Maple Leaf Gardens, site of many historic clashes between hockey’s greatest teams, is now at the centre of a battle of its own.
On one side is Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the sports empire that owns four professional franchises and an NHL arena, known for zealously protecting its brand. On the other is Ryerson University, which is turning the Toronto Maple Leafs’ storied former home into an arena for its own team.
Parts of that development have raised MLSE’s ire and prompted it to seek an injunction against the school and Loblaw Properties, which co-owns the building.
In court filings, the company is demanding Ryerson stop using the name Maple Leaf Gardens in connection with the site and suggests it fears the school’s new 2,500-seat venue will compete with the Air Canada Centre, the Leafs’ current home.
The marquee project is of tremendous importance to the university, whose students are paying a special levy on top of their tuition fees to make sure it is completed. It is part of an ambitious building program that Ryerson hopes will add much-needed space to its compact downtown campus and raise the school’s profile.
The redevelopment is also a long-awaited resolution to the problem of what to do with one of Toronto’s landmark buildings and hockey’s greatest shrines, which has sat mostly empty for a decade.
The legal manoeuvring comes just three months before the first phase of the development is set to open.
MLSE would not comment in detail on the case, but court documents filed by the company suggest the sports giant is afraid Ryerson’s new facilities will host concerts and generate money, in competition with the ACC.
The company said when it sold the downtown building to Loblaw in 2004 for $12-million, it was with the understanding the site would only be redeveloped into a food store and that it even reduced the sale price to attract a buyer who would accept this condition.
In late 2009, Loblaw and Ryerson reached a deal whereby the main floor would be converted into a supermarket, while the school would build an athletic centre, basketball court and 2,500-seat arena with an NHL-size rink on the upper storeys.
The Leafs’ owner claims the university’s use of the name “Maple Leaf Gardens” infringes on its trademark. MLSE argues the name could allow Ryerson to sell school products to people who mistakenly believe they are affiliated with the Leafs.
MLSE also seems concerned about a deal between Ryerson and Global Spectrum, a company that runs stadiums and other large public spaces around the world. Global Spectrum will help prepare and manage Ryerson’s section of the reopened Maple Leaf Gardens. The company wants Ryerson to abide by its 2004 agreement with Loblaw, which specified the building could not be used to host events in competition with the ACC.
Ryerson’s president, meanwhile, says there is nothing unusual about the arrangement and the school already has similar facilities-management contracts for other buildings, such as its business school.
Sheldon Levy played down concerns the legal tussle would delay the opening of the building.
“I can honestly say I think we’re going to work it out. We are continuing with the program, full-steam ahead,” he said. “We want to have a very good relationship with MLSE.”
An MLSE spokeswoman said the company was in talks with Ryerson, while Loblaw said it was still on track to open a location at the Gardens in the fall of 2011.
A source close to the situation said MLSE is not trying to bar Ryerson from building an arena, but is only displeased with some aspects of the project.
It was not entirely clear why MLSE started legal action now, more than a year and a half after Loblaw and Ryerson announced their partnership.
Both Ryerson and Loblaw said in filings they would respond to the injunction request if it goes before the court.
Reaching a resolution will be important for the school, which has for years been in desperate need of more space to alleviate conditions at its cramped athletic centre. Its hockey team could also use the home ice: the club treks to an arena 10 kilometres away to play.
Maple Leaf Gardens opened in 1931 and remained the Leafs’ home ice until 1999, when the franchise moved into the ACC. The Toronto Rock lacrosse team continued to make use of the space for another season.
The company’s insistence that the venue not compete with the ACC led it to turn down offers from other would-be owners to use it as a sporting venue. The building’s design also made it an expensive place to renovate: the seats helped support the walls, which made it difficult to remove them. Ryerson spent years flirting with the idea of purchasing the building, before finally striking the partnership with Loblaw, along with help from the federal government’s stimulus fund.