PACKED HOUSE: Scotiabank Arena is pictured during a full house for a Raptors game. The venue, home to the NHL Toronto Maple Leafs as well as the NBA’s Raptors, is undergoing extensive renovations with the next phase taking place this offseason. (Nur Photo via Getty Images )

It was a sad day in Toronto history when the iconic Maple Leaf Gardens closed in 1999 — the cathedral of hockey where the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup 11 times and concerts by artists including The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Bob Marley and Nirvana, as well as The Who’s “farewell,” took place within its hallowed walls. Replacing the building, a little farther downtown, was the new Air Canada Centre, which has since been rebranded to Scotiabank Arena, one of the busiest buildings in the big leagues.

Constructed for $212.6 million on the site of a building used by Canada Post and the Department of National Defence during WWII — attached to the city’s main transportation hub, Union station, and underground walkway, the Path — the 665,000 square foot facility debuted on a high note.

It opened Feb. 20, 1999, with a Leafs win against the Montreal Canadiens, the Raptors beating the Vancouver Grizzlies the following night, then back-to-back sold-out concerts by Canadian rock royalty The Tragically Hip. Win-win-win-win.

Today, 25 years later, the 19,800-capacity Scotiabank Arena has welcomed over 80 million fans to over 5,000 events — sports, concerts, comedy, worship, WWE, all-star games, figure skating, and more — according to figures from owner Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Partnership, led by Cynthia Devine, president and chief executive officer.

The arena recently celebrated the anniversary of the official opening day with a community event that gave people the opportunity to skate on the Leafs’ ice and shoot hoops on the Raptors’ practice court, for a nominal
$5 donation to the MLSE Foundation, with the bonus of mingling with Leafs and Raptors alumni.

“We will be celebrating digitally through our social channels throughout the year,” says Adam Armit, senior manager for marketing, venues, live and food and beverage. He also reveals a concert book in collaboration with the Flyer Vault, a group documenting Toronto concert history, highlighting shows from the last 25 years.

WELCOME: Scotiabank Arena’s $258 million renovation includes a refresh of the main entrance.

With the main birthday out of the way, the full-steam-ahead concentration is on the $257.7 million upgrade announced in October, known as the Scotiabank Arena Venue Reimagination project.

The first phase of renovations was completed last summer. It included technology upgrades to concession stands in the concourses; and the remodeling of the 200-level Mastercard executive suites, along with a gallery-quality art-walk along the corridors accessible only to members and suite holders.

Phase two begins this summer with a makeover to the 100-level concourse, including the main entrance, and an additional Real Sports Apparel store. In addition, the Hot Stove Club, named for the Maple Leaf Gardens’ famed Hot Stove Lounge, will be renovated.

Closer to the action, steps from the locker room, will be the new Tunnel Club replacing 16 “bunker” suites on the event level, situated under the 100-level seats, with each membership of the club tied to a premium seat in the lower bowl. All told, when the multi-phase renovations are complete, almost every area of the venue will be updated.

Behind the undertaking are PCL Construction and Brisbin, Brook, Beynon Architects, the same companies which designed and built the arena. In 2008, the arena expanded with extensions made to the western elevation of the building and public improvements made to Bremner Blvd. and road improvements outside the building.

Other upgrades tied to Scotiabank’s 20-year naming rights deal in 2018 were completed in premium spaces, including the Scotia Club, a restaurant open to the seating bowl. This costly “reimagination” was the first truly significant upgrade to the 25-year-old building to get it up to par with new builds in other cities in North America.

Nick Eaves, MLSE’s chief venues & operations officer, says there has been a few adjustments to the design and programming since the October announcement of the renovation.

“The combination of the Amazon Just Walk Out technology and the more traditional cashless was on our radar, but we’re now doing more than we first thought,” he said, pointing to the Intuit Dome in Inglewood, Calif., which he recently visited and gained inspiration.

Phase one of the reno did include the frictionless experience, an AWS product called Grab And Go, where guests tap their credit card to enter, cameras track what you are picking up, and then the credit card is charged if guests leave the space with the item.

Most of the upgrades, however, were to the membership and corporate suite areas.

“That’s why we’re really excited about phase two, which is the renovation of the entire 100-level concourse because that’s going to provide some amazing stuff for 90% of our fans,” says Eaves, before going back to the member enhancements — or “products,” as he calls them.

