If Maple Leaf Gardens can't continue being what it's always been, a multi-use sports and entertainment centre, can't it become something a little less insulting than a supermarket? How about affordable housing? That's what former great Leaf forward Frank Mahovlich espoused at the St. Lawrence Centre Forum last week, where a group calling itself Friends of Maple Leaf Gardens tried to whip up some public outrage over the fate of the abandoned hockey shrine.
Mahovlich kept to his theme. "I think I can speak for all the hockey players, too, that we wouldn't mind something like affordable houses." It is a lovely vision: build public housing where the Beatles sang. Where Elvis rocked. And keep the blessed rink.
But for those who want to preserve the structural integrity of the Gardens there are problems with this idea. The 13-storey-high windowless walls that form the outer shell of the arena. When questioned on this, Mahovlich's priorities were obvious. "I've got some builders who can put in windows," he quipped to the delight of the crowd.
In fact, putting windows in the wall would be nothing new. At the time of its construction by Conn Smythe in 1931 there were numerous post-deco- style windows. These were lamentably covered over in later years. Restoring them would give the building back its original architectural lustre.
A recent study by the United Way found that three of the poorest neighbourhoods in all of Toronto are within blocks of Maple Leaf Gardens. "Housing would be a terrific use of the site," poverty activist Michael Shapcott tells me. "Think of all the money governments threw at Skydome when the magic of the market didn't work as well as expected. That could've bought Maple Leaf Gardens 10 times over."
And then there's the city's preferential treatment of MLSE during the building of its other gold mine, the Air Canada Centre. "The city made all sorts of concessions on their behalf - saving them millions of dollars," Shapcott tells me. "The city now needs to take a firm hand with them, get them to make some concessions.'
Will this happen? Not unless there is a significant public outcry. Remember, it was popular outrage that stopped the demolition of Old City Hall and Union Station and thereby started the city's heritage movement. Couldn't the public get riled up about saving the Gardens from the clutches of Loblaws and turning it to good use?
And so I let myself fantasize. Construct a big oval housing complex that centres on an indoor rink that's at once a public park and an historical monument. Begin a tradition of hockey players giving workshops. Build statues to wrestlers Sweet Daddy Siki and Whipper Billy Watson.
And even, if necessary, allow a little Loblaws store. Maybe you think this is just my version of Make-Believe Gardens, as my wife used to call the Carlton building when she was a child. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I have someone on my side who has a long tradition of attaining seemingly impossible goals - that new and welcome champion of the homeless: Senator Frank Mahovlich.