November 11, 2016 - Toronto, Ontario
Every iconic venue in sports will someday see its historic life come to an end. Places like the Montreal Forum and others eventually get replaced by newer, shinier, and more modern structures. One such arena that seemed headed for a similar path was Maple Leaf Gardens. Having been all but abandoned in 2000 the venue has come back to life as a home to hockey, albeit on a smaller scale, thanks to Canadian grocery giant Loblaws and Ryerson University. As the NHL was in its early years and the effects of the Great Depression were taking hold in North America Maple Leaf Gardens was constructed in a remarkable period of 6 month thanks to the vision of Conn Smythe. As the home of the Maple Leafs from 1931 until 1999 this arena was known far and wide a a mecca of hockey. The building looks just as it did in the 1930's from the outside, with brown brick which blends in with the nearby office buildings and storefronts on the neighboring blocks. The windows and accents of the building have an Art Deco and Art Moderne appeal. The famous marquee sign sits largely unchanged, with a small metal sign above indicating the venue is now a property of Ryerson University and bearing the Mattamy Athletic Centre name. A Loblaws grocery store occupies the corner area on the lower and underground levels now as well, complete with artifacts and original seats from the Gardens inside. The large building is impressive from the outside, and has a solidly built and timeless look about it. Entry into the facility is through the doors under the marquee sign, where you will now find a modern lobby and some historic photos and artwork paying tribute to the glorious history of the building. The Mattamy Athletic Centre isn't the Maple Leaf Gardens older fans would remember on the inside however, as, after sitting vacant for a decade, the interior was essentially gutted and usable athletic space installed for the university. Having reopened in 2012 this reborn building can now give hockey fans somewhat of a glimpse of how it was when fans flocked here to watch the Maple Leafs for nearly 7 decades. Interestingly enough, during the renovations a 1931 time capsule was unearthed, and much attention has been taken to ensure that the facility will pay tribute to the role that Maple Leaf Gardens, and the sport of hockey, have played in shaping Canadian culture.
Fans attending a Ryerson Rams game at the Mattamy Athletic Centre can purchase their tickets at the box office in the lower lobby and then make their way upstairs to take the escalator to the upper levels where the arena is. A ticket for this Friday night matchup against Nipissing cost $12. The arena is on the third floor, with entry to the seating area on the fourth level. At the top of the staircase on the second level is an information desk, and a small Ryerson merchandise kiosk. Also on the second floor are the small arena used for volleyball and basketball, as well as a very busy fitness gym and a small cafe. Each level has photos and displays which share historic moments in Maple Leaf Gardens history. Once into the arena itself, know specifically as Mattamy Home Ice, you will end up on a concourse above one of the grandstands that run down either side of the arena. Seating is made up of 10 rows of plastic seats, with most of the rows being blue, and the tops couple rows yellow. On the entry end there is a pair of seating rows suspended from the wall which nearly perch over the ice surface. There are a small number of additional seats at ice level in the corners and on one side. Luxury suites sit in 3 of the 4 corners, and an alumni lounge sits above one end of the rink. The place looks modern and has a new feel to it. With a seating capacity of 2300 the venue is intimate, but has a big- time look about it. The interior walls are a stark white but have areas of yellow trim. A pair of modern video boards are secured to the end walls. Sight lines are excellent as the front rows are elevated above the ice. Maple Leaf Gardens has been referred to as a hockey cathedral, and a vaulted cathedral ceiling was maintained from the original building design, and is one of the more interesting and striking features of the arena. The ceiling is extremely high and makes the venue feel bigger than it actually is. Each upper concourse is wide and features a food concession stand, but for this game only a single stand was open. With such a small capacity and modern design the arena is much different than the original configuration of Maple Leaf Gardens, but with the little pieces of history preserved in the hallways and lobby areas this arena feel like a special place indeed.
The game day experience and presentation at Mattamy Athletic Centre for a Ryerson Rams game is modern and centered on fun, whereas the hallowed exterior of the building gives the image of tradition and timelessness. Although crowds are not often near capacity here, for CIS hockey in Ontario the Rams draw quite well, and the venue is the perfect size for this level of hockey. Many of the fans in attendance were there to socialize, and the ongoing party in the alumni lounge found many fans on hand barely peeking at the ice all evening. A pregame light show starts before player introductions, and the PA system is loud and robust. A Ram mascot roams the stands and concourse greeting fans, and there are giveaways and fan contests through the evening including stoppages. Intermission finds on-ice contests including a tricycle race. The fans in attendance seem to spread out in the arena and there is no designated student section to cheer on the Rams. The lighting in the arena is kept especially bright during play, although the lights are dimmed as the ice is resurfaced during intermission. Although the Rams have played here for several seasons the arena still feels brand new. The video boards are a nice touch but are not used for replays at all, so the technology could be put to a bit better use. Those on hand to watch the game rather than hang out with their friends are made up of the typical Ontario crowd, which means the fans are very knowledgeable, but also rather stoic and quiet. The game was quite entertaining however as it was chippy all night and featured a decent scrap (something we greatly enjoy in the Canadian university game as compared to the US college level). Ryerson took a 5-1 win and the fans on hand enjoyed their time at the arena on this evening. While sitting and watching a game here, aside from the ceiling which is intact in its design from the original arena, it is hard to get the sense of how historic this building actually is. The fact that the structure of Maple Leaf Gardens was preserved and resurrected to house hockey again is a remarkable achievement however, and stands as a testament to the importance of hockey in Canada's largest city. We never got to see a game at the old Maple Leaf Gardens, but being able to see a high level hockey game at these hallowed grounds is still an enjoyable and memorable experience. Although you need to go up to the third story to catch a game here now hockey is alive and well at Maple Leaf Gardens.