Conn Smythe built Maple Leaf Gardens. He started May 1, 1931 and had it ready in time for an opening night loss to the Chicago Black Hawks on Nov 12 of the same year. Capacity was 12,473 seats, which was a huge increase from the 7500 seats a few blocks away at the Mutual Street Arena, the old home of the Leafs. Today the ACC holds a little over 20,000 people.
The Gardens was built for $1.5 million ($22.5 in today’s dollars). A premium ticket cost $2.75 versus today’s cost of $400 and up for a similar seat. The land was purchased from a reluctant seller in the T. Eaton Co. who was in the process of finishing the upscale College Park project and didn’t care for the HOCKEY crowd infiltrating the area (This may explain why the crowd, for so many years at the Gardens, wore their Sunday best for games). Ironically, the land was sold at the time for $150,000 less than what the true value was.
The Gardens would go on to host some of the most famous events of all time over the years. From the obvious hockey championships, to the first game in history of the Basketball Association of America (now the NBA) between the Toronto Huskies and the New York Knickerbockers. Elvis Presley’s show in 1957 was one of the few shown outside of the USA. The Beatles, for each of their 3 North American tours, would play the Gardens. It would cost a few bucks to see a show of this nature back then, whereas today, seeing a world-class band like U2 can run into the hundreds of dollars. Numerous political conventions, religious events, Winston Churchill, the Queen, and too many to count, all graced the halls of the Gardens.
On Feb 19, 1936, the largest crowd in boxing history (to that point) watched Red Munroe qualify for the Jack Dempsey elimination tournament. However, that night would pale in comparison to the most famous boxing match in the history of the Gardens 30 years later, when Muhammed Ali and Canadian George Chuvalo squared off. (Ali to this day says that Chuvalo was the toughest man he had ever fought). Directions to the Gardens used to be the number one request from tourists visiting Toronto for the first time. Today it’s still a must- see destination for tourists.
Back then, as an adult, one would sit and marvel at all of these historic events happening at MLG, but to this 10 year old a trip to the Gardens meant only one thing. I was about to see the Leafs in person. And at the time, how does anything get any better than that? Life was so simple then. There was no need to complicate things. An older version of myself may have sat in a red seat closest to the ice (gold seats would follow some years later during a makeover of MLG) and daydreamed that on a visit to Toronto, John Lennon sat here resting after a practice session preparing for a show. Or maybe Elvis did? Mick Jagger? Could Winston Churchill have sat here and smoked a cigar? Maybe Ali sat with his feet up just to get away from it all before his championship fight. Dave Keon could have sat here in his street clothes relaxing before a game or practice. Never mind all of that, what famous person could have possibly sat just watching one of these events? And on the same note, who walked these halls and maybe leaned against a wall between periods or during the intermission of a concert? A few years later this would hit me and have a lasting effect to this day.
When I was young, the Gardens opened the grand old building once a year for tours. My dad took me on one of those tours. We saw the obvious things you would expect to see: the press box; the gondola; the Zamboni room (the ice resurfacing machine was another first for the Gardens with it’s debut in March of 1955, but the ice was still done by hand between periods until the early 60’s).
The Hot Stove Lounge, which at first glance wasn’t all that interesting to me until they showed us pictures of the Beatles holding one of their Toronto press conferences in the Hot Stove. This got my mind racing beyond belief as it finally dawned on me that they were actually in this room! Almost 50 years later I acquired a picture of that press conference, and the fascinating thing about that picture is the presence of a very rare promotional poster of the concert in the background over the heads of the Beatles. That very poster hangs in our house today.
As we toured the dressing room that the Rolling Stones used during one of their visits, and the song “Time is on my Side” played in the background, my mind started to visualize again. (I can honestly say I didn’t imagine that I would see that same band, The Rolling Stones, more than a dozen times years later). We moved to a familiar area in the Gardens on the main level. This is where I would stand and watch as the Leafs came out of their dressing room. At the time, the opposing team dressed across hall in same area as the Leafs, unlike today. As we moved down the hall approaching the room we suddenly stopped. Is this really happening? Before I could think, THE DOOR was opened! As we entered the Leafs’ dressing room, I was speechless.
The carpet, the size of the room, all those showers in another room, the uniforms and equipment all hanging perfectly at each player’s stall with each player’s name above, they even had seat cushions! The beautiful sight of that rich blue sweater made of a silk like fabric was the most magnificent sight I had ever seen (this obviously had an impact as I own over 50 Leaf jerseys today, going all the way back to the 30’s, and of course blue is my favourite colour!).George Armstrong was the Leaf captain at the time, and even though Dave Keon was my favourite player, I was drawn to Armstrong’s sweater.
I reached up and rubbed a small piece of the sweater between my fingers and it was the most awesome thing I had ever felt. I vividly recall standing there in awe, almost frozen in time just staring at that sweater. As we left and went through THE DOOR, I wondered if I would ever get back here again. Little did I know that almost 50 years later, that very door would be in my basement as a part of my Leaf HOF room. On the same note, I couldn’t imagine that in my HOF room, I would have a collection of every seat colour from the Gardens when it closed in 1999. I would also have a pair of original red seats from 1931 when the Gardens was built as part of my collection. You may ask yourself, if after attending hundreds of games at the Gardens over the years, my impressions have changed at all in the time when I first entered the Gardens up to the day it closed? Well, I had the good fortune of attending the last game at the Gardens and I can tell you this: every time I entered the Gardens from the time I was 7 until the day it closed, it meant only one thing. I was about to see the Toronto Maple Leafs play in person, and what could be better than that!!