New Maple Leaf Gardens will mix past with present

June 16, 2011

The concrete pad is poured, the press gondola removed and the 80-year-old walls exposed to reveal a cross-section of red and blue paint, support beams and yellow brinks - the map of a building that housed hockey history.

For the better part of two years, architects and engineers have worked to transform Maple Leaf Gardens, tucking a new rink in its rafters and an athletic centre, grocery store and parking garage below.

"It's like trying to build a ship within a bottle and making sure the glass does not break," explained Sheldon Levy, president of Ryerson University and the man who plotted for years to make this project happen - finally pulling off a space-sharing deal with the building's owner, Loblaw Co. Ltd., in the fall of 2009.

Just like any renovation project, the $60-million Gardens makeover has included plenty of surprises. Taking out the old stands - which helped to support the arena's walls - and digging the underground garage required some careful engineering, especially when a creek was discovered running underneath the foundation. Originally set to open this spring, the first phase of the project is now expected to be done by October. The first puck will likely drop in February or March, just in time for playoff season.

"There were just a whole host of issues. It was almost a perfect storm of construction and engineering problems," said Chris O'Reilly, a partner at Toronto-based BBB Architects, the firm chosen by Ryerson for its portion of the building. That space will include the student athletic centre and gym with seating for 1,000, and the third-floor rink. A Loblaw store will occupy most of the ground level and some retail also will be on the second storey.

Aside from the design challenges, what makes this project so special is the building itself and the place it holds with so many, said Mr. O'Reilly.

In a nod to that history, his firm is striving to blend old with new as much as possible. The exposed bricks on the south side of the building - what Mr. O'Reilly calls the "wall of history," reminds visitors of the old seating levels as they ride the escalators. A row of reds will be mounted on wall at the level where they once sat to drive the point home.

Inside the rink - which will be NHL-sized and centred under the old roof - the architects also have included a special place for two rows of original blue seats on balconies at each end that hang over the goal at the same sharp angle they did in the old Gardens.

What is most impressive, Mr. O'Reilly said, is how big the rink space will be, even after fitting two floors underneath it. The scaled down arena, which will seat about 2,800 people, still feels big and open, he said, even though it is next to giant trusses that span the building and the domed roof.

"Ninety per cent of the wow factor will be right here," Mr. O'Reilly said. "You are still underneath that amazing structure."

But not everything could be salvaged. The old score board, which dates back to the 70s, was too big to hang in the new rink as hoped. The massive four-sided sign would interfere with sightlines, so plans have been made to display some of it in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

"Not all dreams can come true," Mr. Levy said.

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