Building a Sports and Entertainment Legacy

With a history that goes back almost to the birth of Confederation, PCL Construction is celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday by reflecting on the role that PCL and its clients, the projects they have built together, and the communities they have served have contributed to the country’s growth over the past century.
Air Canada Centre under construction.

In this PCL Canada 150 profile, PCL Constructors Canada Inc. (Toronto) looks back on building a Canadian landmark: Air Canada Centre. 

Preserving Canada’s History

Canadian basketball fans rejoiced in the early 1990s when the National Basketball Association (NBA) awarded its 28th franchise to Toronto as part of its expansion into Canada.

In its infancy, the Toronto Raptors shared the SkyDome (now known as Rogers Centre) with the Toronto Blue Jays, until plans came together to make a new home for Canada’s first NBA team.

In 1996, the franchise purchased Canada Post’s vacant Toronto Postal Delivery Building with plans to revitalize the structure into the Raptors’ new home. In consultation with Heritage Toronto, the owners made an agreement with the City of Toronto to preserve the two principal building façades overlooking Bay Street and Lake Shore Boulevard, along with other significant decorative details and displays to reflect the building’s history.

In 1997, PCL entered into a design-build contract to deliver the Raptors’ vision for their new home base, and hit the ground running on an aggressive 24-month schedule with a delivery date of March 1, 1999.

A Sports and Entertainment Legacy Is Born

A long-standing supporter of the sports and entertainment industry, philanthropist and businessman Larry Tanenbaum championed the NBA expansion into Canada.  

In 1996, Tanenbaum acquired an interest in the Toronto Maple Leafs Hockey Club and Maple Leaf Gardens, and in an historic announcement two years later, purchased the Raptors and Air Canada Centre, with a plan to make the arena home to the Toronto Raptors and the Toronto Maple Leafs. In bringing the two franchises together, the Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Company (MLSE) was born.

Twelve months into construction, the project sch​​edule was at the half-way point, and a lot had to be done in a short time to make this new vision a reality.

Within days of MLSE’s purchase, PCL’s project team took Tanenbaum and key members of his board of directors on a tour of the site. To facilitate integration of the Raptors and the Leafs under the same ownership group, a series of changes that amounted to roughly a 25 percent increase of the remaining construction value were required, coming in at a cost of over $25 million.

To add to this challenge, the NBA expected the facility to be up and running for its original completion date. The project team was determined to beat the odds to deliver on schedule as promised.  

“We’ll be able to meet the original schedule because we’re an experienced builder,” Oscar Gaudet, PCL’s general superintendent vowed in 1998. “We roll with the punches. Everyone is pulling together—to get the drawings, to get the product, to get the work done.”

And pull together they did. Despite the additional scope of work and an eight-week labor strike, the project team worked tirelessly, using every means at their disposal to maximize efficiency. As a result of detailed planning, extensive collaboration, and communication between PCL, the ownership group, and trade partners, Air Canada Centre reached substantial completion on December 30th, 1998, nine days ahead of schedule.

In all, the project scope included a 650,000-sqaure foot arena, a 15-story tower, and amenities including four restaurants, a galleria, many food and beverage concession stands, and underground parking for 212 vehicles.

Bringing Canadians to Their Feet

Fast forward to Air Canada Centre’s opening celebrations in February 1999: an intense week of back-to-back events that secured Air Canada Centre’s position as Canada’s premiere multipurpose sports and entertainment venue.

On February 20th, the Maple Leafs hosted bitter rivals the Montreal Canadiens in the first NHL hockey game at the new arena. The next day, Air Canada Centre hosted its first NBA game, with the Raptors taking on the Vancouver Grizzlies. Both Toronto teams won these games, perhaps driven to win in honor of their new home.

On February 22nd, Air Canada Centre held its first concert, featuring Canada’s legendary band, the Tragically Hip, followed by the Rolling Stones just a few days later.

In its first week alone, Air Canada Centre opened its doors to thousands of Canadians. Eighteen years, millions of guests, and a facelift later, it proudly stands among the top entertainment venues in North America.

From hosting professional sports matches for diehard fans to sharing the stage with musical icons, Air Canada Centre captures the spirit that brings Canadian fans to their feet. ​​
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​​ Watch the time-lapse video of Air Canada Centre under construction.​

 

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