Maple Leaf Gardens comes to life: Players’ Championship of curling stirs Glenn Howard’s memories

Walking into the former Maple Leaf Gardens (now the Mattamy Athletic Centre) for the first time in more than 15 years, I didn't get a real sense of the ghosts of glories past right away.

Traipsing through the renovated lobby and up the escalators, past the gym and fitness centre, I could have been anywhere. It was once I arrived on the fourth floor and passed through the doors to the arena that I was really taken back in time.

There, above, was that great vaulted ceiling. That cathedral-like loft. A little brighter than it once was, a little whiter. But, still, there was no mistaking all that wonderful metalwork, all girders and rivets and trusses.

Tuesday night, at the opening of The Players' Championship, time and again my gaze left the shotmaking exploits of the world's best players below, to again drink in the memories that came back each and every time I spied that wonderful old ceiling.

The Sistine Chapel it ain't, but for anyone growing up in Ontario, that roof can conjure the ghosts of glories past, even if the Stanley Cup hadn't been stamped on it since 1967.

"I got goosebumps," replied Glenn Howard when asked about the moment he stepped out to throw his first practice stone this week. "I came down to many a hockey game with my father. And I’m a Leaf fan. Still am a Leaf fan."

Growing up in Midland, Ontario, Howard knows well the lore of the Gardens. He'd never curled here before, never even touched the ice surface. Although the pebble he's sliding on this week is not the ground level pad that used to host his boyhood idol, Dave Keon, it's still special and partly because of that grand old ceiling.

"The fact that they’ve left the ceiling virtually the same as I remember it is really cool," said Howard, as we leaned on the boards just after he'd dispatched Brad Gushue in an extra end. "Foster Hewitt was, I think, over here," he continued, pointing to the upper reach across the way. "Cool. Unreal."

"I remember as a kid sitting up in the greys one time, watching these guys walk up there like little beetles," he continued, marveling at the memory of the spectacle.

With the present day ice surface up around where the greys (the cheap seats) used to reside, the rafters are now much closer, as you can see in the video below, "The Icemen Cometh," produced by Gerry Geurts and The Curling Zone along with the World Curling Tour:

Pressed for more answers on memories and emotions of the old barn, Howard looks a little incredulous and replies: "It’s Maple Leaf Gardens, man," as though no further explanation is warranted.

"Now to be able to play curling - my favourite sport - in this historic building, it’s surreal and exciting. I’m giddy," he adds.

So many years, so many arenas and clubs, so many championships. Now, though, Howard is shooting under the roof of his sporting shrine. Does it rank at the top?

"Top two or three," he says, noting how much he has enjoyed playing at Calgary's Saddledome, Edmonton's Rexall Place and Winnipeg's MTS Centre. Those experiences were as much about the people in the stands as the roof they were all under, however.

Down the list a bit, this one feels different, but in a good way, with the possibility that if Toronto curling fans fill the seats, a new ranking may be in order for Howard.

"If we could get a whole whack of fans here over the weekend, rockin' and rolling, this might be number one for me.

And if he wins the whole thing, you might have to peel him off the ceiling.