Huddled together with their hard hats and shovels, they looked more like the Captains of Construction than of hockey.
But for Wendel Clark, Doug Gilmour, Darryl Sittler and Rick Vaive, four men who know the prestige of wearing the "C" for the Maple Leafs, yesterday's ground-breaking ceremony for the team's four-pad practice facility ushered in a new era for the franchise.
"Taking my boys around to different arenas to play hockey, you get an idea of the different facilities that are out there," Gilmour said. "That's why I can safely say, this complex will be stunning."
While an eclectic mixture of politicians, former players, media and organizational management types were on hand for the official kickoff of the project under the bright morning sun, bulldozers have been moving mounds of snow and dirt for several weeks now, much to the glee of Bob Hunter, executive vice-president of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd.
"We have been pursuing this project for almost seven years, so it definitely is satisfying to see progress," said Hunter after watching the project bog down on a number of occasions in a sea of bureaucracy.
Because of the chaotic web of leases, financing agreements and other paperwork involved, the startup date had been pushed back on numerous occasions.
The target date for completion for the project is now Sept. 2009, just in time for the Leafs and Marlies to hold training camp in the spiffy new digs.
"You could call it relief but it's more excitement," Hunter said, enthused that the first shovel finally has made its way into the frozen ground.
The facility, located on Kipling Ave. near Lakeshore Lions Arena, will serve as a Centre of Excellence for Hockey Canada; practice centre for the Maple Leafs and Marlies; and a place for the Hockey Hall of Fame to store its archives.
The complex, which is expected to carry an estimated price tag of $33.65 million, will include an Olympic-sized ice surface. And while plans are in place for 1,000 seats to surround the big rink, there will be room to expand the capacity by another 3,000.
The 260,000-square-foot facility will be accessible to minor and amateur hockey teams along with providing a permanent home for the Etobicoke Dolphins, Canada's second-largest women's hockey organization, and the Faustina Sports Club.
The project is being funded by the Lakeshore Lions through private equity and fundraising efforts.