By RON FANFAIR
Ryerson University is set to reshape its athletic image and that of the school with the conversion of part of the historic Maple Leaf Gardens into a spanking new multi-functional athletic and recreation centre.
To be located on the upper floors of the Gardens covering almost 15,000 square feet, the new facility will include a National Hockey League (NHL)-sized skating rink, a four-lane, 200-metre running track, basketball and volleyball courts with telescoping bleachers of more that 1,200 seats, studios, a fitness centre and high performance gym, academic space, support facilities, food concessions and recreational spaces.
The project, to be completed by March 31, 2011, is expected to cost $60 million.
The university will provide $20 million from student fees and Ryerson and the supermarket chain, Loblaws, will raise a similar amount through a joint fundraising campaign that includes a $5 million contribution from Canada’s largest food distributor. The federal government will provide the rest of the funding.
Ryerson’s athletic director, Ivan Joseph, who was brought in last year to help drive athletic and recreational change at the university, said last week’s announcement was historic and significant.
“To align your university and athletic program with an iconic cultural building like Maple Leaf Gardens is huge,” said Joseph who led the Graceland University men’s soccer program for a decade before coming to Ryerson. “Finally, we will have our own hockey rink on campus, a gymnasium with full height and regulation and enough facilities to have our intra-mural students. We no longer have to turn away clubs.
“We can accept more community memberships and requests and we can service the needs of everybody. In order to build truly great athletic programs, you need leadership, athletes and facilities to train and compete. One of the reasons I came here was to build champions. The other was to contribute to the academic profile of the university. It goes without saying that I believe that champions come with hard work and excellence.”
Earlier this year, Ryerson students voted to build a state-of-the-art sports and recreation facility that would enable their sports teams to compete favourably with other universities in the country. A total of 4,754 students voted in the referendum with nearly 3,500 giving the university the green light to increase tuition fees by $126 to support the new facility. The increase will kick in when the new building is launched.
A similar referendum was turned down five years ago.
“The last referendum was the first step,” said Joseph, who joined the university in July 2008. “We burned a lot of midnight oil. A lot of good students were at the table. This was also my first project that I was leading as the new athletic director so I had a vested interest in ensuring that that reflected well on me and my leadership. The support was overwhelming in the referendum and that set the ball in motion.
“After the referendum, the next step was for us to start gathering information from the students. The programming that goes into the new building needs to be determined primarily by the students. So, in the past few months, I have been gathering information from them and trying to fill the high demand program needs that the university can afford. We are moving forward at a quick pace because there is no time to waste…I have been here just over 15 months and in that time we have changed two coaches (Dustin Reid for women’s volleyball and Roy Rana for men’s basketball), generated $20 million in a referendum and got one of the most recognizable sports facilities in Canada. I couldn’t think of a better place to be. I think I have been blessed with being in the right place at the right time under great university leadership.”
The outdated Ryerson Athletic Centre was built in 1985 when the university’s registration was nearly 8,500. The enrollment has almost tripled in the last 24 years.
“Everyone has worked together to make the redevelopment of the Gardens possible, beginning with the commitment of Ryerson’s wonderful students,” said the university’s president, Sheldon Levy. “This is a decisive moment in Ryerson’s history, a true ‘game-changer’ for our students and the return of Maple Leaf Gardens to Toronto.”
The polytechnic institute-turned-university has won just one Ontario University Athletic championship – men’s curling in 1959-1960 – in Ryerson’s 61-year history.
The redevelopment project also includes a 70,000 square foot Loblaws food store at street level with one level for underground parking to support the store, a stand-alone Joe Fresh Style studio store and other retail outlets.
Built at a cost of $1.5 million in 1931, Maple Leaf Gardens also hosted the first Basketball Association of America – now the National Basketball Association (NBA) – game in 1946, college basketball, track and field meets, boxing and wrestling championships and several high-profile concerts.
The arena has been idle since the Maple Leafs hockey team played its last game there in February 1999 before moving to the Air Canada Centre.