Register Tuesday | December 10 | 2019

The Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens

Rest in Peace

I went to see a movie the other day at Montreal's AMC, the cinema built inside the old Forum. I've seen movies there before, but since I visited a friend who lives across from Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens earlier this month, I was inclined to think a little more on the historical significance of the theatre. It helped that my friend Dave, a PEI native and Habs fan, was with me. It was his first time in the refurbished old barn. "Cool things happened here," Dave pronounced, as we strolled ever so casually across where centre ice used to be, on our way to see a film that included Portuguese versions of David Bowie songs. Cool things did happen there, and despite my allegiance to the team who played the villain in most of those situations, I still find it a shame that such hallowed sporting grounds were transformed into a hub of flashy marketing and crass consumerism. It's not the electronics store or Italian restaurant that concern me, just that in comparison to what was there before, they seem a little inadequate.

I felt the same way a few weeks ago in Toronto when I stumbled out of a Carlton Street bar and glanced up at Maple Leaf Gardens. It looked sleepy and depressed, still vacant five years after its eponymous tenants had bolted for the corporate Air Canada Centre on Bay Street. I wondered when the lights might come back on. There have been numerous proposals for the old arena, including turning it into a Loblaws grocery store, a public skating rink or a home for minor hockey (possible teams have included the St. Michael's Majors and the short-lived Toronto Road Runners). It seems as though the grocery store is going to be the final decision, despite the reservations of some.

So the Forum is a movie theatre, and the Gardens is going to be a grocery store. Sacrilege, right? Well, maybe. Or maybe these changes are just part of a city's life cycle. New arenas and stadiums are usually built so team owners can make more money: luxury boxes can be added, naming rights can be sold, fancy features can justify higher ticket prices, and multiple tenants (concerts, lacrosse, motocross, etc.) can be lured in. Back in 1931, Conn Smythe built the Gardens for about $1.5 million, a princely sum in the Depression. I wonder, how did lovers of the old Mutual Street Arena feel when their happy hockey home (site of the first ever NHL Stanley Cup championship, won by the Toronto Arenas) was given the shaft for this fancy new box office? Yes, the Gardens itself was once the villain.

How did lovers of the old Mutual Street Arena feel when their happy hockey home was given the shaft for the fancy new Maple Leaf Gardens? Yes, the Gardens itself was once the villain.

And what became of Mutual Street? Well, for several decades it struggled to compete with the new rink, staging a variety of sporting events. In 1962, though, it was turned into a curling sheet, and in the 1970s it became what I remember it as: a roller rink named The Terrace. By the early 1980s, when I was six years old, roller skating was on its way out. First graders are never really on the leading edge of hip, though, so when I attended my cousin Sue's party at the Terrace in 1983, it was my first time at a roller rink. It was there that I was introduced to Anne Wilson, a cute blonde girl from my school whom I really liked. She looked at me with a wicked smile and said, "We're arch-enemies." I could read between the lines: clearly, she was in love with me. Imagine my distress when, only a few years later, long after Anne had hooked up with the class cool-guy Kevin Flynn, I learned that the Terrace was being demolished, to be replaced by condos. Somehow, feeling nostalgia for a roller rink seems like a less popular proposition than mooning over Maple Leaf Gardens.

I have memories from the Carlton Street Cashbox too. Mostly I remember the haze of cigarette smoke that rose all the way up to the grey seats, the only ones I could afford to watch my favourite team lose every game. That and the troughs. Only men will recall this peculiar feature of the Gardens washrooms: boys became men the first time they stood braced above the long metal buckets, legs spread, as steam rose from the collective urinations of a dozen or so hockey fans.

Perhaps not all memories need to be kept so sacred. I'll probably still cringe a little every time I go into the Montreal Forum Pepsi Entertainment Complex, as well as the Loblaws store at Maple Leaf Gardens, at least until the Leafs-or even, God forbid, the Habs-manage to win a championship. Only then will the Air Canada Centre or the Bell (formerly Molson) Centre gain a small measure of the lustre of those shiny old piss troughs. Not that I was alive to see any of the Leafs' Cups, or all that interested in watching the Habs win, but championships do make for great memories, right? I mean, ask the Blue Jays: after those two World Series wins at SkyDome, no one ever longs for the days at Exhibition Stadium, do they?

John Lofranco is a Montreal-based writer, teacher and distance runner. The Masochist appears every second Wednesday