Hockey fans eat up new Maple Leaf Gardens

Legendary Leaf, Dick Duff, admires the new grocery store. The Toronto  Maple Leaf Gardens Loblaws...

Legendary Leaf, Dick Duff, admires the new grocery store. The Toronto Maple Leaf Gardens Loblaws opened Wednesday November 30. 2011. (CRAIG ROBERTSON/QMI Agency)

LANCE HORNBY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:48 AM ET

Dick Duff fought through many tough defencemen when he played at Maple Leaf Gardens, but nothing like the aggressive grocery carts coming at him from all sides Wednesday morning.

The Hall of Famer had to negotiate through excited shoppers, then the bakers, baristas, bulk food, and finally The Wall Of Cheese, as the Gardens was officially reincarnated as Loblaws flagship Toronto store.

“It’s a shame they couldn’t keep the Gardens as the home of the Leafs,” Duff said as hundreds of people surged through when Loblaw poobah Galen Weston Jr. pulled back the red curtain. “But I’m glad they’ve done something good with the building. In Montreal, they’ve almost forgotten the Forum.”

With Ryerson giving a sneak preview of its rink and athletic centre the day before and the opening of the Loblaws, there’s a new vibe to the Gardens, which opened 80 years ago this month. It had been dormant since the Leafs departed in 1999, with a couple of development deals falling through before Ryerson and Loblaw teamed up.

“We worked very closely with Heritage Toronto,” said Al Burke, senior vice-president of construction and store development for Loblaw Companies Ltd. “It was very important that we maintain the building specifications.

“We had to keep the outside and the roof exactly the same. We had to put some new doors in, but all with the (art deco) signage, we checked with the heritage people.

“We wanted to bring food to the forefront in an iconic building. I’ve been with the company many years and this will be hard to top.”

Turning right through the familiar Carlton St. entrance is a giant cluster of original Gardens’ end blue seats, in the shape of a leaf. To the left, down Aisle 25 where international sauces meet canned vegetables, is a plain red dot, where centre ice used to be. It’s right below one of the many four-sided columns that commemorate great events in Gardens history, such as the first game, Beatles concerts, Winston Churchill’s speech and Bill Barilko’s Cup-winning goal.

A jazz band played As Time Goes By as customers who’d lined up in the hundreds in the early morning darkness were let in. Billed as ‘Food’s Greatest Stage,’ the store includes a kitchen suspended above the floor with 14 chefs working on fresh meals, a tea emporium and sushi bar. Upstairs is an LCBO outlet, Joe Fresh clothing and a cooking school. But it’s the size that is impressive, covering much of the old arena’s lower bowl.

Former Leaf general manager Gord Stellick and brother Bob, the team’s former business and public relations director, went looking for the site of their old haunts among other former workers. The Gardens medical clinic has been retained and updated in case anyone gets bodychecked going top shelf where they keep the peanut butter. If you need a rest, the once posh red and gold seats are available and the dining area has tables featuring old Gardens events programs and pictures.

A big Wendel Clark fan, Burke said he “couldn’t be happier” to have worked on the project.

Wearing his Leafs jacket, veteran hockey fan Dave MacDonald got in some shopping while admiring the architectural features.

“My first game at the Gardens was 1962 and we went whenever my dad could get tickets from work,” MacDonald said. “I think they’ve done a great job on this and I’m looking forward to seeing a Ryerson hockey game here, too.”

But at least one elderly male customer thought the Carlton St. Cashbox mentality of the Harold Ballard days would eventually return after Wednesday’s opening day specials were done.

“It’s cheap today, but you watch, they’ll make it more expensive,” he predicted. “Like it always was here.”


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