Air Canada Centre celebrates tenth birthday
When Toronto’s Air Canada Centre opened its doors to the public in February 1999, the building was christened with the moniker “New Memories, New Dreams”. A decade later, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs have been flooded with scores of memorable moments, while the dream of a Stanley Cup remains unfulfilled.
The arena opened its doors to NHL hockey on February 20 as the Leafs hosted their long-time rivals the Montreal Canadiens. Todd Warriner of Toronto scored the first goal in the Leafs’ new home while Steve Thomas capped off the housewarming party in style by netting the overtime winner, to the delight of 18,800 guests in attendance.
Joe Bowen, who has been the play-by-play voice of the Leafs for over a quarter-century, recalls the inaugural game with clarity, having taken an immediate liking to his new surroundings a decade ago. “The newness of building and the amenities that we had in the press box are what I remember most, “ said Bowen. “Maple Leaf Gardens was a great building to watch a hockey game in, but as far as the press box was concerned, it was pretty archaic. So it was really quite nice. The sight lines were excellent in comparison to some of the newer American rinks that had been built.
“The game was great, and the Leafs ended up winning it late. It was kind of nice after losing the last one at Maple Leaf Gardens (6-2 to Chicago).”
Toronto made a surprising run to the Eastern Conference Final that spring, on the strength of Pat Quinn’s coaching and Curtis Joseph’s goaltending, as both men wound up their first year of tenure with the Leafs.
It would be another three years before Toronto made an appearance into the NHL’s final four. The 2002 playoffs – undoubtedly the most exciting playoff run for the club in recent memory – featured some of the most heart-palpitating moments ever witnessed at the Leafs’ rink. A vicious seven-game series against the New York Islanders in the opening round, marred by a controversial hit by Darcy Tucker on Michael Peca, was sealed on home ice on the strength of a pair of goals by Alex Mogilny. Four days later the Leafs dueled their next opponents, the Ottawa Senators, in an epic battle in what many consider to be the greatest game ever played at 40 Bay Street. With Toronto trailing 1-0 in the series, the two Ontario rivals played to triple overtime; the game prolonged by the heroics of Joseph who stoned the Senators’ Marian Hossa on three separate breakaways. Gary Roberts ended the marathon with a booming shot past goalie Patrick Lalime, right after a clean faceoff win by Robert Reichel. The Leafs magical run was thwarted by the Carolina Hurricanes in the following series.
Since then, the Leafs have not won more than one playoff round in a given year, and the team is currently mired in their longest post-season drought in club history. Toronto has not hosted a playoff game since before the lockout, when Jeremy Roenick of the Flyers ended Toronto’s season by potting an overtime marker past Ed Belfour in 2004.
Nevertheless, fans passing through the turnstiles at Air Canada Centre have been treated to more than their fair share of spectacular highlights, which have included:
• Thomas converting a 2-on-1 pass from Sergei Berezin to end a nail-biting playoff overtime, Game #5 in 2000 vs. Ottawa.
• The 2000 NHL All-Star game, in which Pavel Bure scored a hat trick and took home MVP honours.
• Canada’s victory over Finland in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey championship game, with Shane Doan scoring the game-winner.
• Mats Sundin completing a hat trick by scoring his 500th career goal against the Calgary Flames in a 2006 overtime game.
While hockey is certainly the heartbeat of ACC, it certainly doesn’t hold a monopoly on the building’s activities. The venue is also home to the NBA’s Raptors (the original tenants, before being purchased by the Leafs’ parent company Maple Leaf Gardens Limited), and the Toronto Rock of the National Lacrosse League.
Entertainers of all genres, including Rush, Van Halen, the Spice Girls, Madonna, and The Tragically Hip (who played ACC’s first ever concert) have performed before sellout crowds, when the ice and hardcourt were not in use.
The scoreboard has been newly upgraded for high definition, with plans to expand the west side of the building to an area known as Maple Leaf Square, which will include luxury condominiums, hotels, and major retail outlets upon completion.
With the ACC booming into the next ten years and beyond, Bowen – while appreciative of the modern luxuries afforded by the arena – holds a soft spot for not only the old Maple Leaf Gardens, but also the old opposing rinks such as the Montreal Forum and Chicago Stadium. ”All those buildings had individual character. Now the ice surface is exactly the same everywhere. There’s no home ice advantage like the Aud or the Boston Garden had.
“ I think that’s probably what’s missing – some of the intimacy and the nostalgia of the old buildings.”
Of course, the conspicuous absence from the ACC that has yet to be brought over from their old home is a Stanley Cup banner.
For ten years, the Air Canada Centre has produced no shortage of new memories.
Leafs fans still await the realization of that Stanley Cup dream.
Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, a regular column at TMLfans.ca