In terms of hockey shrines in Canada, two places stand above all others. One is the Montreal Forum, while the other is Maple Leaf Gardens. Next season, I will look at the Montreal Forum, but today I am looking at Maple Leaf Gardens, a place that had a massive impact on hockey history.
It was in this building that the Toronto Maple Leafs would play from 1931 to 1999, during which time they won 11 Stanley Cups. It was in this building that music icons such as The Beatles, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, ABBA and Elvis Presley would perform. In the building, Game 2 of the Summit Series would be played. Princess Elizabeth would watch her first hockey game in the building in 1951. The Toronto Raptors would play six games in the building, and the first NHL All-Star Game would be played there.
Needless to say, it is packed with history.
This episode isn’t about the history of Maple Leaf Gardens though, that would take several episodes. This episode is about when Maple Leaf Gardens was born, in the midst of The Great Depression, all thanks to a man named Conn Smythe.
Smythe was born in Toronto on Feb. 1, 1895 to English immigrants, being the second of the couple’s two children. The family was poor and would move several times during his early life, with the quality of their home depending on how much his father was making at the time. Eventually, his parents would separate and his father would remarry in 1913. Smythe would attend high school at Upper Canada College but disliked it. It was at his next school, Jarvis Collegiate Institute, that he began to show his athletic abilities, playing rugby, basketball and hockey, playing on the city championship teams in hockey and basketball in 1912. At the age of 17, Smythe left home to homestead on 150 acres near Cochrane, Ontario. He built a home, only to have it destroyed by fire the next year, so he left and went to the University of Toronto where he played hockey and captained the school’s hockey team to the finals in the 1914 Ontario Hockey Association championship.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Smythe would enlist with eight of his teammates. Smythe would earn the rank of lieutenant and was sent over the France with his unit in February of 1916. On Oct. 12, his unit, the 40th Battery, would be hit by shelling, killing both the Major and Sgt. Major of the unit, making Smythe the commanding officer. For the next two months his unit fought in the trenches at the Somme without relief. In February 1917, Smythe earned the Military Cross for running into a fight as Germans were throwing grenades and killing three Germans himself and saving several wounded Canadian soldiers. In July 1917, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps and was shot down by the Germans on Oct. 14, 1917, and spent the remaining part of the war, despite two escape attempts, in a POW camp.
Upon returning to Toronto, Smythe would start a sand and gravel business that he would own for the next four decades. During that same time, he began coaching the University of Toronto’s varsity team and it was through that he became involved in the NHL. In 1926, Charles Adams, the owner of the Boston Bruins, recommended Smythe to John S. Hammond as the general manager and coach for the new team entering the NHL, the New York Rangers. Smythe put together a team but was fired just before the Rangers played their first game. Smythe would return to Toronto and two years after he was fired from the Rangers, the team won the Stanley Cup, largely thanks to the team Smythe assembled.
In 1927, Smythe was given the opportunity to purchase the Toronto St. Pats for $160,000. Smythe quickly put together a syndicate and invested $10,000 of his own money, finally purchasing the team on Valentine’s Day that year. The first thing he did was change the team’s name to the Toronto Maple Leafs and the colour scheme to white and blue, the same colours as his company, although he said it was to represent Canada’s skies and snow.
Known as the Little Dictator, Smythe would develop feuds with other general managers. Once, when he learned that Art Ross, the general manager of the Boston Bruins, was suffering from hemorrhoids, he sent him flowers with a note written in Latin telling him where he could shove the flowers.
In 1929, just as The Great Depression was starting, Smythe decided that the team needed a new arena that could seat more people than their current arena.
At the time, the Maple Leafs were playing in Arena Gardens, which had been built in 1912 and could only hold 7,500 people. By 1930, Smythe was feeling that this arena was too small for his grand vision.
Over the course of the year, he began to look at various construction sites until he found one at Carlton and Church, which he bought from the Timothy Eaton Company for $350,000, or $6 million today. This may seem like a lot, but it was actually $150,000 below the market value. The site was also where William Lyon Mackenzie and his rebels fought the Canadian and British militia during the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837.
Smythe then went to Ross and Macdonald, an architectural firm, to build his new 12,473 seat arena.
The construction was not going to be cheap and to finance it, Smythe created Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd., which continues to own the Maple Leafs, as well as the Toronto Raptors, Toronto Argos and Toronto FC. Now called Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, it is the largest sports and entertainment company in Canada.
A public offering of shares in the new company became available at $10 each, or $170 today, with a free share for every five shares bought. Ownership of the Maple Leafs was transferred to the company in return for shares
Smythe then hired W.A. Hewitt, we talked about him last episode on Cyclone Taylor, to be the general manager of Maple Leaf Gardens. His role was to oversee events other than hockey, something that would become very profitable in the 1960s and beyond as the biggest bands in the world started to play the arena.
Hewitt’s son, Foster, who had just begun to be the voice of hockey in Toronto, was hired to run the radio broadcasts. This would lead him to become the voice of hockey in Canada. He would also oversee the radio broadcast facilities, including a special area for him to broadcast the games out of.
