• Brian McFarlane

Little-Known Facts About Maple Leaf Gardens

When I was a lad, every kid on skates in Canada aspired to play hockey at Maple Gardens or the Montreal Forum. Growing up in a small town (Whitby) only a few miles to the east of Toronto, I witnessed only a couple of NHL games played there and one Memorial Cup playoff game between the Oshawa Generals and their star player Billy Taylor and the Saint Boniface Seals featuring a rushing defenseman named Wally Stanowski. Seals won the Cup three games to two. As an adult, I would become friends with both—and a teammate of Stanowski. I would enjoy the thrill of playing on Gardens ice, once against the Montreal Canadiens Oldtimers and once against the Detroit Red Wings Oldtimers. I was the only amateur player involved. How many old hockey commentators can claim they faced off against Rocket Richard one night and Gordie Howe on another. How many can brag about scoring a goal against the Red Wings? I’m not a braggart but I am pretty damn proud of that goal.

Let me tell you about the Gardens which became my second home for decades while I proudly wore one of the famous powder blue jackets so synonymous with Hockey Night in Canada.

Opened in 1931 and used by the Toronto Maple Leafs until 1999, Maple Leaf Gardens possessed a heritage that today’s swanky North American ice palaces will take decades to acquire, if they do at all.

The story of the Gardens’ conception, its financing (it cost a paltry $1.5 million) and its rapid construction in record time (an astonishing six months), is a familiar one to most hockey fans.

But some little-known facts about the famous building may be worth revealing. For example:

The first site considered for the new arena was on the Toronto waterfront, close by Yonge Street. A second site discussed was on Spadina Crescent, north of College Street. But when residents of the area objected, that plan was abandoned.

The T. Eaton Company originally offered Conn Smythe property on Wood Street, off Yonge, a few hundred feet from the present location, but Smythe held out for the site at the corner of Church and Carlton because streetcar lines would run directly past his building.

Initially, the ice surface was to run east-west rather than north-south. There was to be a circular gallery installed, large enough to hold 5,000 spectators, but the idea was dropped before construction got under way.

A gymnasium, a billiard room and a bowling alley were also in the original prospectus. These areas were approved and installed.

Leafs star Clarence “Hap” Day, who was a graduate of the University of Toronto’s pharmacy school, made a shrewd deal with Smythe and opened the Hap Day Pharmacy in a corner of the building.

Embedded in the cornerstone, laid at the southeast corner of the building by Ontario’s lieutenant governor, W.D. Ross, is a manuscript that records some additional facts about the edifice.

It states that the artificial ice would be manufactured by three 60-ton machines with sufficient capacity to cover the cement floor with ice, approximately three-quarters of an inch thick, within eight hours.

Construction of the building required 750,000 bricks. One bricklayer estimated that, laid end to end, these would stretch a distance of 28 miles. Other materials included 77,500 bags of cement, 70 tons of sand, 11,000 tons of gravel, 950,000 board feet of lumber, 540 kegs of nails, more than 14 miles of conduit and more than 230,000 haylite blocks. Roughly nine miles of piping was embedded in the cement floor to carry the fluids from the ice-making machines.

The Gardens was an instant success. It was filled to capacity on opening night, November 12, 1931, when the Leafs lost to Chicago.

One month later, the arena was home to a unique church service that not only filled the seats, but forced organizers to turn away an estimated 20,000 people standing in a drizzle outside.

The Gardens was home to a broad spectrum of events, not all of them box-office successes. Professional lacrosse, pro basketball, indoor softball, soccer and dog racing were among the promotional nightmares. One night during the dog races, the mechanical rabbit broke down. The dogs skidded to a halt and wandered off, perhaps in search of hydrants.

On another occasion, the participants in a six-day bike racer suspected that the promoters were short of funds. They refused to ride until they were paid in cash.

The Gardens claimed a number of “firsts.” The first ice resurfacing machines appeared there, the first goal lights, the first herculite glass, the first timing devices to keep track of players’ ice times, the first “gondola” for Foster Hewitt’s radio broadcasts, the first board advertising and so many other innovations.

For a rodeo in the 1960s, several tons of dirt and straw were laid over the ice surface. But getting the stuff off again in time for a hockey game with Detroit, presented a formidable, time-consuming problem. It was the reason the Leafs’ home game became the only NHL match ever to be played on brown ice. That situation did not make Conn Smythe proud, for he insisted from the beginning that the Gardens should be spotlessly clean at all times.

I remember peeing there, in a men’s room featuring a long trough, elbow to elbow with a hundred others, streams of urine almost filling the trough. Years later, after renovations, the tough would be sold to a farmer who fed his pigs from it.

One night a famous concert singer was about to go on stage and perform when Leaf owner Conn Smythe noticed he was wearing jeans. “No jeans,” was the edict and someone found the singer a pair of ill fitting track pants to wear.

When Robert Kennedy showed up for a game, he was denied entrance through the portals of the Hot Stove Club. “Members only,” he was told. Until somebody else recognized President Kennedy’s younger brother.

Three memorable “on ice” events come to mind when I think of the hundreds of nights I spent covering Leaf Games at the Gardens. There was the last Stanley Cup championship in 1967, Pete Mahovlich’s spectacular goal against the Soviets in game two of the Summit Series in 1972 and Darryl Sittler’s remarkable ten point night against Boston in 1976.

There are many bigger, fancier, more glamorous hockey arenas around, but there was no place quite like Maple Leaf Gardens.