Based on a gallery post originally published on Torontoist on November 30, 2011, with new material mixed in.
Maple Leaf Gardens, 1969. Photo by Bob Olsen. Toronto Star Photo Archive, Toronto Public Library, tspa_0098050f.
“Where pucks once flew 15 feet or more on the ice, shoppers will stare at a 15-foot wall of cheese.”
That’s how this story originally began, published on the day Loblaws opened its Maple Leaf Gardens location. The arena on the upper level (still officially called, as of 2019, the Peter Gilgan Athletic Centre) was still a few months away from opening. The occasion was a good excuse to take a stroll through the building’s history and the diversity of activities it had witnessed.
The Globe, February 13, 1931.
In a timeframe that would be almost unheard of today, the request for a building permit was made in February 1931. The arena was open 10 months later. Also note the simultaneous request to the city to build an arena in Spadina Crescent, which was never constructed (the site is now U of T’s Daniels Faculty).
Sketch of Maple Leaf Gardens, The Telegram, March 5, 1931.
Construction of Maple Leaf Gardens began in July 1931 and proceeded rapidly in order to be ready for the 1931/32 hockey season. Over 1,200 labourers, 750,000 bricks, and 77,500 bags of concrete were required to build the arena.
Opening night ceremonies at Maple Leaf Gardens, Mail and Empire, November 13, 1931.
Over 13,000 people attended opening night on November 12, 1931. Maple Leaf Gardens President J.P. Bickell hoped that the arena would “be regarded as a civic institution, rather than a commercial venture, because its object is to foster and promote the healthy recreation of the people of this British and sport-loving city.” Unfortunately, the Maple Leafs lost to the Chicago Black Hawks 2-1.
From W.A. Hewitt’s “Sporting Views and Reviews” column, Toronto Star, November 13, 1931:
The new Maple Leaf gardens proved a revelation to the hockey public last night. Everybody expressed amazement and pleasure at its spaciousness, its tremendous capacity, its comfort, its beautiful colour scheme, and its adaptability for hockey and all other indoor sports, with the spectators right on top of the play.
The crowd–a record one for hockey in Canada–was splendidly handled. No confusion, no crowding or rushing, everything done in the most orderly and systematic manner. The opening ceremonies were elaborate and a little lengthy, but that was excusable when one considers the importance of the occasion. They don’t open million-and-a-half arenas every night in the week.
Hewitt’s son, Foster, became a Gardens legend over his decades of broadcasting games on radio and television.
Wrestling match, Whipper Billy Watson versus Dick Hutton, Maple Leaf gardens, July 5, 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7520.
Seven days after the first hockey game, pro wrestling made its debut at the Gardens. A crowd of over 15,000 watched Jim Londos defeat Gino Garibaldi on November 19, 1931. The match was promoted by the Queensbury Athletic Club, who had recently hired Frank Tunney as its secretary. Within a decade Tunney took over the promotion and would be responsible for most of the venue’s wrestling cards until his death in 1983. One of his most popular draws was East York native Whipper Billy Watson, seen here defending a world title against Dick Hutton in 1956.
Irvine “Ace” Bailey of the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club in his office, 1960s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2370.
Among those who kept offices in the Gardens was Irvine “Ace” Bailey, who was one of the Maple Leafs’ top forwards until he was nearly killed by a vicious hit from Boston Bruin Eddie Shore in December 1933. Though unable to resume his playing career, Bailey went on serve two stints as the University of Toronto’s hockey coach and worked as a timekeeper at the Gardens until 1984.
Skater jumps through ring of fire at Toronto War Savings Committee youth rally, Maple Leaf Gardens, February 13, 1941. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Iten 7068.
What lengths did organizers go to grab the attention of those attending the numerous war rallies at the Gardens during the Second World War? How about a skater jumping through a flaming hoop?
Communist leader Tim Buck (front left) and others, Communist Labour and Total War Committee meeting, Maple Leaf Gardens, October 13, 1942. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7099.
Over 9,000 people attended a rally held on October 13, 1942 to support lifting the ban on the Communist Party that had been imposed under the War Measures Act two years earlier. Leader Tim Buck urged full support for the war effort to destroy the Axis powers, including conscription. Assorted labour leaders and politicians across party lines were also on stage to oppose the ban, including Ontario Premier Mitch Hepburn. One wonders if Hepburn’s motives were to further embarass Prime Minister Mackenzie King as much as helping the Communists break the ban and boosting war morale.
The ban wasn’t lifted, so the Communists reorganized as the Labour-Progressive Party the following year.
Recruiting station at wartime rally, Maple Leaf Gardens, June 1, 1941. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7033.
The Gardens were used for numerous events supporting the war effort, from fundraisers to recruiting stations like this one. Even though he was in his mid-40s, Conn Smythe signed up for military service during the Second World War, eventually leading a sportsmen’s battalion and publicly criticizing the federal government’s handling of the war. Injuries sustained while caught in a German attack in July 1944 caused Smythe pain for the rest of his life. increasing his irascibility.