The Thompson Brothers Construction company bid $990,000 to build the arena, the lowest of the 10 bidders. They were able to bid lower because they also owned an excavation company and a lumber company, thereby cutting costs. Not included in the price was $100,000 for steel work.
Smythe would also save money on building the arena through deals he made with labour unions to provide them with shares in the company. Employees received stock to cover 20 per cent of their pay. . Those shares would be worth 50 cents each in 1935, and $100 each in 1947.
At midnight on June 1, 1931, construction began. The Montreal Star reported quote:
“The final obstacle in the path of constructing the new sports stadium has been hurdled. Announcement has been made that the contract for the erection of Maple Leaf Gardens, future home of professional hockey in Toronto, has been granted at a special meeting of directors.”
The cornerstone would be laid down on Sept. 22, 1931 by Lt. Governor W.D. Ross as the directors of Maple Leaf Gardens watched.
The Kingston Whig-Standard wrote of the construction quote:
“With the vast new Maple Leaf Gardens nearing completion, Toronto fans are taking keen interest in the structure and also in the team that will wear local colors this coming year.”
As part of construction, a time capsule was buried, which was opened in January 2012.
After five months and two weeks, at a cost of $1.5 million, or $27 million today, Maple Leaf Gardens was finished and ready to become a hockey cathedral. In all, the structure used 750,000 bricks, 850,000 board feet of lumber and 22.5 kilometres of underground piping to keep the ice surface cool.
On Nov. 12, 1931, Maple Leaf Gardens officially opened with a game between the Maple Leafs and the Chicago Blackhawks. In the area was a sell-out crowd of 13,542. That was the most to ever see a hockey game to that point. Tickets cost 95 cents for general admission, $17 today, and $2.75 for the best seats, $50 today.
The game was kicked off with Pipe Major James Fraser and the 48th Highlanders of Canada Pipe and Drums, performing an opening ceremony. J.P. Bickell, gave a lengthy speech that drew cat calls from the crowd who wanted to watch the hockey game.
George Henry, the premier of Ontario, gave a speech but was brief as it was clear the fans wanted a hockey game, not speeches. Mayor William Stewart then spoke and gave each player on the Maple Leafs floral horseshoes on behalf of the city.
Maple Leafs Captain Hap Day then spoke, predicting that the team would win the Stanley Cup that year.
The Windsor Star wrote quote:
“Massed bands on the ice surface at each side of the rink lent color to the proceedings. Captain Happy Day of the Toronto Maple Leafs said the team would do their best to bring the Stanley Cup to the new arena. Captain Wentworth of the Chicago Black Hawks expressed the pleasure of his team being the first opponent of the Leafs in their new home.”
Mayor Stewart then dropped the puck to kick off the game as Red Horner and Mush March faced off.
Unfortunately, Chicago ruined the big night by defeating the Maple Leafs 2-1. Long before that first game, all the seats were sold for the big game.
Prior to the game, Conn Smythe was walking with the crowds into the new building when a police officer saw him and suspected that he was someone butting his way into line. He was escorted from the premises until Smythe could confirm his identity as not only the owner of the team, but the owner of the building itself.
One week after the arena opened, the Gardens had its first non-hockey event when a wrestling show was held on Nov. 19 in front of 15,800 people. At the event was Jim Londos, the world champion.
After their first season in Maple Leaf Gardens, the team would win its first Stanley Cup as the Maple Leafs, just as Hap Day predicted. By the end of that first year, the Gardens had made $40,535 in profit, amounting to about $832,000 today.
For years, it was the largest indoor venue in Canada for cultural, political and religious events. Within its walls, Muhammed Ali and George Chuvalo would go 15 rounds in 1966, Sir Winston Churchill would deliver a speech there in 1932, and the largest communist rally in Canadian history would be held there.
Eventually, Maple Leaf Gardens was too small for the modern NHL and there was a need to upgrade. That came about in 1999 when the Maple Leafs moved to the Air Canada Centre, now Scotiabank Arena, which had 20,000 seats.
On the night that Maple Leaf Gardens closed, Red Horner and March Mush, the same two men who took the first ever face-off in Maple Leaf Gardens, took the ceremonial face-off once again. The Leafs would play the Chicago Blackhawks in the final game at the Gardens, just as they had for the first game. Like with the first game, they lost to Chicago.
The Leafs record at Maple Leaf Gardens was 1,215 wins, 750 losses and 346 ties. In the playoffs there, they won 116 games and only lost 66 times.
Thankfully, the arena still stands and is now the Loblaw grocery chain’s flagship location. The store includes many parts of the original arena including original seats, a red dot on the ground floor to signify the original centre ice location, and a recreation of an original mural by the checkouts. In 2007, the building became a National Historic Site of Canada.
Possibly the best stat about this building comes in the fact that from 1946 to 1999, there was never any unsold seats in Maple Leaf Gardens, not even during the toughest years for the franchise.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Library and Archives Canada, Historica Canada, Macleans, CBC, Wikipedia, ProStock Hockey, Toronto Star, Montreal Star, Edmonton Journal, Kingston Whig Standard, Windsor Star,