one of the most renowned "shrines" in the history of hockey... the largest arena in the country when it was built, it was one of the country's foremost venues for large-scale sporting events such as boxing matches and track meets, and non-sporting events such as concerts, rallies and political gatherings, religious services and opera... the Gardens holds a special place in the country's popular culture: here Canadians welcomed a wide range of cultural icons from the Beatles to the Metropolitan Opera, from Tim Buck to Team Canada vs. the Soviets, from Winston Churchill to the Muhammad Ali-George Chuvalo fight.— Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Minutes, June 2006.
The Toronto Maple Leafs had been playing in the Arena Gardens on Mutual Street. It was built in 1912 and held 7,500 for ice hockey. By 1930, Leafs managing Director Conn Smythe decided the Arena was too small and he wanted to build a new arena, larger and more impressive. After considering various sites, the site at the corner of Carlton and Church was purchased from The T. Eaton Co. Ltd. for $350,000, ($5.48 million in 2016 dollars), a price said to be $150,000 below market value. The new 12,473 seat (14,550 including standing room) arena was designed by the architectural firm of Ross and Macdonald.
The first professional wrestling show at the Gardens was held on November 19, 1931 and attracted 15,800 people to see world champion Jim Londos in the main event. The show was promoted by Jack Corcoran, who passed the reins to Frank Tunney and his Maple Leaf Wrestling promotion in 1939. Under Tunney, Toronto and the Gardens was for decades a thriving centre for professional wrestling. Local hero Whipper Billy Watson became the city's top wrestling attraction in the 1940s and 1950s. The last WWE-promoted event to be held at Maple Leaf Gardens was on September 17, 1995. Boxing was also a regular offering at the Gardens for many years. The first world title bout in the building was on September 19, 1932, with bantamweight champion Panama Al Brown knocking out challenger Émile Pladner in the first round.
Winston Churchill addressed a large audience at the Gardens in March 1932; when the arena's loudspeaker system broke down he tossed the microphone to one side, declared "Now that we have exhausted the resources of science we shall fall back upon Mother Nature and do our best", and continued.
The Leafs were so popular that the team sold out every game from 1946 to 1999. It was often called the "Carlton Street Cashbox" in Sports reporting. Advertising was sold and placed throughout the building.
Smythe became the majority owner of Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. in 1947, following a power struggle between Directors who supported him as President and those who wanted him replaced with Frank J. Selke. Toronto stock broker Percy Gardiner lent Smythe the money he needed to take control of the corporation. The loan was paid off in 1960.
Beginning with the Canadian Grand Opera's production of Faust in 1936, the Gardens became home to more highbrow forms of entertainment. The Metropolitan Opera staged a number of its visiting productions there between 1952 and 1960. The first rock and roll concert at the Gardens was held in 1956, featuring Bill Haley & His Comets. Elvis Presley's shows at the Gardens on April 2, 1957 were his first-ever concerts outside the United States. The Gardens also hosted evangelist Billy Graham during his Canadian Crusade, in 1955.
In 1961, Smythe sold most of his shares to a three-person partnership formed by his son, Stafford Smythe, with Harold Ballard and John Bassett. The new ownership added 962 new seats to the Gardens in 1962 and added a private club, The Hot Stove Club, the following year. Even more seats were added in 1965 and new mezzanine galleries were constructed in 1966 and 1967. By 1968, seating capacity for hockey had grown to 16,485. This was achieved, in part, by making the seats narrower, so that—in the words of founder Conn Smythe—"only a young man could sit in them and only a fat old rich man could afford them." A large portrait of Queen Elizabeth II was removed to make room for more seats. When asked why he removed the picture, Ballard replied, "She doesn't pay me, I pay her. Besides, what the hell position can a queen play?"
On November 8, 1963: Maple Leaf Gardens would be the first arena in the NHL to have separate penalty boxes. The Beatles made a stop at Maple Leaf Gardens during each of their three North American tours: September 7, 1964, August 17, 1965, and August 17, 1966. It was the only venue to host the group on each tour.
Also in 1966, a new center-hung scoreboard with a digital clock was installed replacing the SporTimer which was an analog clock. One of the designers of the new scoreboard, Paul Morris, was by this time the arena's public address announcer, a job he would hold until the Leafs left the arena.
Ballard and the younger Smythe were accused in 1969 of stealing money from the corporation and avoiding income taxes by having Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. pay for many of their personal expenses. The controversy created a rift between the two and Bassett, which led to Smythe and Ballard being fired from their management positions in 1969, only to win back control the following year. In September 1971, Bassett sold his shares to Stafford Smythe and Ballard. Just six weeks later, Smythe died. His brother and son tried to keep the shares within the Smythe family, but in February 1972 all of Smythe's shares were purchased by Ballard, leaving him with majority ownership of the building and the Leafs.
