How quickly times flies: a year ago today I was at Old Trafford, the culmination of my twenty-five year-long quest to see Manchester United in their home stadium.
As I wrote last March: “I’d been waiting twenty-five years to get there; when I arrived, it was actually better than I could have anticipated.” That still holds true a year after the fact. I’m hoping to get back to Old Trafford in August, although that would seem to be contingent on Pearl Jam’s touring schedule. Still, if anything can relegate a Pearl Jam tour to secondary importance it’s United at Old Trafford. We shall see.
Coincidentally, today marks another, equally significant personal milestone: on March 12, 1997 I saw my first-ever Toronto Maple Leafs game, which was also the only game I ever saw at Maple Leaf Gardens. For a sixteen year-old boy who’d grown up watching the Leafs almost every single weekend it was a truly momentous occasion. I don’t remember much about the game itself. I know the Leafs lost 3-2 to the Chicago Blackhawks. I know Mats Sundin and Sergei Berezin scored for Toronto; I know Denis Savard scored two for the Blackhawks. I know our seats were high above the ice surface. Yet the specifics aren’t important: what matters is that I was at Maple Leaf Gardens. Unfortunately, I never got the chance to go there again: the next Leaf game I attended was at the Air Canada Centre, and a year after that the Gardens was closed. Not that it’s gone, of course: it’s still standing at the corner of Carlton and Church.
Sadly, in the seven years since it officially closed its doors to the public the Gardens has fallen into disrepair. A recent CTV documentary offered poignant testament to the building’s ongoing demise. It makes you wonder how a building so rich with history, which sits in the middle of Canada’s biggest city, could be so egregiously neglected. People obviously still want to see it: Maple Leaf Gardens remains one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in Toronto. Yet visitors can’t get inside: the building is patrolled 24/7 by security guards under strict instructions not to let anybody pass. Who’s to blame for this mess?
The culprit, as is often the case, is Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, surely one of the most myopic ownership groups in professional sports. MLSE has done a lot of stupid things, many of which involve its ongoing efforts at ruining the Toronto Maple Leafs. But these moves can be reversed; destroying the Gardens cannot. Their refusal to sell the building to Eugene Melnyk, who owns the St. Michael’s Majors and wanted to move them into the Gardens, was apparently justified because his franchise would’ve represented “competition” for the Leafs. I don’t think anybody other than MLSE would envision an OHL team–an OHL team!–as a threat to the biggest franchise in Canadian sports. Another NHL team could literally move next door to the Air Canada Centre and the Leafs would still sell out every single night; putting an OHL team into Maple Leaf Gardens would’ve had absolutely no effect on MLSE’s beloved bottom line. Moreover, if moving the Majors downtown would’ve created “competition” for the Leafs, what about moving the St. John’s Maple Leafs from Newfoundland to the CNE grounds–a five-minute drive from the ACC–and renaming them the Marlies? Ah, but there’s the rub: the Marlies are owned by MLSE.
Eugene Melnyk realized what MLSE apparently refused to acknowledge: that the Gardens, in addition to its association with the Leafs, has been vital to Canada’s cultural history, a building where Elvis Presley and the Beatles performed, where Muhammad Ali fought, and where Winston Churchill spoke. In addition, the building has played host to eleven Stanley Cup championship-winning teams and numerous Canada Cup games. This is the history MLSE seemed perfectly willing to sacrifice when it sold the Gardens to Loblaw Companies in 2004. In other words, all that history’s about to be shoved aside to make way from a grocery store.
At least some people have been fighting to save the building: Friends of Maple Leaf Gardens, for instance, has been lobbying for alternate uses of the site for years. But MLSE is standing firmly in everybody’s way; meanwhile, no branch of government (least of all David Miller’s comical administration) is willing to step in and stop the madness. Torontonians are apparently oblivious to the building’s demise. The Gardens, it would seem, is doomed.
I wish I could be more optimistic. I wish I could trust the new owners to know what they’re doing, at least where Maple Leaf Gardens is concerned. I wish our local government had the vision to spearhead a faithful restoration, not the gutting that Loblaws is proposing. But why should I be optimistic? The people who run this city have demonstrated time and again that their only vision is tunnel vision. The fact that they’re willing to sacrifice over seventy years of Canadian heritage in favour of commercial enterprise epitomizes the collective narrow-mindedness, soullessness, and incompetence which governs the entire operation. And so the next time I set foot inside Maple Leaf Gardens–and who knows when that’ll be, because the reconstruction has fallen years behind schedule–it’ll be a shadow of its former self, because the people who should care most about preserving it (or who at least who have the power to make it happen) do not. I guess it means I’ll have to cherish my first and only experience even more, while hoping against hope that something–anything–can be done to preserve the memories. Not just for me. For all Canadians.