Maple Leaf Sports Commits to Helping Build 20000-Seat Soccer Specific Stadium in Toronto

By Peter Mallett (Globe and Mail) - The owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors confirmed mounting speculation yesterday that they will become involved in the construction of a soccer-specific stadium at Exhibition Place.

"We'd be willing to put in money to make this thing happen Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. (MLSE) president Richard Peddie said. "We had been sitting on the fence for some time about a stadium and it was time to get off the fence."

Yesterday's announcement came after officials from the Canadian Soccer Association MLSE and the city met behind closed doors to discuss building a 20000-seat $62-million facility in time for the 2007 FIFA World Youth Championship.

The stadium would also be the home of a Major League Soccer expansion franchise. MLSE is negotiating with the league to launch a team for the 2007 season.

A copy of a confidential internal memo authored by CSA chief operating officer Kevan Pipe indicated MLSE "was prepared to commit total funds well in excess of $10-million" to the stadium project. Peddie cautioned that an exact dollar figure can't be confirmed until the MLSE board approves the proposal.

The memo also stated MLSE was "prepared to financially backstop the operation of the stadium with a multimillion-dollar commitment against potential operating losses."

The CSA memo came as a response to owners of United Soccer League franchises in Canada -- The Toronto Lynx Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps -- and their concerns about competing with a rival league and possible future expansion to their cities.

"We are very close to finalizing a deal with Major League Soccer and it is really contingent on a soccer stadium being built. The league is not interested in awarding a franchise without that stadium in place Peddie said.

"There is a window of exclusivity involved here but I don't see it like that. [MLS commissioner] Don Garber wants to make sure the league expands to Toronto -- let alone the rest of Canada."

Lynx owner Bruno Hartrell estimates he and his wife Nicole Hartrell have lost more than $5-million since they took over complete operation of the club in 2000 from business partners who terminated their relationship with pro soccer in Toronto.

While the team will enter into its 10th year of operation next season it plays home games virtually unnoticed in front of small crowds at tiny 3000-seat Centennial Stadium in Toronto's west-end Etobicoke area. Its former home Varsity Stadium fell to the wrecking ball in 2002 .

Hartrell said he expects approval from the CSA and MLSE for the Lynx to also play their home games at the new stadium expanding the number of professional soccer dates at the facility to 28 from 14.

"We've survived now for 10 years with 2000 fans per game Hartrell said. "We expect to do much better in this new facility and I'm sure the Maple Leafs [MLSE] have done their research and they obviously expect to do well in the game of professional soccer."

The choice of Exhibition Place as the stadium site is the latest of several options that soccer's governing body has planned for Toronto.

The original plan in 2003 was to build at Exhibition Place. But after coaxing from the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League the proposed stadium site shifted to University of Toronto later that year and then York University late in 2004 before the Argonauts backed out as a stadium partner in May 2005.

On Sept. 8 Pipe indicated the CSA would build the stadium on federal lands at Downsview Park in Toronto's north end before another switch -- this time back to where it started at Exhibition Place with the latest Sept. 27 announcement.