Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk might not be the most popular man in Toronto today after the Leafs vanquished yet again his Capital City squad. But it's Melnyk, and not the people who own the hometown heroes, who cares most about our shuttered and revered hockey haven, Maple Leaf Gardens. In a bizarre irony, the owner of our hated provincial rivals wants to keep hockey in Maple Leaf Gardens by renovating the rink and housing his local junior team, the St. Mike's Majors, there as well as renting it to minor hockey outfits.
Before Tuesday's fatal game seven, I huddle with Melnyk in his Air Canada Centre suite. A subtle Senators logo on his sweater betrays his NHL loyalties, but looking at his plans it's clear that his hockey heart beats in the hometown where he developed his passionate love of the game. His hockey-only plan - no condos - would also include a minor hockey museum, and the derelict Canadian Sports Museum now languishing at the CNE could relocate there.
But Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), which owns the Carlton venue as well as the Air Canada Centre, is insisting on banning hockey and tearing the guts out of the building that has housed so many glorious moments and soul-destroying defeats. At present, it's considering an offer from Loblaws for a big-box store.
At Front Street money-box the ACC, a banner graces the rafters where a Stanley Cup pennant would hang had the team won any within the last three decades. It's a picture of Maple Leaf Gardens, the team's old home, with the words "Memories and Dreams" below it. It's the same banner Leafs captain Mats Sundin waved emotionally as the team played its last game at the Gardens in 1999.
But this claim to hang onto the building's memories and dreams is as sincere as O. J. Simpson's pledge to find his murdered wife's killer. MLSE has been trying to find a buyer for the building for years but has made it an explicit condition of any sale that the ice rink in the Gardens be destroyed and the building be used for no form of sports or entertainment.
So much for sentiment. How greedy can these guys get? Downtown Toronto has a desperate need for ice. The handful of rinks in the core cannot handle the growing demand for recreational hockey for young kids and adults. And the ACC already has guaranteed bookings for almost 200 events a year just from the Leafs, not to mention the Raptors and Toronto Rock lacrosse. It's also the first choice of most concert promoters in town and rarely sits empty.
Even the recent opening of the 10,000-seat Ricoh Coliseum at the CNE hasn't cut into the immense profits MLSE wrings from the ACC. If the company brought the same fanatical commitment to winning as it does to squeezing every last dollar out of Toronto, Stanley Cup parades would be an annual rite of spring in this city.
Melnyk still wants to buy the Gardens, but MLSE won't talk to him. "They're afraid we'll compete for the concert business. I'll give up the concert business - I'm interested in hockey." He even says he'll sign an agreement never to book concerts in the revamped building. "There's enough demand for hockey. That place would be filled 24 hours a day," he says.
As interest grows in trying to preserve the Gardens as a hockey rink, MLSE has stepped up its efforts to turn the building into a retail venue. It now seems Loblaws is rushing to be able to peddle its President's Choice and Memories of Manchuria there. How about keeping Memories of Toronto and Memories of Maple Leaf Gardens alive?
After aggressively fighting the Gardens' historical designation and losing - it now has to preserve the roof and facade - MLSE has cleverly found a way to turn a hockey temple into a huckster haven and still meet the legal requirements. But a visit to Montreal's decimated Forum shows what can happen. The Forum which had even a richer heritage of winning than T.O.'s barn, was turned into a mall that retains only a facade to remind us what once was. It's just a sad ghost.
Like old bank building fronts that have been maintained at the base of plenty of high-rises, these superficial remnants only remind us of what's missing without maintaining any of the essence of the gutted buildings.
I play hockey 12 months a year in this town and know how hard it is to find ice. There's nowhere for local kids in the Carlton and Church area to skate. Nearby Regent Park hosts a growing hockey program, but the outdoor rink and dilapidated Moss Park Arena can't keep up with the demand. It's time for a little payback from the people who own the Leafs. In light of the sorry history of children abused and mistreated within the Gardens with the alleged complicity of some Maple Leafs staff, they especially owe the kids.
Melnyk's plan would see him pay fair market value for the Gardens and keep hockey alive in the hallowed hall. There may be even better hockey-based plans, but so far MLSE won't even listen to them. There's talk of squeezing public funds to pay for a new Varsity Arena for U of T's teams to play in. How about housing all Toronto's post-secondary squads in a vibrant, revitalized Maple Leaf Gardens?
Think how alive the Carlton and Church corner could again become if hockey teams and their supporters were crowding into the rink 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
MLSE and Loblaws are anxious to convince us all that there's no hope for saving Toronto's hockey heritage. They're not telling the truth. Even if the Maple Leafs make a point of flouting public opinion, anyone moving into the Gardens has to respect it. Let Loblaws know you won't shop there, or at any of its stores, if it guts this sanctuary. It's not too late. The fight to keep the Gardens alive has shifted into overtime, but it doesn't have to end in sudden death.
LET THE FOLLOWING people KNOW WE WANT TO KEEP THE GARDENS AS A HOCKEY HOME:
Richard Peddie, President and CEO, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, c/o Air Canada Centre, 40 Bay Ste 400, Toronto M5J 2X2 416-359-9330
John Lederer, President, Loblaw Companies Ltd, 22 St. Clair East Toronto M4T 2S7, 416-922-2500