By Mike Zeisberger – NHL.com
With steady sleet coming down Monday afternoon, two poodles were slogging along a slush-covered path at Arena Gardens park, trying to pull their master in opposite directions. Just across the road, construction workers were trudging in ankle-deep muck, carrying materials being used to build yet another Toronto high-rise.
Believe it or not, this is the backdrop to where one of hockey’s most historic buildings once stood.
Here at 78 Mutual Street in Toronto’s Garden District, a plaque signifies that this patch of snow-covered grass, a playground for the puppies, was the onetime location of the rink known as Arena Gardens.
Built in 1912, Arena Gardens became the home five years later for the Arenas, the Toronto entry in the fledgling NHL. Only the third Canadian rink with artificial ice at the time, it would house the League’s Toronto team from 1917-18, the NHL’s first season, to 1931, when Maple Leaf Gardens was built.
On Tuesday, 1.3 miles from Arena Gardens park, the Toronto Maple Leafs will celebrate 100 years of NHL hockey in the city by wearing stylized Arenas uniforms in an afternoon game against the Carolina Hurricanes at Air Canada Centre (2 p.m. ET; SNO, FS-CR, NHL.TV).
On Dec. 19, 1917, the Arenas lost 10-9 to the Montreal Wanderers in the first game in NHL history (it started earlier than the Ottawa Senators-Montreal Canadiens game in Ottawa).
Exactly a century later, the Toronto franchise will open a new chapter in its illustrious history with a contest against the Hurricanes that is being billed as the Next Century Game. Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan said the wearing of the Arenas jersey will be a one-time occurrence in honor of the occasion.
The game is part of a celebration of NHL hockey in the city. To that end, Mayor John Tory has declared Tuesday to be Toronto Maple Leafs Day.
“The Maple Leafs are part of the heart and soul of our city, and this 100th birthday event is the perfect moment to come together to celebrate what they mean to us,” Tory said. “Generations of fans, young and old, are all excited for what the future holds for our Leafs and Dec. 19 will be a moment that the team and fans alike are sure to remember for years to come.”
— Toronto Maple Leafs (@MapleLeafs) December 18, 2017
The roots of Toronto’s NHL franchise run deep.
After that loss to the Wanderers at Montreal’s Westmount Arena on the League’s opening night, the Arenas won their home opener at Arena Gardens three days later, 11-4 against the Ottawa Senators.
The Arenas went on to win the Stanley Cup that season, defeating the Vancouver Millionaires in five games. It was the first of 13 Cup championships won by the franchise: one by the Arenas, one by the Toronto St. Patricks and 11 by the Maple Leafs.
The team was called the Arenas until 1919, when the name was switched to the St. Patricks. In 1927, Conn Smythe purchased the team and renamed it the Maple Leafs.
The Maple Leafs have not won the Cup since 1967, an open wound for their long-suffering fans for a half-century. But after qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring for the second time in 12 seasons, Toronto is off to a strong start (20-13-1, 41 points) that has supporters believing it is heading in the right direction.
For Mike Babcock, the 31 months since he was hired as Maple Leafs coach in May 2015 have been an education in their history.
“I know a lot more now than I did then,” Babcock, who grew up a Boston Bruins fan in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, said Monday.
“Anytime you are involved with an Original Six franchise, there is tons of history and great players who have gone before you. And you want to represent them well.
“We want to get this franchise back to its rightful place. We want to get better each and every game. We understand it’s a process.
“I think we have a product right now our fans can be proud of, and we want to make it better.”
As Babcock spoke after practice on Monday, three Toronto-area natives on the Maple Leafs were shedding their equipment.
Forwards Connor Brown, Mitchell Marner and Zach Hyman, whose cubicles are located beside each other in the dressing room, said they don’t know much about the Arenas. At the same time, they’ve embraced playing for their hometown team and the history that comes along with it.
“I’m aware about how the team was called the Arenas and St. Pats but other than that not much about the specifics,” said Brown, a 23-year-old from the suburb of Etobicoke. “But being from Toronto, the team has such a rich heritage. That’s why it’s going to be so cool to wear that [Arenas] jersey.”
Marner, 20, was born in Markham, Ontario, and grew up in Thornhill, just outside of Toronto. He is a rabid Toronto sports fan and a big supporter of the Canadian Football League’s Argonauts, who won the Grey Cup three weeks ago.
“It’s cool to play for this franchise,” Marner said. “Growing up in this area, you kind of got the feeIing what it would be like to be a Maple Leaf. It’s pretty special.”
So, too, will be the atmosphere Tuesday at Air Canada Centre, where thousands of tickets have been allotted to kids, a new generation of Maple Leaf fans.
“All those youngsters in the arena, it’s going to be nice and loud,” Marner said. “It’s going to be really enjoyable.”
Hyman, born and bred in Toronto, has family roots in the local hockey scene. His dad, Stuart, once the head of dozens of minor hockey teams in the Toronto area, is chairman of the Markham Royals of the Ontario Junior Hockey League.
“I’d seen the Arenas jersey before so it will be an honor to celebrate 100 years like that,” said Hyman, 25. “It’s awesome. It shows what this franchise and the city means to hockey.
“I mean, how much more important can a team be than the one that played the first-ever game?”
Less than an hour after Maple Leafs practice had ended, Babcock was on an adjoining sheet of ice at the facility running drills for a bunch of wide-eyed 10-year-olds. These were the AA Atom Don Mills Mustangs, who won a contest allowing them to be coached by Babcock for one practice.
“They’ll never forget this,” one father told another as they watched their sons. “If they weren’t already they’ll be Leafs fans for life after this.”
As Toronto’s NHL franchise enters its second century, this is the young fan base the Maple Leafs hope will prove to be its foundation in the future.
A franchise that first sprouted a century ago at 78 Mutual Street.