Sunday, June 23, 2013

past pieces of toronto: the (mutual street) arena

From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on February 26, 2012, and has been modified to replace incorrect information. This article also formed the basis of a piece I wrote for Heritage Toronto in March 2013.

Arena Gardens interior, between 1940 and 1960. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 964.
How to eliminate competition: according to veteran Star sports columnist Jim Proudfoot, when Conn Smythe built Maple Leaf Gardens in 1931 he was determined that the Maple Leafs’ former home on Mutual Street would never host another professional hockey game. One morning, he sent a message to staff at the old venue offering all of them work at his new facility. The catch? The jobs were only available until Smythe left for lunch at 12:15 p.m. The staff raced up to the construction site on Carlton Street, leaving no one behind to watch the furnace that powered the building’s ice-making equipment. When the flames died out, the pipes burst and destroyed the ice plant.

If the tale is true, Smythe achieved his goal. Pro hockey was never again played at the Mutual Street site. But it wasn’t the end of a building that adopted many guises over a 77-year history. Whether the venue on the west side of Mutual Street between Shuter and Dundas was called the Arena, Arena Gardens, Mutual Street Arena or The Terrace, it provided entertainment for generations of Torontonians.

Opened on October 7, 1912, the Arena’s initial backers included Casa Loma lord Sir Henry Pellatt and entertainment impresario Lol Solman. The debut attraction was the week-long Toronto Musical Festival, which offered comedy, opera and orchestras. Though the venue won praise for its acoustics, it was soon known for amateur and professional hockey. It helped that the Arena was the largest indoor rink in Canada and only the third to use artificial ice. The first game involving a local pro team established Toronto’s eternal rivalry with the Montreal Canadiens; alas, the Blueshirts fell to the Habs 9-5 during their debut on Christmas Day 1912. Despite unsteady pro leagues and teams plagued by legal actions, four Stanley Cup winners called the Arena home.

Advertisement, the Globe, October 7, 1912.
Watching a hockey game wasn’t a comfortable experience at the Arena. Just ask Foster Hewitt, who broadcast his first match there in February 1923. His first booth was a four-foot-square glass box equipped with a stool and a telephone. According to Hewitt biographer Scott Young, the box was so cramped that “when he sat on the stool his knees seemed to be around his ears.” Designed to keep out the crowd noise, the glass fogged up, hindering Hewitt’s play-by-play. Fans weren’t as cramped as Hewitt, but they had to endure box seats that were little more than wooden benches.

By the time Conn Smythe bought into the struggling St. Pats hockey team and renamed them the Maple Leafs in 1927, the Arena was outdated. The building lacked heating, so its temperature depended on outside conditions. Players cursed whenever the rink was too cold, or when a heat wave made the ice slushy. Capacity was at least 10,000 seats below that of rinks recently built for the NHL’s new American franchises, such as Detroit’s Olympia and New York’s Madison Square Garden. Smythe was also irritated by contract conditions which severely limited the Leafs’ ice time and gate receipts. Leafs star Ace Bailey later noted that his favourite memory of the Arena was leaving it and winning the Stanley Cup during the team’s first season at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Other activities filled the void, such as basketball, bicycle races, mass meetings, tennis and wrestling. Bond defaults and unpaid taxes led to a takeover by the City of Toronto in the mid-1930s. In 1938 the venue, now known as the Mutual Street Arena, was leased to W.J. Dickson, who bought it outright in 1945 and whose family ran it for the rest of its existence. A roller skating rink that sparked many romantic relationships was installed, while big band performers like Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller filled the seats.

Advertisement, the Globe and Mail, September 18, 1962. Click on image for larger version.
Following $3-million renovations in 1962, the arena was divided into three storeys and renamed the Terrace. While roller skating remained, new additions included a parking lot and Canada’s second largest curling facility. Unlike other local venues, memberships weren’t required to curl—like a bowling alley, all sheets were available for league and recreational matches. Curling and skating remained draws until The Terrace closed in April 1989, after which the building was demolished to make way for condos and Cathedral Square Park.

The site’s history has not been forgotten. A historical plaque at 88 Mutual Street mentions several of the old venue’s notable events. Last year, Cathedral Square Park was renamed Arena Gardens. Unless the landscaping is buried, odds are good there won’t be any pro hockey games at the site in the near future.

Additional material from The Lives of Conn Smythe by Kelly McParland (Toronto: Fenn/McClelland and Stewart, 2011), Hello Canada! The Life and Times of Foster Hewitt by Scott Young (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985), the December 6, 1962 edition of the Globe and Mail, and the April 29, 1989 edition of the Toronto Star. Image: City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 964.

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