On February 20, 1999, the Maple Leafs beat the Montreal Canadiens thanks to an overtime goal by Steve Thomas to christen the brand new Air Canada Centre.
Nearly 27 million have passed through the doors since.
The transition from one of the Canada’s most recognizable sporting landmarks to a new arena by the lake is now all but forgotten. But it wasn’t just an exercise in logistics, it was an exercise in human interaction. When the Maple Leafs brought the Raptors to create Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, Air Canada Centre was already well underway. The building was remade as it was being built and two companies, each with its own radically different cultures, were melded into one.
The best way to tell the story of that remarkable transition is through the people who made it. We chose five.Tom Anselmi, Executive Vice President, COO
That was a great time. We were building a building and we were building a company. One had been around for 75 years, the other just a few years. We were taking on a building project that was 20 per cent done. We had a year and a half to go and we had to add $50 million in changes to it. Yeah, there was a lot going on , but it was a terrific experience and a great time in our organization's history .
I think the ACC has been really successful because the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. There isnt one thing that stands out but it works.It’s not a building like Anaheim where you see all the marble. When the United Centre in Chicago was built, you looked at the size and it knocked you out. This building had a great downtown location and it was close to transportation and the core, but other than that there isn’t one big thing that stands out.
The thing is, it really works. It’s the right size, it has the right amenities, it has the right product list, it’s comfortable, the sightlines are great, it has a high level of finish but not too high a level.
Sharing a sports experience shouldn’t be overly comfortable. You need a closeness and a rawness to the experience. You need fans who are sharing a little sweat. There is an element of energy in this building that you don’t get in bigger buildings with 22-inch wide seats and cup holders. You are sharing a religious experience. There needs to be a certain closeness and energy in the pews.
Opening night, the Leafs, had to be the biggest night. Here was this iconic team that has 80 years of history and everything happened so quickly. We had a parade. We beat our longtime rival. It was like Christmas.Paul Thomas, Executive Sous Chef
I came to work here February 15, 1999. I started out as the lead cook for the Platinum Club. I came here from a restaurant, we all did.
There were no shelves in the fridge. A lot of the equipment didn’t work. There was a whole bunch of equipment we didn’t have. Everything had to be unwrapped, boxes had to be opened. Everything was new. We didn’t know about anything, feeding the media, feeding the owners. We found out we had to feed the refs on the first day. You know how we found out? They asked for their food.
I remember one of the first days, there was no freezer for the pucks. So someone put them in our walk-in-freezer. Somebody from our staff thought they would be great to hand out. So they handed them out. When the hockey people came in looking for pucks, we had a problem.Bob Hunter, Executive Vice-President, Venues and Entertainment
When did we know the arena would work? Well, we had 65 sellouts in the first 70 nights. We all sat back and went, this thing works.
I think the building works for a couple of reasons. First, the proximity to rail and transit and the highway. The post office was here for the same reason we are, easy access to transportation.
Two thirds of this building is an old building. I think people enjoy that.
The size is quite small compared to the arenas built today. We come in at 660,000 square feet. That’s two thirds or even half the space of some new arenas. That forced the footprint to be quite small which forced the bowl to be highly rigged and that creates a good atmosphere.
The important thing is to continue to invest in the building. We are adding another 26,000 square feet with our new addition. We’re spending $3 million on a big screen, everything is in high-def, and it will bring an amazing atmosphere to the plaza on the West side of the building. We’ve spent $100 million over ten years and we’ll spend another $100 million over the next two years.
Will the building outlive us? If ownership continues to invest in the building, this thing will have a long, long life.Jeannie Ferreira, Co-ordinator, Office Administration
I started in 1977. I worked part-time for three years. I was a receptionist for Harold Ballard, Cliff Fletcher and Ken Dryden.
I came over here and I worked for the People department. Reception downstairs was part of People so I worked there. (When you call Air Canada Centre, you get Jeannie Ferreira)
I was attached to the Gardens. It was my second home. Air Canada Centre is different. It’s bigger. It took a long time to get to know everybody, but I really enjoy it. I love the hustle and bustle.
I was the last person to move out of the Gardens. I moved out with the team. When the team practiced at the Gardens I was there to deal with people going into practice.Brent Wynne. Manager Facility Services
I started at the Gardens, March 1, 1980. I swept the stands part-time.
By the time we moved, I was a member of the ice crew. Two of the other guys drove the zambonis in the parade.
The Gardens didn’t have air conditioning or dehumidification. It was a challenge when the weather was warm. In the engine room in back, there were still dirt floors. We are cramped for storage here. We had half the space at the Gardens.
We had 60 events in 60 days and at the same time, we were still operating the Gardens for lacrosse and other events. For the first Leafs game, there were a bunch of us at the Gardens and we came down here at 4 p.m. and went to work.