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Outside the ACC: A new tradition for Leaf fans?

In Canada on October 11, 2010 at 09:39
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Outside the ACC: A new tradition for Leaf fans?

October 10, 2010

Dan Robson

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Hockey fans gather around the mammoth screen in Maple Leaf Square to watch the Leafs and the Habs go at it in the first game of the season Thursday. The screen also attracted large crowds for Saturday’s Leafs game.

DAVID COOPER/TORONTO STAR

Jaachak Gill sat lazily in his father’s arms, gazing at a glowing white sheet of stars.

The 3-year-old’s dad, Steve Gill, held him close as they watched a 15-metre screen in Maple Leaf Square, showing the Leafs’ 5-1 win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night.

Gill, from Mississauga, brought his sons to experience the atmosphere outside the Leafs’ first Saturday night game of the season. His other son, 6-year-old Sangat, is “used to a strict bedtime” and was passed-out in a chair next to him.

“I think it’s great,” Gill said of the massive screen outside the Air Canada Centre, which hundreds had gathered around — some packing into bleachers, others in lawnchairs, as some just sat in the street.

“I know I’ll be here again,” he said.

The family was one of many who had come to take part in what MLSE hopes will become a Toronto tradition.

Tom Anselmi, executive vice-president of MLSE, says Maple Leaf Square was created to be “a gathering place for fans, and for the city — not unlike Dundas Square.”

It’s also the beginning of what Anselmi calls a new “sports and entertainment district” in Toronto — stretching from the Air Canada Centre down to the Roger’s Centre.

The area that was once just a wasteland of railway tracks next to the Gardiner, blocking the city from its waterfront, is now dense with residential and commercial buildings.

It’s a vision Anselmi has been talking about since the SkyDome was built in the late 1980s.

“Now it’s come to fruition,” he said. “It’s a new gathering place. It’s a whole new attraction for the city.”

The new, pristinely clear screen in Maple Leaf Square will show each of the Leafs and Raptors games going on inside the ACC.

“It’s a fully Canadianized public gathering place,” said Anselmi, meaning there is nothing to heat loyal fans in winter months, besides resilient northern will.

Frozen fingers aside, Anselmi said one of the great things about hockey in Canada is the spirit outside the arena.

“You can go back to Maple Leaf Gardens,” he said, recalling an atmosphere many nostalgic fans remember. “The environment around the building (was) something special.”

But Maple Leaf Gardens — with its cramped gates and wooden seats — found its charm in something the Air Canada Centre desperately lacks. The feeling that moments, historic and unforgettable, had happened there. And that possibly — maybe, one day — they could happen again.

The Air Canada Centre can make no such claims. For more than a decade now, it has been an expensive symbol of sports futility.

So a gargantuan sports bar was added this year, with 1,300 hundred seats, 200 televisions, and a mammoth 12-metre screen. A gourmet restaurant and hotel will open later this month. Down the street, stretching to the Rogers Centre, more condos and restaurants will continue to pop up.

The city’s new “sports and entertainment district,” MLSE hopes, will continue to attract fans who come for the experience, even if they can’t get inside to watch the game.

Daniel Byrnes, 16, leaned on his bike, as he and a handful of friends watched the final minutes of the Leafs’ second victory of the season Saturday night.

“Every month. Every game,” he said. “I’m going to be here.”

A lifelong fan, Byrnes said he’ll come for the atmosphere and “because it’s free and there’s a Longo’s.”

A final countdown rose from the bleachers beside the group of friends — five … four … three … They cheered wildly. As though something unforgettable — maybe, one day — could happen here, too.

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