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Maple Leaf Gardens remains special place 20 years after final NHL game

Building currently home to supermarket, college facility, but center ice face-off dot remains

by Mike Zeisberger @Zeisberger / Staff Writer

TORONTO -- Wendel Clark pointed at a large red dot painted on the floor of a downtown Toronto supermarket and became overwhelmed with nostalgia.

"There it is," the former Toronto Maple Leafs captain said during a recent visit to the Loblaws store in the building formerly known as Maple Leaf Gardens. "I knew it was around here. Right between the shelves of Spam and Cheez Whiz. That's the exact location they marked where the center ice dot at Maple Leaf Gardens used to be.

"Hard to believe it's been this long since they dropped a puck at this spot."


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Two decades, to be exact.

Wednesday will mark the 20th anniversary of the final NHL game played at Maple Leaf Gardens. On Feb. 13, 1999 the Maple Leafs lost 6-2 to the Chicago Blackhawks, closing the book on more than 67 years of Maple Leafs hockey at the iconic Toronto arena.

Today the building is a multipurpose facility, with a Loblaws grocery store occupying retail space on the lower floor. The rest of the building is known as the Mattamy Athletic Centre at the Gardens, a venue operated by Ryerson University. It has a fitness center on the second floor and an arena on the third.

"I think it's great that they've been able to maintain the structure of the building," Clark said. "There's a supermarket inside, but when you drive by the structure is the same."

Part of the structure includes the famed marquee with the words "MAPLE LEAF GARDENS" that hangs above the front doors on Carlton Street.

"They've done a great job preserving some of the things," Clark said.

For Hall of Fame Maple Leafs broadcaster Joe Bowen, the roof remains the most impressive part of the building, which was named a National Historic Site of Canada in 2007.

"The fact that they moved the rink three floors up is amazing enough," he said during a recent visit. "But they kept the old cathedral ceiling and that's so cool. Even though it only holds a couple thousand people (capacity 2,539), you get the feel of the old Gardens."

Bowen pointed across the arena to a section of the rafters.

"You can still see where the broadcast booth used to be," he said.

Bowen was in the that very perch for the Maple Leafs' final game against the Blackhawks. It was a night that was remembered more for the grand ceremonies than the performance of the home team.

The Black Hawks defeated the Maple Leafs 2-1 in the first game played at the Gardens, on Nov. 12, 1931. Almost seven decades later, Red Horner of the Maple Leafs and Mush March of the Black Hawks, two players from the first game, dropped the puck in the ceremonial opening face-off for the last one.

A goal by former Maple Leafs forward Doug Gilmour at 3:11 of the second period gave the Blackhawks a 3-0 lead and ended up the game-winner. Blackhawks forward Bob Probert scored the final goal at the Gardens at 11:05 of the third.

"There was a lot of extra stuff going on," goalie Curtis Joseph said Tuesday. "It was so much more about the history and the former players coming in and the memorabilia. It was overwhelming."

Joseph allowed six goals on 27 shots in the loss.

"The game itself, as an athlete, was almost drowned out by all these other things," Joseph said. "We didn't play our best, I didn't play my best, and that's disappointing. But it was amazing to see Borje Salming and all the guys you'd looked up to in town for the closing of the Gardens.

"It was a spectacular sendoff. And well deserved. Because that building was incredible. So intimate. It was a special place to play in."

Video: Memories: Leafs play last game at Maple Leaf Gardens

When the final horn sounded about 100 Maple Leafs alumni were paraded onto the ice as part of a postgame ceremony. Best-selling Canada-born recording artist Anne Murray, wearing a Maple Leafs jersey, finished the festivities by singing, "The Maple Leaf Forever."

Gilmour watched it all from the visitors bench. Like Joseph, this place was special to him.

"It was emotional for me too," Gilmour said Monday. "I had some of the best years of my career there with the Leafs (1992-97). In 1992-93 I had the best points season of my career (127 points) and we came within one game of going to the Stanley Cup Final. Wayne Gretzky and Los Angeles beat us in Game 7.

"So many great memories of that place."

Seven days later a new era started. On Feb. 20, 1999 the Maple Leafs played their first game at Air Canada Centre (now known as Scotiabank Arena), winning 3-2 against the Montreal Canadiens on a Steve Thomas goal in overtime.

Gilmour was back in the former Gardens in 2017 during a book signing for his memoir, "Killer: My Life In Hockey." During a tour of the building, he was shown the red dot where center ice once was.

"That was so cool," he said. "Just another reason why the building was, and is, so special.

"It's mind boggling that the last game there was 20 years ago."

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