Toronto Youth for Christ rally, Maple Leaf Gardens, circa 1946. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7111.
Religious rallies were a popular draw, such as this one for Toronto Youth for Christ in 1946. Faiths ranging from Roman Catholics to Jehovah’s Witnesses held mass meetings inside the arena. This photo also provides great views of the ceiling clock and the portrait of King George VI that Conn Smythe proudly displayed.
Mayor Robert H. Saunders and Charles Templeton at Toronto Youth for Christ rally, Maple Leaf Gardens, 1946. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7114.
Mayor Robert Saunders talks to Charles Templeton (then in the evangelist phase of his life) during the Toronto Youth for Christ rally held on June 15, 1946. Over 16,000 people attended the event. “The pageant was as colourful as a professional revue and more gripping than the hundreds of athletic contests which have been fought out before hoarse throated thousands in the Gardens,” the Star reported. “With colourful, authentic costumes, fanfares from trumpets, excellent staging and colourful, effective lighting the story of religious leaders throughout the ages was unfolded.” Among the other speakers was Billy Graham.
Templeton, who was associated with the Avenue Road Church of the Nazarene (now the site of the Hare Krishna temple), gradually lost his faith, declared himself agnostic, became a journalist, ran for the leadership of the provincial Liberals, edited Maclean’s, and generally lived a busy, interesting life.
Bingo players, Maple Leaf Gardens, 1940s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7368.
On occasion, Maple Leaf Gardens became the biggest bingo hall in the city. I think they called O67…
Lou Brody at Maple Leaf Gardens, between 1940 and 1960. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 2439A.
Cleaning the ice surface, pre-Zamboni.
Badminton played on skates in Maple Leaf Gardens ice show, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 6709.
Ice badminton, anyone?
Liberace at Maple Leaf Gardens, May 8, 1954. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3404.
As longtime Gardens publicity director Stan Obodiac described this photo in his book Maple Leaf Gardens: Fifty Years of History (Toronto: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981), “Liberace exchanged his glittering suit for a straw hat in a 1954 country number.” While this particular number wasn’t mentioned , the Star reported in its May 10, 1954 review of the pianist’s show that “every time he ran off to make a change of costume or pull some cute gag, middle-aged women, who looked as though normally they’d be the soul of domestic decorum, got up and rushed after him.”
Stanley Holloway putting on makeup, Old Vic Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Maple Leaf Gardens, December 1954. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Iten 7342.
Veteran British actor Stanley Holloway applies his makeup between cigarette puffs before a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by a touring company from the Old Vic in London. Globe and Mail drama critic Herbert Whittaker was disappointed with Holloway’s performance as Bottom. “I expected this prime exponent of earthy humour to be rougher, more simple,” Whittaker wrote in his December 15, 1954 review. “This Bottom is surprisingly modern, betraying his music hall antecedents without whipping us with uproarious burlesque. But he found himself not eclipsed but rather aided when he donned the monster head of an ass which the Ironsides have provided, and which is almost the hit of the production.” Also starring were Moira Shearer (The Red Shoes) as Titania and Patrick Macnee (The Avengers) as Demetrius.
Maple Leaf Gardens refreshement stand, April 12, 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7422.
Time for a refreshment break. Based on the date, my guess is that this photo was taken prior to the fourth game in the Eastern qualifying series for the Memorial Cup between the Toronto Marlboros and the Quebec Frontenacs.
Globe and Mail, April 13, 1955.
The Marlies won the game 3-1, and went on to win both the series and the Memorial Cup. The roster was full of future Maple Leafs stars, including Bob Baun, Billy Harris, and Bob Pulford, along with future Leafs coach Mike Nykoluk.
Crowds on new escalators, Maple Leaf Gardens, 1955. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7446.
Obodiac claimed that Maple Leaf Gardens was the first North American arena to be equipped with escalators.
Performer in Maple Leaf Gardens’ Ice Capades rehearsing Peter Pan with journalist, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 6776.
Long before journalists earned the wrath of Harold Ballard, reporting from the Gardens had its share of dangers, For one, you could have conducted an airborne interview with Peter Pan before a 1950s edition of the Ice Capades.
Performer in Maple Leaf Gardens’ Ice Capades with broken leg, with members of Toronto Maple Leafs hockey club, between 1958 and 1962. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 6757.
It appears this injured Ice Capades performer’s recovery from a broken leg was assisted by Maple Leafs Tim Horton, Carl Brewer, and Bert Olmstead.
Bill Haley and the Comets, Maple Leaf Gardens, April 30, 1956. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7213.
