Remembering Church & Carlton The ‘house that Smythe built’, ‘ Carlton St Cashbox’, ‘ MLG’, call it what you will but there will never be another building quite like Maple Leaf Gardens.
I was only able to visit the old girl twice but she certainly left a lasting impression. I’ve been a Leaf fan for as long as I can remember. I guess it was the summer of 51 when I climbed on the bandwagon, that was the summer they were looking for #21 Bill Barilko who had scored the winning goal as the Leafs won the Stanley Cup that April. His plane went down on a fishing trip and wasn’t discovered for 11 years. My first trip to the Gardens came in 1956. Our grandfather took my brother and I to watch a double header on a Sunday afternoon. In those days Toronto was the hub of junior hockey. The Toronto Marlboros played in one game and Toronto St Michael's played in the other. We were wide eyed in awe.
Later that year (1956) the Gardens was the host of a huge Rock & Roll show featuring Bill Haley and his Comets, the next year the big attraction was Elvis Presley in his first show outside the U.S.A. In 1958 Conn Smythe brought in an Opus 558 Wurlitzer Organ from Shea’s Theatre which was being demolished. It was a fixture at the Gardens from 1958-1963. I was unable to get back to the gardens for a few years but did manage to see it in my minds’ eye listening to the games broadcast by Foster and Bill Hewitt I also was a fan of the wrestling shows put on by Frank Tunney featuring Whipper Billy Watson, Sweet Daddy Siki, Gene Kiniski, Little Beaver and "murder Incorporated" the dastardly Mills Brothers. The greatest hockey era at the gardens began with Punch Imlach in the 1959 season when the Leafs charged from behind to make the playoffs by winning their last five games.
A career minor leaguer brought in by Punch named Gerry Ehman was the catalyst. From that point on until the end of the six team era the Leafs and Punch were the toast of the hockey world. On May 2, 1967 The Leafs won their last Stanley Cup by beating the Habs 2-1. The end of an era. In 1966 Maple Leaf gardens saw George Chuvalo fight Muhammad Ali for the World Heavyweight title losing in fifteen rounds. Try as he could Ali couldn’t put Chuvalo away. In 1968 I finally got another chance to get to the gardens and to finally see the Leafs. I took a Greyhound down from Windsor and bought a ticket from a scalper. It was worth every penny and I soaked up the atmosphere.
In 1972, Maple Leaf Gardens hosted game 2 of the famous Summit Series between Team Canada and the USSR. Team Canada won the game 4–1. In 1976 the gardens hosted the first – ever Canada cup and Canada defeated Sweden. In August 1979, to make room for private boxes, Ballard had his staff tear down the 48-year-old gondola from which Foster Hewitt regularly broadcast games. You know Harold really deserved Yolanda.
On March 31, 1998 – Toronto Raptors played the Los Angeles Lakers in the first professional basketball game at Maple Leaf Gardens in nearly 50 years. On Feb. 9, 1999 the Raptors hosted the Milwaukee Bucks in the last NBA game to ever be played at MLG. The Toronto Maple Leafs final game at the Gardens was Feb. 13, 1999. The Leafs lost 6-2 to the Chicago Blackhawks. That didn’t matter, what mattered was the Gardens was done. It was one of a kind my friend, one of a kind.