Prior to the launch of the Ottawa Nationals of the World Hockey Association (WHA), the team had discussions with Ballard about locating the team in Toronto, but the talks did not get very far. The team was a flop at the box office, averaging about 3,000 fans a game, and in March 1973—just before the end of the season—the City of Ottawa demanded payment of $100,000 to guarantee the club dates at the Ottawa Civic Centre. The team decided to leave Ottawa and played their home playoff games at Maple Leaf Gardens, attracting crowds of 5,000 and 4,000 in two games before being eliminated by the New England Whalers. At the end of the season, the team moved to Toronto permanently, and was sold to John F. Bassett, son of former Leafs owner John Bassett. They were renamed the Toronto Toros in June 1973. Bassett wanted the team to play at a renovated CNE Coliseum, while Bill Ballard—Harold's son, who was running the Gardens while his Father served a prison sentence—wanted the team at the Gardens and opposed the plan to upgrade the Coliseum. The Toros ended up at Varsity Arena for the 1973–74 season. The following season, the Toros moved to the Gardens after negotiating a lease with Bill. However, by the time the team played their first game at the Gardens, Harold had been released from prison and regained control of the company. Ballard was a virulent opponent of the WHA; he never forgave the upstart league for decimating the Leafs' roster in the early 1970s. He made the Toros' lease terms at the Gardens as onerous as possible. The Toros' lease called for them to pay $15,000 per game. However, much to Bassett's outrage, the arena was dim for their first game. It was then that Ballard demanded $3,500 for use of the Lights. Ballard also denied the Toros access to the Leafs' locker room, forcing them to build their own at a cost of $55,000. He also removed the cushions from the home bench for Toros' games. Following two seasons of declining attendance and onerous lease terms at the Gardens, Bassett moved the club to Birmingham, Alabama, where they were renamed the Birmingham Bulls for the 1976–77 season.
On July 7, 1974 the arena was the host of a Professional wrestling tournament which was called World Cup Wrestling. Various International stars competed in like Dara Singh, Pat Roach, Danny Lynch, Tiger Jeet Singh, Prince Mann Singh, Randhawa, Than Yen Chang, Majid Ackra, Kashmir Singh, Tony Parisi, Chris Tolos, Golden Boy Apollo, and Terry Yorkston etc. In the main event match, world champion Dara Singh defeated Danny Lynch and retained his title.
Concert Promotions International was founded in 1973, by Bill Ballard, with Michael Cohl and David Wolinksy and brought many big-name music acts to the Gardens. The arena played host to The Rolling Thunder Revue Tour, with two consecutive shows, on December 1–2, 1975, headed by Bob Dylan. Bob Marley and The Wailers performed here on June 9, 1978 and November 1, 1979 in support of his Kaya Tour 1978 and Survival Tour 1979 respectively. The Bee Gees performed here on August 31, 1979. ABBA played here on Sunday, October 7, 1979, their last ever concert appearance in North America. The Who performed what was supposed to be their last concert in December 1982 at this venue and was filmed for the concert film The Who Rocks America (1982). It was also at this venue where The Who performed their final concert to a paying audience with Drummer Keith Moon on October 21, 1976. The video for The Reflex by Duran Duran was shot at Maple Leaf Gardens in March 1984. Canadian rock trio Rush recorded a live video for their Grace Under Pressure Tour at Maple Leaf Gardens. The arena played host to Amnesty International's legendary Human Rights Now! Benefit Concert on September 15, 1988. The show was headlined by Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band and also featured Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, Youssou N'Dour and k.d. lang. Pearl Jam performed at the arena on September 21, 1996 (the only Canadian date on the tour).
During the 1990s, MLSE considered a number of sites for a new, modern arena to replace Maple Leaf Gardens, including the southeast corner of Bay and Dundas Streets near the Toronto Eaton Centre (the site of the new Ryerson University School of Business). By this time, Maple Leaf Gardens was considered too small and lacking in revenue-generating luxury boxes.
The arena was also designated under the Ontario Heritage Act by the City of Toronto in 1991.
In 1997, allegations began to emerge that some employees of the Gardens had sexually abused young boys in the 1970s and 1980s. Martin Kruze was the first victim to come forward—contacting the new owners of Maple Leaf Gardens in 1993, and going public in February 1997. His story of abuses beginning in 1975 prompted dozens of other victims to come forward. In October 1997, Gordon Stuckless pleaded guilty to sexually abusing 24 boys dating back to 1969 and was sentenced to a jail term of two years less a day. Three days later, Kruze committed suicide. An appeals court later increased Stuckless' sentence to five years. He was paroled in 2001. In 1999, former usher John Paul Roby was convicted of sexually molesting 26 boys and one girl. He was subsequently declared a dangerous offender and could have been kept in prison for the rest of his life. Roby died in Kingston Penitentiary from an apparent heart attack in 2001. In 2002, former Gardens security guard Dennis Morin was found guilty of sexual assault, indecent assault and gross indecency for incidents involving teenage boys. Allegations—unproven in court—were also made against other Gardens employees, including Ballard. Several civil suits were settled out of court for undisclosed amounts. In January 2006, the Ontario government filed a $1.5 million lawsuit against Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., seeking repayment of the medical costs to the province of treating the sex abuse victims.
