Thursday, November 12, 2009
Built during the Great Depression, Maple Leaf Gardens hosted it's first game on this date in 1931.
Opening Night - November 12, 1931 - Toronto vs. Chicago
Program cover from the first game at Maple Leaf Gardens 1932 Stanley Cup Champion Toronto Maple Leafs Maple Leafs Captain Teeder Kennedy greets the then Princess Elizabeth
Tex Rickard, seeing the success of the New York Americans hockey club who played the 1925-26 season in his brand new Madison Square Garden, wanted a team of his own.
Conn Smythe, then the coach of the University of Toronto hockey team, was hired as the Rangers General Manager for a sum of $10,000. He acquired Lorne Chabot, Bill Cook, Frank Boucher, Ching Johnson and 27 other players for a total of just $32,000. Rangers president Colonel John S. Hammond had a falling out with Smythe and fired him just prior to the start of the season, as well as keeping $2500 of Smythe's promised money.
When Rangers owner Tex Rickard offered Smythe a job as vice president after the Rangers opening night victory, Smythe told Rickard not only would he not work with the Rangers management again, but how they cheated him out of his full pay. Rickard paid Smythe the remainder of the money he was due and asked him to stay. It was too late, however, as Smythe returned to Toronto and vowed to win the Stanley Cup in revenge.
Smythe took the money he received from Rickard and bet it on a football game and won. He took his winnings and next bet on a Toronto St. Pats hockey game and was a winner once more. Smythe then organized a group of other investors and bought the St. Patricks for $164,000, preventing a sale to a Philadelphia group who had offered $200,000 by promising to keep the club in Toronto.
When Smythe took control of the team on February 14, 1927 he thought the name "St. Patricks" was too Irish Catholic and immediately renamed the team the Maple Leafs and changing their colors to the blue and white of the University of Toronto.
Smythe worked to build the Maple Leafs into a contender and made the playoffs for the first time in four seasons in 1929.
Then, after four seasons of playing in the Toronto Arena, Smythe had Maple Leaf Gardens constructed in under six months for $1.5 million - just 100 yards from where Smythe was born - in order to accommodate more fans to meet the rising cost of players.
The first game ever at Maple Leafs Gardens was a 2-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in front of 13,542 fans, with the top ticket price being $2.75.
Despite the opening night loss, the Maple Leafs would go on to qualify for the playoffs in 1931, beating the Chicago Blackhawks in the opening round and next eliminating the Montreal Maroons to earn a trip to the finals. Smythe would gain his revenge on the Rangers, as the Maple Leafs would defeat New York three games to none, capturing the Stanley Cup at home in Maple Leaf Gardens, a fine way to cap off the first season at the new arena.
Many other events were held at Maple Leaf Gardens over time, including professional wrestling, boxing, basketball, political rallies and concerts, including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and... Tiny Tim.
Maple Leaf Gardens even hosted a hockey exhibition for the future Queen of England, Elizabeth II in 1951.
In addition to the Maple Leafs of the NHL, many other teams also called the building home. The Toronto Lions of the OHA, the Toronto Marlboros of the OHL and the Toronto Toros of the WHA all played hockey, the Toronto Huskies of the BAA (later the NBA) and the Buffalo Braves and Toronto Raptors of the NBA played some basketball, the Toronto Bilzzard of the NASL and Toronto Shooting Stars (NPSL) called it home for indoor soccer and the Toronto Rock of the NLL played professional lacrosse there. Maple Leaf Gardens was also the first hockey arena to have plexiglass at the ends of the rink.
The Maple Leafs became so popular that the team sold out every single game they played between 1946 and their final game in the arena in 1999 - 54 years of sold out hockey in total. As a result of the demand for Maple Leafs tickets, seats were added again and again throughout its history, increasing from 13,542 on opening night in 1931 to 16,307 by 1968, including taking down a large portrait of Queen Elizabeth II to make room for more seating!
Eventually, the Maple Leafs would move to the brand new Air Canada Centre, complete with the luxury boxes that the old arena lacked, in 1999 after 67 years of playing in Maple Leaf Gardens.
Today's featured jersey is a 1996-97 Toronto Maple Leafs Mats Sundin jersey, which features the classy and attractive Maple Leaf Gardens 65th Anniversary patch. Sundin was still the assistant captain at the time and this jersey has the appropriate "A" on the left chest.
On a personal note, we had the good fortune to see a game at Maple Leaf Gardens once. While driving into Toronto we heard on the radio that the Maple Leafs were going to be playing their first pre-season game of the year versus the Quebec Nordiques in a couple of days time. Our original plan was to see a Toronto Blue Jays baseball game at SkyDome during it's first year of operation, 1989, and a visit to the Hockey Hall of Fame, which had yet to relocate to downtown Toronto, with no idea that there would also be a hockey game happening during our stay.
Even more to our surprise was discovering that we were staying at the Days Inn on Carlton Street, located about three feet west of Maple Leaf Gardens - which was right next door!
Our lasting memory of the grand old arena? It was THE smokiest non-smoking building we've ever been in. A true throwback to the days of the original six inhabited by throwback men who did things they way they were used to, modern rules be damned.