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NHL Centennial

Maple Leaf Gardens secured future of NHL in Toronto

Canada's first big-league arena was product of Smythe's dedication, fancy financing, fast construction

by Stan Fischler / Special Contributor

Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto was the first truly major league-sized arena built in Canada when it opened in 1931.

But its world premiere almost never happened; had that been the case, Toronto might have been without a big-league rink and failed as a major hockey city. The Gardens project was barely saved by a never-say-die hockey man combined with an amazing blend of high-speed construction and fancy financing that would stun the world of Wall Street today.

As for getting the arena up and running, workers completed it in an amazing five months. The first shovel went into the ground on June 1, 1931; the grand opening took place on Nov. 12, 1931. That time frame would be impossible by today's construction standards: The NHL's two newest facilities, Little Caesars Arena in Detroit and T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, took far longer to complete.

So how could the miracle of Maple Leaf Gardens have happened at all, let alone in the early 1930s, when the Great Depression made money hard to come by? It was because one individual felt undaunted by the challenge. That individual was Conn Smythe, who had taken control of the NHL's Toronto St. Patricks in 1927. Still, he wasn't happy.

Smythe didn't like his team's name and changed it to Maple Leafs soon after the sale of the team closed on Feb. 14, 1927. He was also displeased with the obsolete Arena Gardens (later known as Mutual Street Arena), where his team had been playing. He wanted -- virtually demanded -- a genuine hockey palace to replace it.

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"Our team is first-rate," Smythe said, "and our American opponents have big-league players, playing in big-league buildings. We owe it to Toronto, to our players and to ourselves to build a rink that all Canada can be proud of."

Known as The Little Major for his service during World War I, Smythe envied rival NHL teams that boasted structures such as the 16,000-seat Chicago Stadium and New York's Madison Square Garden, which had a capacity of 15,925. Each had about twice as many seats as Toronto's arena, and Smythe said his franchise couldn't turn a profit there, especially since he had to pay big money to such stars as King Clancy, Charlie Conacher, Joe Primeau and Busher Jackson.

But he figured that those stars would have fans packing his proposed new rink, which would have more than 12,000 seats. To help pitch the rink to fans, he also hired young Foster Hewitt to do radio broadcasts. It was Hewitt who coined the legendary goal-scoring verbal sequence, "He shoots, he scores." In time Hewitt would become a national icon, but then he was merely an excellent salesman for Smythe.

Hewitt's marketing tool was a program detailing all the Gardens plans. It was published early in 1930 for patrons who attended Maple Leafs games, and the crafty Foster also promoted it on his broadcasts. He urged fans to mail a dime for a copy of new arena plans and learn all about Toronto's hockey future. After hearing and reading Foster's sales pitch, they enthusiastically responded by the thousands.

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Smythe's next big gamble was selling stock in the new venture. When the money eventually came rolling in, he then had to find an arena site in downtown Toronto. That site turned out to be an unimpressive piece of real estate at the corner of Carlton and Church streets, owned by T. Eaton Company, then Canada's leading department store chain.

Eaton's gave Smythe's negotiator, Ed Bickle, an option on the property for $350,000. Bickle not only took the cash but sold Eaton's $25,000 worth of Maple Leaf Gardens stock.

Smythe's next task was to find someone to guard his temporary wasteland. He chose young forward Frank "Buzz" Boll, one of his hockey prospects with the junior Toronto Marlboros, as night watchman. Smythe's right-hand-man, Frank Selke Sr., recalled that Boll was stocked with a cord of wood, a shack, a stove -- and a baseball bat to ward off intruders.

Smythe probably would have liked to borrow the bat to ward off the pessimists who said his arena never would be built. The cynics often seemed to be right early in 1931.

The bad news emerged when Smythe learned that his group had come up $200,000 short of the cash needed to complete the actual construction phase of the Gardens. But Selke, an accomplished wheeler-dealer, saved the day. A successful electrician, he had been active in the Allied Building and Trades Council of Toronto, and that gave him an idea: Why not persuade the workers engaged in constructing Maple Leaf Gardens -- most of whom were unemployed because of the Depression -- to accept 20 percent of their paychecks in Maple Leaf Gardens stock?

The union members jumped at the idea. But Smythe had less than half a year for Maple Leaf Gardens to be ready for the home opener. Teamwork among the various workers came to the fore as they raced against a tough timetable. Laboring sometimes in three eight-hour shifts, the builders employed 540 kegs of nails, 950,000 board feet of lumber, 750,000 bricks, 77,500 bags of cement and assorted other equipment. Remarkably, the job was done just in time.

On Nov. 12, 1931, the Chicago Black Hawks (then two words) were scheduled to play Smythe's team, and Maple Leaf Gardens was ready to welcome its first fans.

Every one of the 12,473 seats was filled, and there were about 1,000 fans who had bought standing-room tickets. Those who looked up were awed and did double-takes.

Near the top of the rink, Hewitt was perched in an odd-looking gondola built on steel beams 54 feet above ice level. Thus the introduction to every Saturday night hockey broadcast was, "And now, up to the gondola and Foster Hewitt!"

From his perch high above the ice, Hewitt looked down on a rink glittering with cleanliness and class. Fans were adorned in the same finery they ordinarily would wear to the opera or theater. Many men wore top hats and tuxedos. Smoking was forbidden and a deluxe aura oozed out every corner of the building. The only thing missing on opening night was a victory; Chicago defeated Toronto 2-1.

However, less than five months later Smythe's team put its own, personal stamp of approval and greatness on the new arena. On April 9, 1932, the Maple Leafs defeated the Rangers 6-4 to sweep the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Final in three games and win the franchise's first championship.

Or as Smythe said five months earlier about completion of his Gardens: right on time!

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