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Maple Leaf Gardens reopens to throngs of fans... of food, not sports

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TORONTO - Hundreds of fans lined up at Toronto's historic Maple Leaf Gardens Wednesday, but the legendary arena reopened as a destination for foodies, rather than sports junkies.

Shoppers waited for hours overnight to be among the first to shop at Loblaws' stylish food emporium, its new 85,000 square foot flagship location.

The location showcases culinary delights in gourmet food stations, from a patisserie to a specialty tea shop, but also pays homage to the building's storied past.

Will Patton of Toronto was first in line Wednesday morning. After waiting 12 sleepless hours — since shortly before 8 p.m. Tuesday night — he was rewarded with a $100 gift card and what he said was a once in a lifetime experience.

"I've never been first in line for something as big as this," he said.

"Loblaws has a brand new exciting store, it's in an exciting old building which is now lit up after 12 years absence."

The store was crammed with shoppers just after its 8 a.m. opening.

The Gardens will see hockey again in the spring — this time as the home of the Ryerson University Rams — for the first time since 1999, when the Maple Leafs moved to the Air Canada Centre after nearly seven decades at the old arena.

But Wednesday's opening, which impressed hockey hall of famer and former Maple Leaf Dick Duff, was all about the food.

"I think that the people seem to be satisfied that the memory of this place will be maintained and I think that's important,' Duff said.

Patton took a moment to marvel at the 3D blue maple leaf sculpture made from reclaimed stadium chairs in the entrance, then headed for the store's five-metre high wall of cheese.

"It's amazing," he said.

"Now that the paper's off the window ... I see a lot of people putting their face up to the glass now, and I hope they're having the same reaction I'm having."

Other historical aspects of the store include a subtle red circle on the floor to mark the former centre ice and exposed original concrete walls, along with tables adorned with some of the Garden's greatest moments.

But the sleek store — which Loblaws hopes will transform the urban grocery shopping experience — is mostly modern, with black tiled walls, stainless steel features and Loblaws orange and red walls and floors.

Grocery giant Loblaw Companies Ltd. (TSX:L) calls the complex its new "crown jewel" in the heart of downtown Toronto. The spot also houses a Joe Fresh outlet, an LCBO store and Ryerson University's new athletic centre.

Loblaw has been working to increase its appeal to higher-end urban shoppers in cities like Toronto as it targets their palettes, having recently launched its President's Choice black label collection of gourmet grocery items.

When Galen Weston Jr. took over as the company's leader in 2007, he announced his desire to create the world's greatest grocery store, but Loblaw struggled for years with executing the plan, before finding Ryerson as a partner.

"We never imagined that the store would anchor a historical restoration initiative that would bring ice back to Maple Leaf Gardens and welcome the community back through these doors in such a fitting way," he said at Wednesday's grand opening.

Galen perused the store, mingling with customers, posing for photos and signing autographs, but declined to speak with media.

At one point, he paused the photo ops to shout out to one customer. "Gino" he yelled, before handing the man a President's Choice reuseable bag.

Gino Spatafora explained that Weston was not impressed he had been toting a Sobey's bag around the new store.

"I was in the line up and he saw this bag, so he was a little bit concerned about the bag and he said get rid of the bag, so he got me a brand new bag with some goodies."

Loblaw is competing fiercely with its two biggest rivals, Metro (TSX:MRU.A), and Sobeys (TSX:EMP.A), particularly in Ontario.

Jane Marshall, executive vice president of properties at Loblaw was on the lookout for spies from Loblaw rivals in the new store, a format she said the company may try at other locations.

"We think there is an opportunity for this type of food store in large urban centres," she said as she gave tours and took time to polish the railings.

Shopper Amanda Reid, 23, who arrived just after 8 a.m., said she's been waiting for the store to open and its unveiling did not disappoint.

"I've been waiting for this forever, I live just down the street so I was like, 'Ahhh, I wanna see what happens'," she said.

"I like the layout, everything's labelled properly ... (the store) had a huge array of flowers. Flowers are a big thing for me and just the fact that there's so many people here to help."

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