By Allan Woods
“The building was gorgeous. It was like a shrine, you know, with the big dome. It was like going into a big cathedral.
“At the south end of the arena there was a bandstand erected above the end seats. For every home game of the Leafs they would have a military band playing there. They didn’t have the loudspeakers.
“It was a different [band] every night and they used t entertain the audience between periods.
“When they played the national anthem, everybody stood up and took their caps off. There was no fooling around. Everybody reverenced the king and country and all.
“Nobody dressed casual. It was a night out. And down in the reds, the front row seats, it was pretty post. The ladies would have the long dresses and the men would be in tux.”
Maple Leaf Gardens was the brainchild of Conn Smythe, then owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, and Frank Selke, an assistant manager. Near the end of the 1920s, the team was becoming so successful, it outgrew its original home arena on Mutual Street.
In need of new lodgings, the two men convinced the Eaton family to sell land on the corner of Church and Carlton Streets for the bargain price of $350,000.
To save money on construction, workers gave up 20 per cent of their normal wages in return for stock in the Gardens.
It took 1,200 to build the arena, using 750,000 bicks, 77,500 bags of cement and 70 tons of sand.
Completed in 1931, the building stands 13 stories.
On opening night—Nov. 12, 1931—The Leafs lost 2-1 to the Chicago Blackhawks before a crowd 13,233. Set prices then ranged from 95 cents $2.75.
The Maple Leafs recently moved to the Air Canada Centre where they share a home with the Toronto Raptors.
In July of this year, Maple Leafs Gardens was sold to PenEquity, a Toronto developer who is also building AMC-‘s 30-screen movie theatre, Metropolis, on the northeast corner Yonge and Dundas Streets.
PenEquity plans to turn the Gardens into a retail and entertainment complex, but will keep the ice surface and 5,000.
Ryerson has submitted a proposal that would see the school’s hockey, figure skating and intramural teams use the arena after the development is complete.
Tommy Gaston can recite the 1931 Toronto Maple Leafs roster from memory. The 83-year-old “Superfan,” as he was dubbed by the Leafs organization, was chosen to represent fans in the parade from Maple Leaf Gardens to the Air Canada Centre when the Leafs moved to their new home early last year.
Gaston attended the first game at the Maple Leaf Gardens on Nov. 12, 1931 and has been a season’s ticket holder for more than 60 years.
“Just as the war broke out, I had a bad accident at work and I lost my sight. I got burnt with lime. I was in the hospital for some time and when we took the bandages off to check my sight, my dad was there and there was two other guys with him. One was a family friend. He used to be a backup goalie with the Leafs, by the name of Joe Stark…
“I was in my early twenties and I was just waiting to go back into the service—I would have been a rear gunner in the Air Force.
“So the doctor said to me, ‘There’s two guys here to see you,’ and he said, ‘Do you think you can see them?’
“They put the two of them in front of my face, they bent over the bed and I recognized that one was my dad. I was just beginning to get my left eye back.
“The other guy, he says, ‘Well kid, how are ya?’ He says, ‘You’re gonna make it.’ And he says, ‘Do you know who I am?’
“‘Well,’ I says, ‘I know who you look like but I’m not too sure that that guy would be here to see me.’
“He says, ‘Who do you think it is?’ and I says, ‘Turk Broda.’
“And it was. It was Turk Broda, the Leaf goalkeeper.
“I think that another thing that consolidated me with hockey is because he took the time to come down and cheer me out of a real bad thing. As you can see, I never got my right eye back, but I got back sight in my left eye, which was a godsend. It kept me out of the army, so instead of sloggin’ it out in the army, I was sloggin’ it down to Maple Leaf Gardens to watch the Leafs.”