblaws’ plans.

MLSE relented on its stance of not allowing a sports venue inside the Gardens, as it was argued that it would be too small to reasonably compete with the Air Canada Centre.

Maple Leaf Gardens was declared a National Historic Site of Canada in 2006. Five years later, in 2011, Loblaws opened its Maple Leaf Gardens outlet, and Ryerson University’s Mattamy Athletic Centre opened its doors in 2012.

The entrance to the Loblaws grocery store at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, as seen from the corner of Church and Carlton streets

A novel use for a legendary arena

The corner of Church and Carlton streets in downtown Toronto used to be iconic in hockey circles. After all, it was the home of what was nicknamed “Canada’s Cathedral of Hockey.”

These days, the image above is what you will see: Maple Leaf Gardens in something of its original state, but with the distinctive (to Canadians, anyway) Loblaws marquee fronting the arena’s southeast corner.

If you’re a hockey fan who’s interested in checking out more of the history behind the old Gardens, there’s no better way than to take a trip inside the Loblaws. Indeed, it looks largely like an ordinary grocery store, but there are several cool artifacts worth checking out.

You’re greeted with a sense of hockey from the moment you enter. Look up to see, among other things, an art display comprised of the Gardens’ old blue seats, as well as murals on large pillars commemorating some of the major musical acts to have played shows at the arena.

Head around the corner to find a large mural depicting the Leafs’ rich history at the Gardens, highlighted by defenseman Bill Barilko’s overtime goal that won the Stanley Cup for Toronto in 1951. The moment is a poignant one in Leafs franchise history because Barilko would die in a plane crash a few months later. (Barilko is also the subject of the popular song “Fifty-Mission Cap” by the iconic Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip.)

Though there’s plenty to see near the entrance, be sure to venture a little deeper into the grocery — to aisle 25, to be exact.

There, amid canned goods and soy sauce, you can find a prominent blue Maple Leaf logo painted on the floor.

A blue Maple Leaf logo on the floor of the Loblaws grocery store in downtown Toronto signifies where center ice once was at Maple Leaf Gardens

The white dot inside the leaf logo signifies where center ice at Maple Leaf Gardens used to be. When the store first opened, the marker was just a red dot, but in recognition of its significance, it was changed in recent years to become a harder-to-miss large circle.

Because it happens to be in the canned foods aisle, it’s not uncommon to see hockey fans coming in, placing a can of tuna in the center-ice dot and take pictures while mimicking face-off stances.

Though it’s certainly cool to walk around the Loblaws trying to spot hockey mementos, it’s actually pretty easy to get swayed by the food.

Befitting its location in downtown Toronto, the store has a large section devoted to takeaway food, including a deli and bakery, and if you visit at lunchtime you can expect these areas, near the front of the store, to be exceedingly busy.

View of the rink at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto

Inside the Mattamy Athletic Centre

The grocery, while quite large, isn’t the only thing occupying Maple Leaf Gardens. The upper levels are occupied by Toronto Metropolitan University, which utilized the space for an athletic center that includes a 3,000-seat hockey arena.

Called the Mattamy Athletic Centre, it’s accessible through the Carlton Street entrance — you’ll pass under the famous Maple Leaf Gardens marquee on your way in.

During daytime hours, it’s likely you’ll at least be able to walk in and check out the facilities. Most of it looks like any large gym, but do spend a few moments looking inside the arena.

Much like inside the Loblaws, you’ll find several exhibits and artifacts commemorating the past life of Maple Leaf Gardens, including an old row of red seats and a plaque denoting the historical significance of the building.

However, most fans who remember the old Maple Leaf Gardens visit the facility to see what’s above.

A view at the distinctive roof structure at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto

That’s the distinctive domed roof that was a signature architectural feature of Maple Leaf Gardens. During the renovation that created Mattamy Athletic Centre, the roof was restored, giving it a more modern look and feel.

Mattamy Athletic Centre has come into its own as a sports venue. Of course, the rink is the home to the TMU men’s and women’s hockey teams, but it also hosts curling events, and the facility is often open for public ice skating sessions.

And the arena welcomed pro hockey back to Maple Leaf Gardens in 2023 thanks to the formation of the Professional Women’s Hockey League. The league’s Toronto franchise plays its home games at Mattamy, and its debut season has proven that it will be a hot ticket for some time.

Not quite as readily apparent to casual observers is the fact that the Mattamy Athletic Centre also houses a basketball gym (where the TMU basketball teams play home games) and recreational workout facilities for students attending classes at its campus a couple blocks away.

The staging of games at Mattamy helps Maple Leaf Gardens maintain an interesting historical distinction: Of the arenas in use during the NHL’s “Original Six” era (before 1967), it is one of only two that is still standing (the other being the Montreal Forum), and the only one that still hosts athletic events.

All photos by Jenn de la Fuente

More on old and historic sporting venues:
Looking back at the final years of Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia
The Metrodome: A look back at the old home of the Minnesota Twins and Vikings
Arco Arena/Sleep Train Arena: Looking back at the former home of the Sacramento Kings
What attending a game at Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena was like

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Steve G
Steve G
3 years ago

I remember going to a Leafs game in the mid-90s. Great environment! Good to see that Maple Leaf Gardens is still standing. If I visit Toronto again Ill have to see the market you mentioned.

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