'New' Maple Leaf Gardens gears up with rink, grocery store
Published Tuesday, November 29, 2011 8:55PM EST
Tie Domi appeared at home as he toured the construction on the third floor of Maple Leaf Gardens on Tuesday, recalling the first time he visited the building as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It was 1989 and Domi was lost in the bowels of the old building searching for the office where former Leafs owner Harold Ballard both worked and occasionally slept.
He was 18 years old and about to sign his first NHL contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Domi couldn't help but smile as he recalled his meeting with the hall of fame owner on Tuesday, pounding a reporter in the chest in homage to the way Ballard addressed him.
"He said ‘I love kids like you,' and he punched me in the heart," Domi recalled. "‘You've got this,' he said."
"Those are stories that you obviously can't replace. Those are the ones that I tell my kids. Now I am part of this and the history goes on."
With the Maple Leaf Gardens moving on to a new role as the Ryerson University's athletic centre and home to a "crown jewel" Loblaws grocery store, the iconic building's doors were cracked open on Tuesday.
A select group of visitors were given the chance to peer inside as the hockey monolith prepares to open its doors to the public for the first time in more than a decade.
When construction is complete the newly-named Peter Gilgan Athletic Centre at the Gardens will feature a Loblaws grocery store on the main floor, a student athletic centre on the second and the Mattamy Home Ice arena on the third.
Ryerson's hockey program will use the rink for home games when the arena officially opens in six months, and on Wednesday the grocery store is set to open to the public.
For now, however, a crew of construction workers holds court inside the building, readying the athletic centre for its eventual opening.
Resembling a barren construction site more than a historic hall on Tuesday, the building's legacy remained a ghost.
Dust that had been shaken from the walls could be felt in the air and the shadow of a hockey palace was hinted at by wooden beams bent to form what would become the ice rink's sharp corners.
Workers continued to form stairways that cut through the cement seating area, and rows of piping remained piled along ice level.
When it is complete, the Mattamy Home Ice arena will seat more than 2,600 spectators around a rink more than 50 feet above street level. Some of the old chairs stripped from Maple Leaf Gardens will be returned to the arena, but their exact placement are yet to be confirmed.
Even then, however, visitors will be drawn back to the building's history – when the Beatles played there in 1965, or when George Chuvalo lost a World Heavyweight title bout to boxing great Muhammad Ali.
Maple Leaf Gardens is best known, however, as the site of the Toronto Maple Leafs' last Stanley Cup victory – in 1967.
Once the pride of downtown Toronto, the building has sat idle since the team left in 1999, remaining unchanged as the city's condo boom exploded around it.
CTV News cameras allowed into the building in 2007 captured what the venue had become: the walls were battered, pillars chipped and debris left strewn about the building.
Ryerson's president Sheldon Levy set his sights on reviving the building that year, but it wasn't until 2009 that the vision began taking form.
A student-led referendum approved raising student fees to fund the purchase of the building. Shortly after grocery magnate Galen Weston jumped on board, providing funds in exchange for room to build a grocery store on the main floor.
On Tuesday, it was announced that Peter Gilgan and Mattamy Homes had donated $15 million toward the construction of the arena.
"Everyone over 30 has incredible memories at the Garden," Gilgan said on Tuesday. "We all have nostalgia at the past, but I am really looking forward to the future of this building."
Members of the Ryerson men's and women's hockey teams attended Tuesday's event and said they were thrilled to have a chance to play in the historic building. The teams currently play their home games in an arena 45 minutes from campus. But mostly, it is the building's history that will be the draw.
Domi, who played in Maple Leaf Gardens during his AHL career before he joined the Leafs in 1989, agreed with the students.
"I think Ryerson is going to have the best varsity team," Domi said. "Kids who couldn't make it to the NHL are going to want to come here to play. It really has a special feeling, and it is here forever."
Matthew Coutts is on Twitter at @mrcoutts