In what was considered the arena’s first rock n’ roll show, Bill Haley and his Comets headlined a 12-act bill on April 30, 1956 that also included Bo Diddley, LaVern Baker, Big Joe Turner, the Drifters, the Platters, and Frankie Lymon. “Like natives at a voodoo ritual,” the Star reported the following day, “the crowd writhed and reeled until their pent-up emotions burst the dam of reason and the clambered on to the stage and into the aisles to dance.” The following years, the Gardens was one of three Canadian stops Elvis Presley made on his only tour outside of the USA.
Perry Como and Conn Smythe with “Timmy” in Como’s dressing room for Easter Seals show, “Timmy’s Easter Parade of Star,” Maple Leaf gardens, April 14, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7314.
A benefit concert for Easter Seals was an annual staple of the Gardens schedule beginning in the 1950s. Preparing for the 1957 edition are crooner Perry Como, “Timmy” Paul Gamble, and Conn Smythe. While Perry and Paul take the photo session in stride, Conn looks a little spooked. While researching this gallery, we discovered this wasn’t an unusual expression for Mr. Smythe.
Likely from the same photo session, with Whipper Billy Watson and another youth subbing in for Perry Como. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7318.
As for the concert, the April 15, 1957 edition of the Globe and Mail observed that “it was the front rows to which Como and every star before him played. Bright-eyed children with crippled legs were the most fortunate: many there had crippled bodies as well as bodies, but they too obviously enjoyed every minute and hopped up and down with ecstatic delight.”
Toronto Star, April 13, 1957. Click on image for larger version.
Other performers ranged from wrestler Whipper Billy Watson to the stars of CBC’s variety series Cross Canada Hit Parade and Country Hoedown.
Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent and his wife Jeanne at Liberal party rally, Maple Leaf Gardens, June 7, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4213.
The federal Liberal election rally on June 7, 1957 was a political disaster, as a teenage heckler attempting to climb onstage fell backwards and hit his head on the concrete floor. The overall Liberal campaign that year was a dud.
Cliff Richard and the Shadows at the Biggest Show of Stars for 1960, January 25, 1960. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7220.
Cliff Richard and the Shadows were among the acts featured in the January 1960 edition of the “Biggest Show of Stars” package tour.
Toronto Star, January 26, 1960.
The Isley Brothers, Biggest Show of Stars, January 25, 1960. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7252.
Other acts on the bill included the Isley Brothers and Clyde McPhatter.
Audience at the Biggest Show of Stars for 1960, January 25, 1960. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7245.
A row of screaming fans at the January 1960 edition of the “Biggest Show of Stars.” Testing the limits of their vocal chords would serve them well, especially if any of them went on to see the Beatles at the Gardens four years later.
Toronto Maple Leafs versus Chicago Black Hawks, between 1958 and 1964. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7529.
Ageless goalie Johnny Bower guards the net for the Maple Leafs against Chicago Black Hawks forwards Ron Murphy (10) and Eric Nesterenko (15).
Toronto Maple Leafs versus Boston Bruins, between 1961 and 1963. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7527.
In this early 1960s match against the Bruins, the Leafs’ Bob Pulford (20) has his stick primed while team captain George Armstrong attempts to help. Among the Bruins trying to prevent a Leaf goal are Pat Stapleton (4), Ed Westfall (18), and Leo Boivin (20).
Two men in Maple Leafs Gardens dressing room, pointing to painted Toronto Maple Leafs sign, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7447.
A clubhouse motto erected by Conn Smythe to inspire the Maple Leafs. The City of Toronto Archives does not identify the two gentlemen pointing at the inspirational words, but we think they may be forward Sid Smith and goalie Harry Lumley.
Sonny Fox with Harold Ballard at Maple Leafs Gardens, 1950s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3038.
Harold Ballard’s association with Maple Leaf Gardens began during the 1930s when the future Maple Leafs owner was involved with a number of local amateur hockey teams. This picture, featuring Ballard with American television personality Sonny Fox, was taken long before hockey fans began uttering his name with contempt.
Dave “Tiger” Williams signing an autograph for Greg Crombie, 1978. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 8857.
This photo appears to have been left on the cutting room floor when I prepared the original post, probably to make the gallery a nice, neat total of 28 images.
Greg Crombie at Maple Leaf Gardens with King Clancy, 1978. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 8859.
Francis “King” Clancy was the sunny face of the Maple Leafs, whether it was as a player in 1930s or a team executive from the 1950s until his death in 1986. In his biography of Harold Ballard, sportswriter William Houston compared Clancy to a leprechaun. “Clancy usually has a big smile, a twinkle in his eye to go along with his high-pitched voice. He has an amiable personality and offends no one…He is full of stories from his hockey past and can be a delightful companion.”
One of the last chances the public had to stroll around Maple Leaf Gardens before its conversion into its present form occured during Nuit Blanche in October 2008. While there were art installation on the arena floor, the real magic that evening was hearing visitors tell stories about their experiences in the building. There were also plenty of reminders that the Leafs had left behind after vacating the premises, such as this Mercury ad.