“Phase one being the 200 level, suite holders are thrilled with their new suite product,” he said, pointing to regular guest surveys. “They’re strong across the building, but on the 200 level we’re seeing really positive fan satisfaction scores in terms of the experience that they’re enjoying in their suite. Our membership team talks to our suite holders regularly.”

Mastercard Lounge, a new members-only high-end offering with 206 seats, is sold out.

“The members are thrilled with their new product. They love the location. They love the food,” Eaves said.

And they love the seats, which MLSE also put into the in-bowl suites.

“They’re called DreamSeat. They are the next level of arena seating. They’re bigger; they’re more comfortable; it’s like sitting in business class versus economy, which is why Steve Ballmer is putting 20,000 of them into Intuit Dome,” he said.

There are also three party suites available for individual games, which can vary in configuration based on specific needs.

“That product is sold out every Leafs and Raptors night to somebody different, for the most part,” Eaves said. “It’s a new corporate partner; it’s an individual who’s hosting or celebrating something. Feedback from that group of non-members has been fantastic, as well. We’re going to continue it in the rest of the arena as we continue to renovate.”

MASTERCARD LOUNGE: The first phase of renovations at the arena completed in the summer, including the 200 level Mastercard Lounge. (Karen Bliss / Staff)

The next phase starts this summer during the NBA and NHL off season. Work will take place between concerts and other events in Scotiabank Arena, with renovations spilling into next regular season.
Eaves joined MLSE eight years ago, just in time to see one of The Tragically Hip’s final three concerts at the venue, but has been seeing shows at the venue since he took his son to his first-ever concert there, the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2006. He says even the finishes will be elevated.

“If we were walking the 100-level concourse today with no fans, we’d see 25 years of wear and tear. We’d see cracked floor tiles, exposed ceiling and cracking walls. We’d see a 1999 presentation.”
The plan is to renovate the entire 70,000-square-foot main concourse.

Among the changes will be the revamp of the existing team store and a second added on the other side of Gate 1 “because our merchandise footprint is the smallest of any arena in the NBA or NHL,” Eaves said.

Both those stores, and the kiosks around the concourse, will have radio frequency identification technology, a frictionless wireless, tap-and-go technology they have been piloting as part of phase one. There are some reverse ATMs in the building for those who do not have a credit card but Eaves says they are “very lightly used,” a trend across the big leagues.

In addition to the retail and concession stand technology, Scotiabank Arena will have more LED features, particularly at the main entrances (Gate 1 and 6). “You will discover a kind of immersive experience of LED around you. And, as you might imagine on a Leafs night, it’s going to be all about Leafs players and the content will be Leafs-focused.” An RFP is out for LED company bids.

Besides those cosmetics, anyone who has attended Scotiabank Arena over this quarter of a century, no matter if you arrive by foot, public transit or car, knows what a pain it is to get in the actual venue.

The area most in need of a makeover is the main entrance, Gate 1. It has not been touched since 1999, and is often the scene of eager attendees crammed into a tight space, although they are helped through the bottleneck by a super-friendly, high-energy people director armed with a megaphone named Angus Collis. “We’re trying to clone him,” jokes Eaves.

Potentially helping alleviate some of that congestion, MLSE introduced CEIA Security metal detectors, a new frictionless technology, at all gates.

“You don’t have to take anything out of your pocket because it does a better job of sensing what you’ve got,” Eaves said. “If you’ve got a phone in your pocket, it doesn’t care. If you’ve got keys in your pocket, it doesn’t care. If you’ve got a knife in your pocket, it’s going to know that and it is going to care.

“The point is 90% of people are now going through much more quickly,” he said. “So that is already helping with congestion.”

What makes the renovations particularly challenging is a full show calendar from June through September, including Peso Pluma, Niall Horan, Janet Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, Avril Lavigne, Cigarettes After Sex and Usher.
“For Leafs opening day, the north half of the 100 level concourse will be complete, and then, through the course of the regular NHL and NBA seasons, the rest of the 100 level concourse will be renovated in three different sections. So it will be a bit disruptive,” Eaves said.

“That work will be complete by the end of the regular season. So that when we go into playoffs in 2025, the entirety of the project will be complete.”