The recent decision to have hockey games being played at Maple Leaf Gardens means that one of the last great hockey shrines will once again be reborn.
While the Leafs will continue to play in the confines of the Air Canada Centre, the Gardens will now become home to the hockey program of the University of Ryerson. Other cities around the world should follow suit from Toronto in making sure that historic hockey buildings from the past continue to have a place in the communities where they gained so much notoriety.
Maple Leaf Gardens will undergo a massive renovation over the next few years that will also include a Loblaws grocery store and a number of new athletic facilities for Ryerson. The seating capacity for the arena itself will be around a thousand people. Along with the Loblaws corporation, students at Ryerson University are also helping fund the project.
Does a lack of NHL hockey diminish from the building?
While Canadian University hockey is not exactly that of the NHL, the mystique of the building still remains intact.
Although many changes have been put into place for the Gardens, the exterior of the building will remain just as it has in years past. The need for better facilities, larger capacities, and corporate boxes led to many of the great hockey shrines like the Chicago Stadium and Boston Garden to be turned into rubble. While one cannot take away the history that existed in those buildings, it would be better day if those buildings were still standing.
A young kid in Toronto wishing to combine hockey with his education in engineering or in radio and television arts now has the opportunity to play in the same building that his dad may have gone to as a kid. The fact that the Ryerson Rams are playing at the Gardens should not diminish the value of the building in any way.
Hockey is hockey and what is happening now is simply another step in the evolution of a historic Toronto landmark.
Great way to promote University hockey
Another benefit to the new tenants at the Gardens is also some press coverage for Canadian University hockey. Very rarely do you hear the story of a player getting to the NHL by playing at a Canadian College or a Canadian University. Although there are some good teams out there such as the University of Alberta Golden Bears and the St Francis Xavier X-Men, rarely are NHL players produced as a result of these programs.
Often is the case that Canadian kids hoping to make it to the NHL and continue their studies will choose to take the NCAA route.
While the opportunity to play University games at the Gardens will likely not change the future aspirations of someone aspiring to make it to the NHL, the building nonetheless provides some positive press for those wishing to combine hockey with their studies in Canada. Following the model of the Frozen Four in the United States, the Gardens might also be a great place to hold the Canadian University Championships in hockey.
Maybe the day comes when the thought of having a player at the NHL entry draft selected from a McGill or a University of Saskatchewan becomes a very real possibility.
Buildings have to be engrained into the community
The move by hockey teams to some of the older buildings also means that these buildings have to mean something to the community. In Chicago, the building became memorable because of the fans while at the Montreal Forum, the tradition of winning helped create a sense of pride in the city. Simply put, some buildings are memorable while others are easily forgotten.
At some point over the next little while, the belief is that the Rexall Place in Edmonton will be replaced for a building that is more suited for the standards of the NHL. One would hope that a building where Gretzky, Messier, Fuhr and Kurri played continues to remain a pillar in the community. Along with the Oilers, Rexall Place is also home to the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL. A similar situation also occurs with the Calgary Flames who share the Saddledome with the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL.
In a lot of ways, these junior hockey teams could help play a role in keeping many of these older rinks standing.
The American Perspective
With the significant amount of hockey programs in the United States from the NCAA to the USHL, one would think that maybe there is someone out there who feels they could get some use out of these older arenas. While there is a sense of history attached to many of the NCAA rinks, maybe a new school in need of a hockey program might find one of these buildings useful.
Unfortunately, the last few years have seen many older arenas in America face the wrecking ball with the most recent victim being the Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo.
Be it in Canada or the United States, many challenges stand in the way of housing NHL hockey at some of the older facilities. Battles between developers and the financial challenges of maintaining and renovating buildings from a past generation could all stand in the way of seeing hockey at some of the places that so many of us remember.
While hockey arenas of today provide fans with a great experience from better sightlines to improved concessions to more luxury boxes, there are times when you still long for the buildings of the past.
The unpredictability of the older rinks was something special as it seemed like home ice advantage really meant something. From weird bounces off the boards to places where the size of the ice surface did not look to meet NHL standards, there was a sense of every building being different from the next one.
As the Ryerson Rams prepare to move into Maple Leaf Gardens, another chapter in the hockey shrine is set to take place. Be it in University or junior, hockey programs across the world should follow the model of Ryerson in allowing many of the great hockey rinks of the past to remain relevant in the present.