MLSE, Ryerson University, and the Struggle for Maple Leaf Gardens

The Globe and Mail has reported that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) and Ryerson University have reached an agreement over naming rights and usage of the university’s new facility currently under construction at the site of Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto. The site, which has historical meaning for many Torontonians and hockey fans, is being converted into a Loblaw grocery store, an athletic centre for Ryerson students, and an arena for the men’s and women’s Ryerson Rams hockey teams. From the Globe and Mail:

MLSE filed suit this summer, accusing Ryerson and Loblaw of infringing on its trademark by using the historic [Maple Leaf Gardens] name in promotional materials. The sporting giant also alleged the university’s 2,500-seat venue would compete with the Air Canada Centre, citing a deal Ryerson signed with arena-management company Global Spectrum.

The construction of sports arenas and stadiums always involve political choices by specific social actors, which are made to serve the interests of various individuals and groups in society (think, for example, of whose interests were being served or ignored when a large, predominantly African-American area of downtown was razed in order to construct the Pittsburgh Civic Arena in the late 1950s). Sports stadiums are, therefore, often politically contentious buildings. While less dramatic than the Pittsburgh example (or far more egregious examples, such as the mass evictions that frequently enable venue construction for World Cups or Olympics), the struggle over Maple Leaf Gardens provides a useful insight into the politics of professional sports ownership and arena construction.

In 1999, the Toronto Maple Leafs left Maple Leaf Gardens for the swankier, larger, and far more lucrative confines of the Air Canada Centre – a move in keeping with the broader trend of professional sports teams constructing new venues that maximize profits through increased seating, the hosting of non-sport events such as concerts, and the inclusion of luxury boxes and other amenities that create alternative revenue streams for the sports franchise. It has also become increasingly common for sports arenas to anchor real estate developments that turn massive profits for the owners. Malcolm Gladwell’s examination of the New Jersey Nets move to Brooklyn is extremely insightful on this topic, and one need only look at the construction of Maple Leaf Square beside the Air Canada Centre to see how the arena’s existence serves a purpose far greater than simply being a sports venue.

In 2004, MLSE sold Maple Leaf Gardens to Loblaw – on the condition that the historic building not compete with the Air Canada Centre as a venue. From a 2009 article in The Star:

Maple Leaf Sports made it a condition of the sale in 2004 that Loblaw would not host large sporting events or concerts in competition with its Air Canada Centre. . . . However, [hosting CIS university hockey] depends on how big an arena Ryerson wants to build, [MLSE Executive Vice-President] Hunter said. Anything over 8,500 seats will compete with another MLS property, Ricoh Coliseum, home of the Toronto Marlies in the American Hockey League.

Despite the fact that Maple Leaf Gardens is a historic venue that inspires a great deal of nostalgia amongst hockey fans and Torontonians, MLSE remained focused on profit-making and maneuvered to ensure that the venue would not compete for lucrative concerts and shows with its own holdings. Even Canadian billionaire Eugene Melnyk’s attempt to purchase and refurbish the building to be the home of the OHL’s St. Mike’s Majors, a proposal that hinged on a nostalgic memory of the venue and a passion for amateur and junior hockey, was rejected. While a renovated 10,000 seat arena may not have competed with the ultra-modern Air Canada Centre, it might have lured events away from the MLSE-owned 9000-seat Ricoh Coliseum. And the possibility of well-attended live hockey in downtown Toronto was certainly not palatable for MLSE, a fact made clear by its President Richard Peddie:

We did not want [Maple Leaf Gardens] as a live – to be candid – competing venue. . . . We just did not want that in the marketplace.

The approach of MLSE must be understood in the larger context of professional sports ownership in Toronto, in which a small number of individuals have competed to acquire greater and greater control over not only sport ownership, but also the associated media and venue revenue.

Complicating the fate of Maple Leafs Gardens is its beloved status amongst hockey fans and citizens of Toronto. The building was famously constructed in the midst of the Great Depression (the labour politics of that construction is a story for another day) and hosted the Maple Leafs from 1931-1999. The venue also played host to a range of other events, including basketball, lacrosse, boxing and professional wrestling. Among its more famous performers or guests were Muhammad Ali, The Beatles, and Winston Churchill, and in 2007 the Government of Canada declared it a national heritage site. But foremost, it is remembered as an iconic hockey arena for one of the NHL’s Original 6 franchises – the first description of Maple Leaf Gardens’ “heritage value” by Canada’s Historic Places, a joint federal-provincial government organization, notes its status as

one of the most renowned “shrines” in the history of hockey and home to the Toronto Maple Leafs for sixty-eight years, it was associated with many of professional hockey’s legendary players and with many of the game’s most exciting and exhilarating moments.

However, despite the arena’s importance to the heritage of Toronto and the nostalgic attachment still felt by many Maple Leafs, MLSE’s focus remains fully on the bottom line – as its initial lawsuit against Ryerson University attests. Even MLSE’s insistence that Ryerson not use the name “Maple Leaf Gardens” for the new complex speaks to an unwavering win-at-all-costs corporate mentality that completely disregards the nostalgia or attachment to place felt so powerfully by many hockey fans.

Nonetheless, it looks as though a renamed Maple Leaf Gardens will again be hosting hockey, albeit on a dramatically reduced scale compared to its past. Nonetheless, despite the politics of the building’s present day usage, it is encouraging that a historic hockey arena will now serve as a site for men’s and women’s amateur hockey. As professional sports franchises continue to seek greater profits and diversified revenue streams, it will be interesting to observe the political contestation for the utility and social meaning of old arenas and stadiums.

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6 thoughts on “MLSE, Ryerson University, and the Struggle for Maple Leaf Gardens

  1. It HAS been “interesting to observe the political contestation for the utility and social meaning of old arenas and stadiums.”

    Tiger Stadium in Detroit is a classic example. Not as happy as with the Gardens.

  2. Hey Ted, thanks for commenting. Yeah it is always a fascinating struggle over sports stadiums. I don’t know much about Tiger Stadium, but I do know that the Red Wings want a new arena. Can’t imagine there’s much appetite right now in Detroit for taxpayer funding of a new hockey rink, is there?

  3. Great article, Mark. I do a lot of work surrounding MLSE and how it trades on discourses of community and multiculturalism to build and sustain its brand. As the struggle around MLG indicates, MLSE promotes itself as being committed to “building a sense of community” in Toronto through sport. Of course, this is only permittable if this community is draped in blue and white (or Raptor red and black, or TFC red and grey) and excludes the “competition” (intercollegiate and other forms of amateur sport) from any sort of visibility within the community…

  4. Thanks Matt! That is very interesting research you’re doing about MLSE. They definitely have a whiff of a Yankees-esque “evil empire” about them in their dealings, and are vilified even by many Leafs fans. You’re dead on about MLSE’s tight-fisted control of sport enterprises in Toronto, though I was disappointed when I learned this extended even to OHL (when Melnyk wanted to put the Majors at MLG) and surprised that this fear of competition even stretches as far as CIS hockey (which is not exactly an a position to pull business away from the Maple Leafs – if anything, I would think the Leafs could form partnerships and build their brand even further through association with CIS teams).

  5. Pingback: Mlse | Wugez

  6. Pingback: #Canada150: 150 Good, Bad, and Ugly Stories of Hockey in Canada (Part 2) | Hockey in Society

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