Ryerson captain Andrew Buck stares up at the roof of what was once Maple Leaf Gardens prior to an exhibition game at the Mattamy Athletic Centre.

A new era for Ryerson hockey, Maple Leaf Gardens

Ryerson University’s Mattamy Athletic Centre is a new building with an old soul.

And though the place once called Maple Leaf Gardens has been transformed from its iconic hockey roots to a grocery store, and now a multi-purpose athletic facility, history remains embedded within the walls that once paid witness to 11 of Toronto’s 13 Stanley Cup championships.

After 13 years, hockey is back at the old Gardens in an NHL-sized rink on the third level of the building that can also seat nearly 3,000 fans for its new tenant, the OUA’s Ryerson Rams.

“It’s unbelievable,” said fifth-year hockey player Greg Payne. “Walking in [Saturday], it gave me chills. Paying our dues at a rink so far away and now that we can play in such a historic building is awesome.”

Prior to the completion of the new facility, the Rams had to make use of city rinks for their games and practices. Their last home since 2005, George Bell Arena, was located near the corner of St. Clair West and Cobalt Avenue. That often meant players had to make a 40 to 45-minute commute on subways and buses each way for practices.

Their new home is now only minutes away from the main campus, something that men’s hockey head coach Graham Wise sees as an advantage for his players.

“It cuts down significantly on their commuting to get to class and practice,” said Wise from his office at the new facility. “So now that it’s so close to campus, they can go to school, walk up, practise and then go home. So we expect their grades to go up because of that.”

The convenience is not lost on Ryerson captain Andrew Buck.

“I live in the area, so to be able to walk 10 minutes to the rink is an amazing feeling,” said a giddy Buck before the first exhibition game on Saturday at Mattamy Athletic Centre. “I had a big smile on my face the whole time.”

But it’s more than simply the convenience of a brand new facility to call home. Though it is not the same surface that greats such as Gordie Howe and Johnny Bower once skated upon, it is under the same roof. One only has to look up from the rink to see it towering majestically above.

“You really have a different perspective when you look at it and then you go out and skate around on it,” said Wise. “They’ve done a fabulous job [building this facility]. It’s incredible.”

Fifth-year defenceman Michael Paolo struggled to explain his feelings playing in a place filled with some of the city’s greatest moments.

“A kid watching the Maple Leafs playing in Maple Leaf Gardens, now to actually be here,” said Paolo. “There are no words to describe it.”

The Rams played their first game this past Saturday in front of a crowd of dignitaries from various alumni, many of whom were responsible for making this facility a reality for the school and its athletes, to mark a new beginning for the university and a new era for the old Gardens.

“Some people were really thinking to transform old Maple Leaf Gardens into a facility for Ryerson University,” said Wise. “I think [Ryerson’s] president Sheldon Levy had a vision there and when you have a vision and you bring it to life, it’s a great accomplishment that he’s done.”

Payne could barely contain his appreciation.

“It means a lot,” said Payne. “You can’t say enough about what the school has done to make this happen.”