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The last time the Leafs played Maple Leaf Gardens

It was truly the end of an era 20 years ago when the Toronto Maple Leafs left the arena that bore their name.

Fans started gathering hours ahead to pay homage or find a ticket

Hours before game time, faithful followers of the Toronto Maple Leafs pay homage to the historic hockey shrine. 1:39

It was truly the end of an era 20 years ago when the Toronto Maple Leafs left the arena that bore their name.  

On Feb. 13, 1999, the NHL hockey team took on the Chicago Blackhawks in the building that had been their home since 1931.

"I told him we're going skiing, to Jasper," said a woman from Edmonton who had surprised her husband with tickets to the last Leafs game at the Gardens. (CBC Archives)

And the team faithful weren't letting the event pass without a grand sendoff.

"This is a gift from heaven, to be able to come here today," said a fan who had travelled to Toronto from, in the words of reporter Norman Hermant, "the east." 

Others came in from Vancouver, Chicago and Edmonton.

Despite being told there were no tickets available for the game, throngs of people waited outside the building hoping for a miracle.

Fans inside and outside the arena celebrate and mourn the end of an era in 1999. 1:25

'Need one. Help me out'

Some fans were still holding out hope at game time, but even the worst seats inside the Gardens had gone for $600 ($850 in 2018 dollars).

After the game, the crowd outside the Gardens grew rowdy and police on horseback were called to keep things under control. (CBC Archives)

"The game is almost a sideline tonight, because of course it's a celebration of the Garden as much as a celebration of the game," said a spectator.

Good thing, too, because the Leafs lost that night by a score of 6-2.

After the game, thousands of people congregated on the street outside the arena and riot police turned out to push them away from the building.

"Go Leafs go!" chanted the crowd, which, Hermant said, was "reluctant to go home on the last night of the Leafs at Maple Leaf Gardens."

Hockey is still played in the building today in an athletic centre owned and operated by Ryerson University. The lower part of the building is also a Loblaws store.  

The Toronto Maple Leafs move to a bigger, better arena in 1999. 1:01

Bigger and better

The next day, Hermant visited the new home of the Leafs, which was also home to the Toronto Raptors basketball team.

Three Maple Leaf Gardens ushers watch as the players line up for the playing of the national anthems prior to the start of the Toronto Maple Leafs final game in the Gardens. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

"The Air Canada Centre is trying to replace a national institution," said Hermant. "It has more seats, more concessions, more corporate boxes than Maple Leaf Gardens."

Even so, one young visitor wasn't impressed.

"It's bigger, but I like the Gardens better," said a boy in a Leafs jersey.

Nostalgia wasn't enough to maintain a modern NHL franchise, and that was why the Leafs moved to a modern building. They were the last in the league to do so, according to Hermant.

"You have to move on," said another fan. "Every team does it."

"In today's game plan, bigger arenas mean bigger profits," summed up Hermant.  

In 2018, the arena where the Leafs play was renamed the Scotiabank Arena. The bank bought the naming rights in a deal that will last 20 years and cost $800 million.