The hockey arena, considered by many in Canada to be the “Shrine” of hockey, stood on the corner of Carleton and Church streets in Toronto, Ontario. The home of the Toronto Maple Leafs was also known as the “Carleton Street Cashbox” because the Leafs sold out every home game from 1946 to 1999.
The popularity of Maple Leaf Gardens was probably due to the fact that from 1938 to 1970, only two Canadian teams were in the NHL. The mystique of the Gardens was enhanced every Saturday night when most of Canada gathered around the radio to listen to “Hockey Night in Canada” and hear the “original” voice of hockey, Foster Hewitt, sign on his broadcast with ‘Hello Canada and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland.’ Newfoundland was an independent Dominion before joining Canada in 1949.
Maple Leaf Gardens was built in 1931 at the cost of $1.5 million Canadian dollars. It was built in an unparalleled five months and two weeks. The first game was on November 12, 1931, with the Leafs losing to Chicago, 2-1. The Leafs went on that season to win their first Stanley Cup. Prior to that season, the Toronto team was known as the “St. Patricks” and prior to that, the “Arenas.”
I was never that fond of Maple Leaf Gardens. My impression was that since they sold out every game, they didn’t care much about the media or public relations. The first Kings game I ever televised was on KTLA from Maple Leaf Gardens. Hewitt – who broadcast Leafs games for some 52 years – was in the booth next to me and sometimes during a lull in the action, I would lean over to see if I could hear what he was saying. I even had the opportunity to interview the Hall of Fame legend between periods.
I must say, however, that if I hadn’t known the Toronto franchise had been around since 1917, I would have thought they had been in existence for about two weeks. The game notes given to the media before each game were laughable. There was little or no information about the players but they contained such notes as, “Happy Birthday to Joe, the usher in section 102,” or the best of all-time, “The Leafs welcome 300 Inuit priests to the game tonight. They are in town to translate the Bible into Inuit” (I actually used that note on our Kings telecast).
Our broadcast location started out in the famous “gondola” where Hewitt broadcast from, and it was a decent view of the game. Then it switched to the other side of the arena in the main press box where we were separated from writers and other broadcasters by just a small temporary partition, then back to the gondola where the visitors were given a tiny space with barely enough room for three people.
Two distinct occurrences stand out in my memory of Maple Leaf Gardens, one negative and the other positive. The negative took place March 2, 1981. It was the night Charlie Simmer, the Kings leading goal scorer at the time with 56 goals in 65 games, suffered a spiral fracture of his right leg. Always with a sense of humor, Charlie said, ‘If you’re going to break your leg, do it on Saturday night on Hockey Night in Canada so everyone can see it. Don’t do it on a Thursday night in Pittsburgh.’
The positive was the Western Conference Final playoff series in 1993 between the Kings and Maple Leafs. I think that was the most intense, classic series I have ever seen. Both team captains, Wayne Gretzky of the Kings and Wendell Clark of the Leafs, stood up to lead their teams. Marty McSorley set the physical tone in Game 1 in Toronto, with a vicious check on Doug Gilmour, and then Clark stepped in to fight McSorley. Even the coaches got involved when the Leafs Pat Burns tried to get to the Kings bench and told Kings Head Coach Barry Melrose, who had shoulder length hair, to get a haircut. Melrose then puffed out his cheeks indicating that Burns was fat and said he thought Burns was just trying to go get another hot dog. As the series progressed the Leafs won Game 5 in the Gardens to take a 3-2 lead in the series. The Kings had to win Game 6 at home or be eliminated. Clark had a hat trick and scored his third goal with only 1:21 left in regulation to send the game to overtime. Gretzky then won the game for the Kings 1:41 into overtime and we were set for Game 7 in Maple Leaf Gardens with the winner going to the Stanley Cup Final.
Game 7 was on May 29, 1993, and was one of the greatest games I’ve ever had the pleasure of calling. Gretzky had a hat trick and with a little over a minute left the Kings led 5-3. But, with 1:07 remaining, Dave Ellett scored for Toronto and the Kings lead was by only one goal. The final minute was so hectic, and as the Leafs were buzzing around the Kings goal, I was sweating, shaking and telling myself to settle down. With five seconds left the Kings cleared the puck to center ice and on our telecast I shouted, ‘The Kings are four wins away from the Stanley Cup.’
Jim Fox and I broadcast that series from the top of the gondola, over a hundred feet above the ice. That famous Hewitt gondola was dismantled and dumped into an incinerator in August, 1979, to make room for private boxes.
Maple Leaf Gardens was known for several innovations. It was the first arena to have plexi-glass in the end zones in the 1946-47 season. On November 8, 1963, it was the first arena in the NHL to have separate penalty boxes. Former Kings Head Coach Bob Pulford told me that happened because until then both players went into the same penalty box. The visitor would go in first followed by the home team player. One night in the Gardens, Pulford, who played for Toronto and Terry Harper, who played for Montreal and later was a Kings captain under Pulford, both received penalties. Harper went in the box first and while he was seated there Pulford hauled off and punched him. They rolled around fighting in the box and police were called. It was then decided it would be best to have separate penalty boxes.
The final game in Maple Leaf Gardens was on February 13, 1999, when the Leafs lost to the Chicago Blackhawks, 6-2. The Gardens still stands but it was converted into a Loblaws grocery store and an athletic center for Ryerson University. The renovation was completed in the summer of 2012, and the building is the new home of the Ryerson Rams hockey team. Thus, it is the only arena of the so-called “Original Six” teams to be used for hockey.