The hapless and hopeful fans of the loser Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club have always been a loyal breed. But within this rarefied community is an even deeper wellspring of faith - that Maple Leaf Gardens might still be saved from Loblaws turning memories of Mahovlich into a new dipping sauce for barbecued chicken.
The reason for this hope is simply that, well, nothing's happened on the College and Church site. It's been three years since Loblaw bought the hockey shrine from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and heralded the imminent arrival of a Superstore with a huge sign, which is still hanging.
And while city councillor and Superstore gung-ho guy Kyle Rae insists things are going ahead as planned, the company appears to be reconsidering its plans for a shopping colossus - tantalizing hockey lovers who once lobbied to save the rink.
Back in 2003, Gardens aficionados offered a range of alternatives to the supermarket sale, including a proposal to keep a hockey presence alongside whatever other commercial venture was constructed on the site.
But apparently there wasn't enough access to quality lettuce, 2 per cent milk and discount flat-screen TVs elsewhere in our world-class city. The suits at Loblaw dug in their heels and slated their new grocery megaplex to open in 2005, and the only ice on view would serve to chill farmed salmon.
Now things look different.
One change is that retailers are rethinking their strategy for urban markets. "They are looking at new concepts, like a greater number of smaller stores that people can walk to or access easily via public transit,' says retail analyst John Chamberlain of Dominion Bond Rating Services Ltd.
Chamberlain agrees that if Loblaw has ditched its plans to build a Superstore, then the Gardens is more building than it needs. But he sees another possible strategy at play. "Part of Loblaw's and Weston's [the parent company] business model has been focused on owning attractive real estate. They are big landowners and have the wherewithal and the healthy bottom line to hold on to [these properties] and wait.'
So they're waiting for a better offer? What about a better idea? For hockey dreamers, this pries open a tiny crack. "It isn't over until it's over,' says Dan Diamond, book publisher and member of Friends of Maple Leaf Gardens. "It is amazing that nothing's happened there, and I'd love to think this could mean other options are possible."
The one Diamond and his group have lobbied for is a small 6,000-seat arena within the existing building. "Reducing Loblaw's footprint could open the door for a centre of hockey excellence,' he says.
But Loblaw throws cold water on the idea that a smaller outlet could coexist with a hockey arena. "We do not intend to operate any ice facility or hockey facility on this site. We are reviewing opportunities to build either a Real Canadian SuperStore or a conventional Loblaws Supermarket in Maple Leaf Gardens,' company VP Jane Marshall says. "We are very excited about either opportunity and intend to finalize our decision shortly.'
But if there is any possibility the company wants to unload the property, it's easy to think of a buyer: Biovail billionaire Eugene Melnyk, owner of Leafs rival the Ottawa Senators, who campaigned in 2003 to buy the building for hockey. Melnyk rep Ken Villazor is careful with his words. He says he hasn't spoken to his boss about the Gardens recently, "but any hockey fan would want history preserved and not want the Gardens turned into a Loblaws,' he says.
And another puck in the net for the diehards is that if Loblaw does want to sell, it won't have to first-offer the building back to MLSE, which insisted at the time of the sale that it could not be turned into a venue competitive with the Air Canada Centre. This time there will be "no first right of refusal to sell the building to anyone,' says Marshall. Here's hoping.