The new arena is a fraction of is former size, perched three storeys above a grocery store, but there is no mistaking where you are. From the soaring dome to the worn back staircase, it still looks and feels like the Gardens.
The concrete will be soon be cooled for the first flood, as Ryerson University prepares to take the wraps off its $70-million, 2 1/2 year renovation of the old Maple Leaf Gardens building.
The rink is expected to open its doors to the school's teams later this summer, but Ryerson president Sheldon Levy gave The Globe and Mail a sneak preview. It's been a massive project carving out space for an athletic complex, varsity basketball court and the 2,800-seat rink in the rafters of the legendary hockey shrine.
"Isn't this unbelievable?" said Mr. Levy, standing at the rail behind the stands. The old Gardens measured 50 metres from centre ice to rafters and although the new rink sits about 27 metres below the hallmark roof, the dimensions are still vast.
"You are under the same roof that the Leafs played under, but now you are on the third floor," Mr. Levy said. "I don't think people realize how big the Gardens was. This really is the magic of engineering."
Remaking one of the country's most beloved rinks has had its challenges. Opening day for the athletic complex is more than a year later than first planned. The price tag on the Ryerson portion of the project – paid for with a student levy, a federal grant and donations – has ballooned by more than $10-million from the original $60-million. The renovation also included the building of a flagship store, retail space and underground parking for the new Gardens owners, Loblaw Cos. Ltd.
As well as construction headaches, the new facility provoked a legal tussle with the building's former owners, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. Although the Maple Leaf Gardens marquee remains on Carlton Street, the official name of the rink and sports centre has been changed to honour university donor Peter Gilgan, founder and CEO of Mattamy Homes.
Construction manager Barry Burnett arrived at the site on Day 1 in December, 2009. Three pairs of work boots and 28 haircuts later, the carpenter by trade said that remaking the Toronto landmark has been the best job of his 45-year career.
There have been many special moments, Mr. Burnett said, at times even tears, such as the day a women asked to take her son's picture against the building's yellow brick wall. His great-grandfather, a bricklayer, was one of the 3,000 or so workers who helped construct the arena in 1931.
The Gardens being the Gardens, Mr. Burnett said, the project has attracted plenty of interest from the public, including Leaf fans upset to see the old rink torn apart and folks eager to give advice. "There were lots of sidewalk superintendents," he said.
There also were surprises, like the underground creek discovered during excavation for the garage and the time capsule hidden in one wall. Construction crews, which at times swelled to as many as 350 workers, gutted the former home of the Leafs back to its original windows and walls and had to install a network of supporting braces to keep those walls standing until new concrete was poured.
Back in 1931, the construction of the Gardens was a rush job, completed in less than six months. While tradesman worked on the outside, Mr. Burnett said, sloppy mortar between blocks on the old stairwell is a sign that unskilled workers likely completed less visible parts of the building. "I always say you can tell the original builder was in a hurry," he said.
Complicating matters on the job were the several slap-dash alterations made over the years. "I sometimes wondered if Harold came in at night and did some of this stuff," said Mr. Burnett, referring to former team owner Harold Ballard.
A huge stack of drawings – copies of the original Gardens plans obtained from the city's archives – are kept on hand at the construction office for quick reference and Mr. Burnett hopes to make the hand-drafted documents a souvenir.
"It wasn't always fun," admitted Mr. Burnett, who plans to take the rest of the summer off when the project is finally done. "My favourite part was building the structure – first the demolition, then the structure," he said. "I have lived this thing. It has been my life for 2 1/2 years. "
Mr. Levy said his greatest thrill will be watching students and, he hopes, local children use the rink and the new gym – a soaring space on the second floor, that will have fold-up bleachers for 1,000 fans and a floor purchased from the Final Four round of this year's U.S. college basketball championships.
Mr. Levy's contract as Ryerson's president ends in two years, he said, noting it will be hard to top a project like the Gardens.
Asked what he will do as an encore he hesitated, then remembered he has another landmark site waiting to be developed – the Sam the Record Man lot on Yonge Street that will be the new home of Ryerson's Learning Centre. "I just want to see the Sam's site coming out of the ground," he said.