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By Rodney Barnes

Walk through the open doors of Maple Leaf Gardens on Oct. 4 and you’ll find yourself confronted with two video screens talking to one another, their liquid, disembodied voices forming mouth shapes. Called “Without Persons”, the Nuit Blanche installation by Toronto artist Luis Jacob is about being in the city and “the strangeness in which what is familiar in these experiences can become unfamiliar.”

The concept is strangely appropriate for Maple Leaf Gardens. A landmark in a city with few landmarks, the building is one of Toronto’s most iconic symbols, but it stands empty and unused. With the exception of a TIFF gala hosted by Matt Damon last month, Jacob’s installation is the only time in eight years that the building has been used for a public event.

For the most part, the dilapidated husk of the Gardens still waits for the restorative love of a construction crew. Since the Leafs left nine years ago, the community has fought to preserve it as a shrine to hockey, Loblaws struggled to figure out how to convert it to a grocery store and Ryerson vied to make it the home arena for its hockey team.

But none have succeeded in opening up Toronto’s most iconic historic site.

Once the home ice of one of the world’s greatest hockey teams and a gathering place for a city, Maple Leaf Gardens is derelict and neglected.

On April 9, 1932, the Toronto Maple Leafs won their first Stanley Cup in the team’s new home on Carleton Street. The best-of-five series was a breathless sweep of the New York Rangers.

It was also a personal vindication for Leafs owner Conn Smythe — after getting fired from the Rangers, he took over Toronto’s hockey club and built it a soaring new home in 1931.

At the time, the building was the tallest thing in the surrounding neighbourhood, towering over the stately brick homes that lined the sleepy streets of Depression-era Toronto.

Over the next 68 years, Toronto grew from a provincial backwater to a major international city and the Gardens became its most important meeting place. The Leafs won 10 more Stanley Cups and reached the height of their success at the arena.

The Leafs sold out every home game between 1946 through to 1999, leading sports reporters to dub the building the “Carlton Street Cashbox.”

The building gained national importance when it hosted the first ever NHL All-Star game in 1947 and the second game of the storied 1972 summit series between Canada and the Soviet Union.

The Gardens also saw the conception and explosion of Hockey Night in Canada, originally launched to provide radio play-by-plays of Leafs games. During these broadcasts, the show’s original host, Foster Hewitt, coined the phrase “he shoots, he scores!”

The arena also hosted some of the biggest musical acts in the past 50 years, including the only non-American live concert by Elvis Presley and the Who’s original farewell tour in 1982. It was also the only venue The Beatles played on each of their three North American tours.

“We are a young country with few symbols of our fragile nationality,” said Michael Bliss, a University of Toronto history professor, who compared Maple Leaf Gardens with Rome’s Coliseum in its importance to Canada.

“It is rash to deny the significance of sporting events, especially hockey, as central to the Canadian culture.”

When Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the company that owned the Gardens, bought the Toronto Raptors and the Air Canada Centre — then under construction — in 1998, the Maple Leafs suddenly found themselves with a new, bigger home.

Both the Toronto hockey and basketball teams would play their last game in the Gardens in February of 1999, with the Leafs famously losing against the Chicago Blackhawks — the same team that beat the Leafs in the building’s opening game in 1931. The score was 6-2 and in the third period, Blackhawks’ player Bob Probert scored the final NHL goal in the building.

The Toronto Rock lacrosse team used the Gardens for the next year, and won the league’s championship. Since then, the building has been vacant.

Ryerson looked at buying the Gardens shortly after the Leafs moved out, going as far as hiring an architect to complete feasibility studies on the building. The university planned to keep the ice surface and between 5,000 and 10,000 seats as a venue for the Ryerson Rams hockey and basketball teams. The upper portion of the arena would have then been converted into a home for the business school and student residences.

“We looked at it, and it was simply too expensive to renovate it” says Linda Grayson, Ryerson’s vice president of finance and administration, who directed the project for acquiring the property back in 2000.

Part of the problem was that the bleachers inside the building were helping support the walls, and removing them could cause the sides of the buildings to collapse.

The school passed on the Gardens.

In 2003, Loblaw Companies Ltd., Canada’s largest grocery store chain, bought the property for little over $16 million. The company proposed to preserve the exterior facade and roof while installing a grocery superstore.

Community response was mixed.

“We were quite disappointed,” says former mayor John Sewell, who helped lead the group Friends of Maple Leaf Gardens in their fight to preserve the building as an arena.

The group had petitioned local politicians as well as MLSE to keep the rink intact, and held a public forum in April of 2004 to garner public support for the cause. MLSE, however, refused to allow the Gardens to be used as a commercial arena, afraid that it would compete with the Air Canada Centre.

Sewell and his group suffered another setback when city council publicly endorsed Loblaws’s proposal to install a grocery store in the building.

“I think there is need for a large format grocery store given the number of people moving downtown,” says Councillor Kyle Rae, who represents the Carlton St. area. “The neighbourhood was excited about a new grocery store going in.”

Loblaws, however, realized that renovating the Gardens would be more expensive than they’d thought. After an extensive study, the company announced only three months after purchasing the property in 2003 that it wanted to re-sell the property. Ryerson started negotiating with Loblaws to take over the Gardens, but eventually backed away from the deal a second time.

Maple Leaf Gardens has been gutted of any memorabilia worth selling: only 5,000 seats remain, another 10,000 having been auctioned off to fans years ago.

The installation might be the last time anyone sees the inside of the Gardens for a long time. Loblaws has no idea when it will build a grocery store there and doesn’t plan to let anyone use the space in the meantime.

“Our intention is not to continue to hold events in Maple Leaf Gardens. These were exceptions,” says Loblaws spokesperson Inge van den Berg. “We still intend to develop Maple Leaf Gardens into a leading grocery store, but the exact timing is still being determined.”

The company originally planned to open a grocery store in 2005, but stalled time and again despite having received all permits and approvals.

“People are getting rather fed up with Loblaw’s for not coming through with their proposals,” Rae says. He speculates that the high cost of renovations, which scared Ryerson away from the Gardens, might be the reason Loblaws is letting the Gardens languish.

While Rae and Sewell are both unhappy that the Gardens are being left derelict, they are heartened that the site will at least be opened for Nuit Blanche.

“The fact that they’re using it as it is is very, very good,” Sewell says.

On Friday, the Toronto public can enjoy a last moment with the old Gardens — a transformative one, according to Jacob. “Maple Leaf Gardens was used because at one point the voice describes the experience of walking into a stadium, experiencing something there, and then being transformed as one walks back out on to the streets,” he says. They might just see the Gardens differently when they exit.

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