In multicultural Toronto, we witness the observance of many sacred seasons but none is as widely and ardently observed as the current high holiday: the NHL playoffs. When the Leafs are in the playoffs — to the delight of many and to the dismay of some — all other concerns take a back seat to the annual genuflection before Hockey Night in Canada, the dancing in the streets, the studying of sports-page scripture, the praying and the inevitable crying. William Kilbourn wasn’t kidding when he wrote in 1968, “If I were asked by some stranger to North American culture to show him the most important religious building in Canada, I would take him to Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens.” And perhaps it’s because we’re immersed in the playoffs now that few have noted the imminent desecration of that civic cathedral.

Last week, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. (the owners of the Gardens, the Leafs, the Raptors basketball team and the Air Canada Centre) announced that the Gardens will be sold in June to Loblaw Cos. Ltd., which plans to turn it into a place to buy toilet paper and dog food.

It’s hard, while you’re spewing coffee all over the pages of your newspaper, to imagine what exactly the Loblaws spokesman had in mind when he assured the Star that “a superstore at the hockey shrine will proceed, and reflect the history and heritage of the building.” Memories of Baun prepared Lamb Shanks, anyone?

“The history and heritage of the building.” Conn Smythe, then owner of the Maple Leafs, had construction crews work through the nights in 1931, erecting the unpretentious art-deco building in just five and a half months. The Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup their first season in the Gardens, and in the years that followed they won 10 more championships there (only the Montreal Forum — now a movie theatre called The AMC Forum — was home to more Cup victories).

Along the way, there are dozens of moments of historic significance for the Leafs Nation: in 1942, the Leafs become the only professional sports team to ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a seven-game series; Bill Barilko scores the cup-winning goal in overtime in 1951 before dying in an airplane crash; Bobby Baun scores an overtime winner on a broken leg less than an hour after being carried off the ice on a stretcher; Darryl Sittler scores 10 points in one game.

And it ain’t just the Leafs. The Gardens is where Canada first beat the Russians in the 1972 Summit series after being humiliated in Montreal. It was where George Chuvalo gave Muhammad Ali the fight of his life in 1966. The Beatles and Elvis and Nirvana and Liberace played there, Pierre Trudeau held rallies there, various prime ministers won party leaderships there.

Maple Leaf Gardens has been our town square and remains a repository of our dreams and past glories. It is an insult to the history and heritage of the building to turn it into a grocery store. Loblaws should know better than to attempt to attach the legacy of our hockey shrine to their brand. And Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment should know better than to let them.

It isn’t as if there aren’t other offers on the table. Eccentric millionaire Eugene Melnyk, owner of the Ottawa Senators and the Junior B St. Mike’s Majors, has offered to pay MLSE’s price. He wants to build a smaller hockey rink inside to be home to his junior hockey team and, as he says, “turn it into a mecca for junior hockey.” The rest of the building he’d turn into a museum of some kind, maybe a junior hockey hall of fame (which is, incidentally, a great idea). He’ll agree to turn down concert business that might compete with the Air Canada Centre. He just wants to keep the building that fuelled his hockey dreams as a home to hockey dreamers. That’d be good.

But Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment is insisting the Gardens be deconsecrated. Fearing that any new owner might compete with them in their new home at the Air Canada Centre, MLSE is making it a condition of the Gardens’ sale that it cannot be used for sports or entertainment.

MLSE is not like any other business. Because they own the Leafs, object of civic worship, MLSE finds itself nearly guaranteed to earn a substantial profit. Every single Maple Leafs game since 1947 has sold out, in good times and in bad. A 2001 study by Forbes magazine showed the Leafs to be — by far — the most profitable franchise in the NHL. We blindly throw them big bags of cash because they are the keepers of our team.

That sort of privileged position comes with — should come with — an element of civic responsibility. MLSE owes us. For the sake of the city, and of the Leafs’ ongoing legacy, they should get over their unfounded fear of competition and sell the Gardens to Melnyk. And if not him, then to someone who will preserve the building for something like its original purpose.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly April 29, 2004. 

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