Checking out: Maple Leaf Gardens

It took four years, but they finally figured out how to keep the ice in old Maple Leaf Gardens.

Updated: October 24, 2003, 10:41 AM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

They gutted history
And put in a grocery store
-- Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell

Okay, so maybe that wasn't exactly what Mitchell sang, because the song was "Big Yellow Taxi" and not "Big Yellow Arena."

But if the one-time Toronto resident was moved to rewrite the words in reaction to the news that Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto will become a Loblaws grocery store and shopping complex, maybe that's the way she would phrase it.

Maple Leaf Gardens
The Maple Leafs opened the Gardens with a 2-1 loss to the Black Hawks on Nov. 12, 1931 ...
Or maybe not.

What's the point of preserving history if the preservation project ultimately mocks it?

In Boston, they didn't preserve the facade of the Garden, spend the roughly three years and $21 million it would have taken to kill all the rats, then allow developers to built several levels of loft apartments, prized because of their location adjacent to North Station.

They demolished the place in 1997.

In Chicago, they didn't preserve the facade of the Stadium, convert all the seats into pews, keep the organ, and sell the building to the Catholic Church's Dominican order to use as a church.

They razed it in 1995.

In Detroit, they didn't retain the shell of the Olympia and, once Las Vegas-style wagering was legalized in the city a few years ago, put in a casino where fans get 3-for-2 odds on Gordie Howe's number coming up on the crap table.

They tore it down in 1986.

In New York, they didn't insist on retaining the previous incarnations of Madison Square Garden because of the smoky memories of horse shows and Gillette Blue Blade fights.

They razed those buildings, too, as they should have.

At least the gutted Montreal Forum is a multiplex movie theater complex, upholding the tradition of overpriced concessions. (And does a recorded version of Roger Doucette singing "O Canada'' following the 27 previews, now known as the "warmup,'' that precede every featured attraction?)

In Toronto, they'll go from, "Maple Leafs goal by number 27, Darryl Sittler," to, "Price check on register 27!"

They'll go from, "Hey, buddy, need tickets? I've got two golds. Seventy-five apiece" to "Would you like a sample of pressed turkey? It's free!''

They'll go from trying to keep the writers away from the team mogul at cocktail hour, which was around the clock, to selling cocktail glasses.

This is sacrilege, but not because it dishonors a wonderful shrine. As the home of the Maple Leafs, the Gardens was more about the echoes of memories and even the theater of the mind created for those raised on "Hockey Night in Canada,'' than it was about the attraction of the building itself.

It never was the dump the Boston Garden became, an archaic embarrassment even in the days when the dynastic Celtics were playing in front of thousands of empty seats while the Bruins sold out. The dead spots in the parquet floor were symbolic of an entire building's decay.

In this case, history would have been best honored by letting it be razed and allowing Canadians -- and those of us who visited the Gardens over the years -- to remember it as we want to remember it.

Climbing out of the subway and walking past the scalpers.

The walks through the crowded halls before the game to gaze at the old pictures.

Maple Leaf Gardens
... and closed it with a 6-2 loss to the Blackhawks on Feb. 13, 1999.
The games themselves.

The smell of popcorn and history.

The Beatles singing "Love Me Do" and Elvis singing "Love Me Tender."

Canadian George Chuvalo losing to Muhammad Ali.

Tim Horton skating before he sold donuts.

Johnny Bower taking another shot to the face and needing more stitches.

Lanny McDonald's moustache, before there was any gray.

Foster Hewitt, Danny Gallivan and Dick Irvin letting you in on what was going on.

Borje Salming blazing a trail.

The first All-Star game, with Eddie Shore shaking hands with the man whose career he ended with the hit in Boston -- Ace Bailey, for whom the event was a fundraiser.

The cringing when the Leafs gave in to the modern-era marketing geeks and let a screaming disc jockey have access to the public-address system.

And if the place were simply torn down, it would be a lot easier to forget the shock of finding out that some of the arena workers weren't good old boys, but disgusting sexual predators.

Over the years, as the neighborhood around the yellow brick building changed, and buildings went up on parking lots, and the arena was transformed into a Yellow Elephant, the rationale for preserving it as a historical landmark diminished.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment -- which in and of itself shows how much the world has changed from the days when ownership's name was Harold -- failed in its at least publicly cited goal to preserve some sort of on-ice connection inside the facade. There won't be a small arena or practice rink.

The ice will be in the freezer next to the checkout stands.

You can't tear down memories.

Sometimes, you're better off tearing down buildings.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."