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(Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail)
(Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail)

Ryerson, Loblaw in talks over Maple Leaf Gardens Add to ...

Hockey could be back at Maple Leaf Gardens after a decade-long intermission.

Ryerson University is eyeing the legendary rink as a possible home for its Rams hockey teams and is in talks with arena owner, Loblaw Co. Ltd., on a deal to share the prime downtown site.

The space-starved university, which has ambitious plans to expand its presence in the downtown core, is actively in the hunt for a location for a new athletic facility. Earlier this year, students backed a plan to pony up an extra $126 in annual athletic fees to help cover the cost of that project once the doors open.

"We are now actively engaged in searching for an appropriate site and are looking at a number of options, including discussions with Loblaw Companies Ltd. regarding Maple Leaf Gardens," the university confirmed Wednesday.

The grocery chain, which purchased the rink from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment in 2004, indicated Wednesday that talks involve a joint-use plan for the site.

"The discussions are still in progress and we do not have any information to share at this time. Updates regarding our discussions will be provided as appropriate," Inge van den Berg, senior vice-president, corporate affairs, said in an e-mail.

Tong Hahn, vice-president at real-estate broker CB Richard Ellis, which was involved in the sale of the building to Loblaw, said Ryerson had expressed interest in the site early on. He said Ryerson could use the main floor as an arena, leaving the second floor for Loblaw to run its supermarket and the basement for underground parking. "It wouldn't surprise me."

Indeed, news of the talks are the latest in a series of attempts by the downtown campus to get its hands on the landmark site. Ryerson president Sheldon Levy has frequently expressed his dream of incorporating the rink into campus as part of his efforts to raise the profile of the university. "I would have bought Maple Leaf Gardens given the chance, not only for Ryerson, but for the community, too," he told a meeting of the Canadian Club in 2006.

Earlier attempts by Ryerson to negotiate use of the rink were abandoned because of costs.

The storied hockey arena has been sitting virtually idle since July, 2004, when Loblaw picked it up for an estimated $13-million. It planned to convert it into a flagship supermarket, but has delayed doing so as it focused on more urgent operational troubles.

More than two years ago, it was about to begin a cleanup of the building, leading up to a 22-month construction of the store. Those plans were shelved, although the retailer said it still intended to build a grocery store on the site.

The possible partnership would allow Ryerson's men's hockey team to play just steps from the main campus. George Bell Arena in the Junction area of the West End is now their home ice.

The university also has poured resources into developing its women's squad, hiring Stephanie White, coach of Canada's under-18 women's team, as head coach.

Ryerson has inked several real-estate deals in recent years in its bid to find more space for its growing student population, including the high-profile purchase of the former Sam the Record Man Yonge Street site (and the Future Shop next door). That search for additional room has already resulted in some unique partnerships such as a space-sharing arrangement with a nearby movie theatre. The school's business building at Bay and Dundas streets was also a joint development, and houses a Canadian Tire and Best Buy on the main floor.

Several campuses across the country have received money for new construction and building renovations as part of government stimulus spending. No requests have been made to the province for funding of the athletic facility, a university spokeswoman said.

Maple Leaf Gardens hasn't been completely unused in the past five years. Loblaw held an annual meeting at the site more than two years ago; part of the movie Cinderella Man, about depression-era boxer James Braddock, was filmed there. Last September, actor Matt Damon hosted a charity concert at the arena in support of OneXOne during the Toronto International Film Festival. A few weeks later, part of the city's annual Nuit Blanche contemporary art celebration was held there.

Next month, the ice surface and some remaining stands will be back in use when the CBC begins broadcasting its new reality show, Battle of the Blades, from the arena.

The Gardens saw the Toronto Maple Leafs win Stanley Cups, Canada beat the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series, Muhammad Ali box, and Elvis Presley and the Beatles perform.

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