Built in the depths of the Great Depression, this grand old stadium hosted thousands of sporting and arts events.
At the corner of Carleton and Church Streets is one of Canada's national treasures, the Maple Leaf Gardens. For almost 68 years, the Gardens, as it was known, hosted a variety of events and was the home of one of the "Original Six" hockey teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Perhaps more significantly, it was the scene of many cherished Canadian moments.
Conn Smythe, the managing director of the Leafs, envisioned the Gardens. Smythe was pleased by the growing popularity of professional hockey but concerned about the physical limitations of the team's home ice, the Mutual Street Arena, and the growing cost of players' salaries. A larger building would accommodate more paying fans. Smythe could not fund the project and resorted to bank loans and selling stocks in the Gardens. He purchased land from Eaton's and the first bricks were laid on May 1, 1931.
The Gardens opened on November 12, 1931 with the Toronto Maple Leafs hosting the Chicago Blackhawks. The best seats in the house could be had for $2.75 apiece. Though the Leafs lost their first game in the Gardens, they eventually won 11 Stanley Cups during their tenure there, broadcast nationally by Foster Hewitt from his famed gondola in the rafters.
But the Gardens was hardly limited to hosting hockey games. Winston Churchill gave a speech there on March 3, 1932 and Prime Ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King and Pierre Trudeau both held fevered election rallies at the Gardens. Performers Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope performed to enthusiastic audiences. During rock ‘n roll's début in the 50s and 60s, the Gardens hosted Elvis and the Beatles.
Other sports eventually established themselves as fixtures at the Gardens. Wrestling promoter Frank Tunney held events there and wrestlers like "Whipper" Billy Watson earned fame in the Gardens' ring. On February 19, 1936, the largest crowd in boxing history up to that time watched Red Munroe qualify for the Jack Dempsey elimination tournament. Perhaps the most famous boxing match held there was the March 29, 1966 fight between Muhammed Ali and George Chuvalo, "the toughest man [Ali] ever fought."
Although the Gardens continued to host national events and two professional sporting teams into the 90s—the Leafs and the Toronto Rock lacrosse team—the building began to show its age. Though ahead of its time in the 30s, the burgeoning professional hockey league and new technology rendered the Gardens obsolete in the 90s. Inevitably, the Leafs needed a new arena and the Air Canada Centre was built.
Perhaps fatefully, the Leafs' final game in the Gardens on February 13, 1999 was lost to the Chicago Blackhawks as it had been on opening night, but the game itself had record attendance. Some fans tried to preserve the Gardens as a heritage site but were unsuccessful. Recently, the building was purchased by Loblaws and there will be no ice rink in the new structure. The building itself will always hold a place in Canadian memory.