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Massive reno holding on to bits of Gardens' glory

Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When the puck drops at Maple Leaf Gardens' new centre ice, fans will find plenty to remind them of the rink's past glories, say the two men chosen to refurbish part of the landmark arena.

The huge lights that lit the Leafs' way to 11 Stanley Cups will be back in place, fitted with energy-saving technology. The rafters they hang from will be the same. Even the colours of the seats will likely hearken back to the time when they could fetch double their ticket-price from the scalpers who lingered at Yonge and Carleton streets on Saturday nights.

"There will be lots of subtle hints," says Chris O'Reilly, a partner at Toronto-based BBB Architects, the firm chosen by Ryerson University to design its new $60-million athletic centre and rink that will fit into the upper levels of the famous building.

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The firm's selection will be announced by the university today and follows a space-sharing deal reached in December between Ryerson and Loblaw Co. Ltd., owner of the property. The reconfigured Gardens will include underground parking, a 70,000-square-foot supermarket at street level and a Joe Fresh clothing store, as well as gym facilities for Ryerson students. The unique deal will give the landlocked downtown campus badly needed new facilities and provides Loblaw with a partner for the massive redevelopment of the site that has sat mostly unused since it was bought in 2004.

Mr. O'Reilly and partner Greg Alexander will be responsible for designing Ryerson's space in the upper floors of the building and the main entrance off Carleton Street. They will work with Stadium Consultants International, a subsidiary of their firm, and bring to the job a long list of sports projects. This is the same team behind the current redesign of another iconic arena, New York's Madison Square Garden. In Toronto, the firm designed the Air Canada Centre, Ricoh Coliseum and BMO Field at Exhibition Place. They also worked on Calgary's Pengrowth Saddledome, Edmonton's Rexall Place and today will unveil plans for a new stadium in Regina.

In the case of the Gardens, the seating at the new rink will be much smaller than the original, although the exact numbers have yet to be decided. Both men say their aim is to preserve elements of the old rink, and they are even considering working into their designs the viewing area known as the "Ballard Bunker," where former Leafs owner Harold Ballard watched the games. Ryerson's colours - blue and gold - conveniently are the same as two of the Gardens' seat sections and Mr. O'Reilly said he hopes to make use of that.

"We want to celebrate the history of Maple Leaf Gardens without replicating it," said Mr. Alexander, who grew up in Montreal following the Habs. When he moved to Toronto, he says he discovered the Gardens was a welcoming place for all hockey fans.

Mr. O'Reilly, who will take the lead on the Gardens project, said the firm also is looking at how to use the arena's old scoreboard, perhaps incorporating new technology developed by Ryerson students and graduates.

He also stressed that the centre - paid for with a new student levy, federal funding and private donations - will be accessible to everyone through tours and public skating.

Ryerson president Sheldon Levy said his hope is that the athletic centre also can become a showcase for the work of Ryerson students. To help spark that collaboration, he recently took the two architects on a tour of the school's Digital Media Zone, a fledging project designed to give students support to develop new tech products and collaborate with businesses on ideas.

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"Every time you think of employing technology, think here," he told the two architects during the visit. "I want this place humming in the summer with students doing creative work and getting well-paid jobs."

The $20-million grant from the federal government, part of Ottawa's economic stimulus package, means the construction work on the new rink and athletic centre must be completed by next spring.

For that reason, the project is well into the design phase, the partners say. They expect to unveil the first drawings for the site in the next few months.

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