MLG Ventures took Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. private and the two corporations amalgamated. becoming Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. after its acquisition of the Toronto Raptors in 1998. Initially, the majority owner of MLSE, holding 51% of the company, was MLG Holdings, a corporation controlled by Stavro, with minority shareholders Larry Tannenbaum (25%) and Toronto-Dominion Bank (20%). The other 49% of MLSE was owned by Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan. In 2003 Stavro sold his shares and MLG Holdings was dissolved, leaving Teachers' as majority owners of MLSE.
The Gardens was the home arena for the Toronto Rock of the National Lacrosse League for the 1999 and 2000 seasons. The Rock won the Champion's Cup in both seasons, making them the building's last championship team. The 2000 NLL Championship game was ultimately the building's last professional event to be held at the MLG. They held training camp at the Gardens in 2001 and then moved to the ACC. Maple Leaf Gardens was then mostly dormant for a decade.
Loblaw Companies, Canada's largest food retailer, purchased the Gardens in 2004 for $12 million under the condition that it not be used as a Sports and entertainment facility, though MLSE eventually consented to allowing a small arena to be restored in the building. They were planning to convert the interior to accommodate a Real Canadian Superstore and parking. Immediately, there was criticism that the conversion of the building to Retail uses diminished its heritage value, and that Maple Leaf Gardens should continue to serve as an arena in accordance with its rich history and traditions. Others, however, noted that the structure had been deteriorating for a number of years, and that its ongoing use for minor league Sports and events would not generate sufficient income to secure the building's preservation and restoration. Furthermore, the active re-use of the building would allow it to remain open to the public for years to come.
Maple Leaf Gardens was named a National Historic Site of Canada in 2007 because it was:
In 2009, Loblaws announced it had entered into discussions with Ryerson University regarding the possible Future joint use of the arena. On November 30, 2009, the federal government agreed to contribute $20 million as part of a $60 million project to renovate the arena into a Loblaws grocery store and a new athletic facility for Ryerson University which included a fitness facility, studios, high-performance courts, and an NHL-sized ice hockey rink seating approximately 2,796 guests. The plans involved gutting the existing interior, and laying new floors for Retail use at ground level, with the athletic centre located above. Construction began later that year.
On November 29, 2011, Ryerson University announced that Peter Gilgan, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Mattamy Homes Ltd., contributed a donation of $15 million to the university. In honour of Gilgan, the new athletic complex was renamed Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens. The ice rink, which is located on the third level, was named Mattamy Home Ice.
During the 2012–13 NHL lockout the National Hockey League Players' Association (NHLPA) used the arena for a charity game. In addition, from January 25 to 27, 2013, the Ontario Liberals used the Gardens for their leadership convention. The arena hosted the 2013 Players' Championship, a Capital One Grand Slam of Curling event. The facility also hosted the 2014 OUA Figure Skating Championships, won by the Guelph Gryphons.
On December 13–14, 2014, the arena was the host of two exhibition games between the Canada men's national junior ice hockey team and a team University All Stars of combined Ryerson Rams, University of Toronto Varsity Blues and York Lions players in preparation for Canada's participation in the 2015 World Junior Ice Hockey Championships.
The arena, under the name Ryerson Athletic Centre, hosted the basketball tournament of the 2015 Pan American Games, wheelchair basketball of the 2015 Parapan American Games and various events (Indoor rowing, powerlifting, sitting volleyball, wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby) for the 2017 Invictus Games.
To Finance the construction, Smythe launched Maple Leaf Gardens Limited, (MLGL) a management company that would own the arena and the Maple Leafs. A public offering of shares in MLGL was made at C$10 each ($157.00 in 2016 dollars), with a free Common share for each five preferred shares purchased. Ownership of the hockey team was transferred to MLGL in return for shares. Intending right from the start that the Gardens would host other events, W. A. Hewitt, Sports Editor of the Toronto Star, was hired as general manager of Maple Leaf Gardens to oversee all events other than professional hockey. His son, Foster Hewitt, was hired to run the radio broadcasts, and oversaw the construction of the radio broadcast facilities.
On February 13, 2018, the arena hosted an open practice for the Maple Leafs. This marked the first official Leafs event in the building since the last Leafs game played there in 1999 nineteen years to the day.