Although it was built during the Great Depression, Maple Leaf Gardens is not a humble arena: It began as the state-of-the-art home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, which won 11 Stanley Cups there.
This National Historic Site has welcomed the Metropolitan Opera and Winston Churchill. It staged the world-famous fight between Muhammad Ali and George Chuvalo in 1966.
But, aside from its associations with hockey, it is best remembered as Toronto's ultimate rock ‘n’ roll venue in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. From the Beatles to Bob Dylan, if you wanted to see the biggest bands in the world play in Toronto, you couldn't do better than Maple Leaf Gardens.
Listen: The Hockey Song
For more than a quarter century [...] no other song has been more associated with a Leafs home game than Stompin' Tom's "The Hockey Song".
— Shannon Hosford, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, 2018.
Photograph by William James.
Building the Gardens
The arena was built by Conn Smythe, the Maple Leafs’ visionary managing director, who offered labourers 20% of their pay in shares in the company as an incentive for efficient construction.
In under six months, workers laid 750,000 bricks and poured 77,000 bags of concrete. The arena had the most modern heating and cooling systems of that era and could seat up to 16,000 people.
Tickets for the opening game featuring the Maple Leafs against the Montreal Canadiens cost one dollar.
Photograph by Darrell Dick; courtesy of Toronto Star Archives
In 1956, Bill Haley & his Comets graced the stage, and less than a year later Elvis Presley performed his first concert outside of the United States here.
The Beatles played here on every one of their North American tours in 1964, 1965, and 1966.
The acoustics were terrible: The Gardens used the same PA system for announcing Leafs games as they did for amplifying the sounds of the Fab Four. But the tens of thousands of fans didn't care.
As the city became more culturally diverse, so too did the performances: Johnny Lombardi, who founded multicultural broadcaster CHIN Radio, curated a festival of songs with singers from around the globe.
Toronto's Stage for
In 1972, the owner of the Maple Leafs team, Harold Ballard, was sentenced to nine years in prison for fraud, for making personal use of the team's money.
Control of the venue passed to Ballard's son, Bill Ballard, who became vice president of Maple Leaf Gardens. In 1973, Ballard founded Concert Productions International, which had exclusive access to book Maple Leaf Gardens.
Interested in broadening the venue's role beyond sports games, Ballard turned his focus to music. The Gardens began booking global stars like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Queen, and Bruce Springsteen.
Maple Leaf Gardens quickly became one of the most popular places to see music in the city. As one of the largest venues in Toronto, fans packed the arena to see international stars.
In 1980, The Who sold out the Gardens twice, allowing more than 100,000 fans to see them that year.
Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, Rush performed there 26 times, more than any other rock band.
The Tragically Hip landed success with their album Day for Night in the fall of 1994, and played Maple Leaf Gardens on their winter tour. Six weeks later, they were introduced to the world on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" by Canadian comedian and cast member Dan Aykroyd.
Listen: Grace Too
I come from downtown
Born ready for you
Armed with will and determination
And grace, too
— Tragically Hip, "Grace Too"
From MLG to the ACC
In the 1990s, the venue struggled. The 1989 opening of the SkyDome gave Toronto a brand new stadium which could host upwards of 50,000 ticket holders for a concert.
Maple Leaf Gardens also moved towards private ownership, meaning shareholders were concerned about profits; they felt that the venue was too small and lacking in luxury boxes.
In 1998, Toronto announced its new NBA basketball franchise - the Toronto Raptors. Both the team and its purpose-built stadium, the Air Canada Centre (ACC, now Scotiabank Arena) were acquired by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment. The Gardens had become obsolete.
Then and Now
Maple Leaf Gardens sat empty for several years before it was purchased in 2004 by Canadian food retailer Loblaw Companies who intended to redevelop the site. In 2009, Toronto's Ryerson University became part of the Gardens redevelopment project. The ambitious plan converted the Gardens into a multi-use facility: part grocery store (opened in 2011), part university athletic centre (opened in 2012).
Two decades on, the spirit and memories of the Gardens live on in one of Canada's most innovative adaptive reuse projects. Where audiences once cheered for their favourite musicians and hockey players, shoppers can buy their favourite foods: The eastern portion of the building is now an impressive two-acre Loblaws grocery store, while the western side is part of Ryerson University.
Click here to travel through time
Photograph by Bob Olsen, 1969. Courtesy of the Toronto Star Photo Archives.
Photograph by Vik Pahwa, 2019.
Graig Abel & Lance Hornby, Welcome to Maple Leaf Gardens: photographs and memories of Canada's most famous arena. Toronto: ECW Press, 2013.