Hockey Central

The Other Guy's Barn

Grand and Not-So-Grand Hockey Arenas

During February of 1999, the Toronto Maple Leafs moved their home base to the Air Canada Centre, located near the city's waterfront, a slapshot away from SkyDome, the big ballpark with its trademark retractable roof. The Leafs vacated Maple Leaf Gardens, the teams home since 1931, and the last of the great old arenas that supplied the game of hockey with much of its history and folklore was abandoned.

Maple Leaf Gardens will not be razed because the building was declared a historic site, a decision which prevents its unique architectural features from bring obliterated. In addition, the St. Michael's Majors of the Ontario Hockey League will bring junior hockey action back to the Gardens in 1998-99.

Because they have not played anywhere else since 1931, to think of viewing a Leaf home game in Toronto except at the Gardens will be an adjustment for the team's devoted fans. To see a Montreal Canadiens game that was not played in the Montreal Forum but at the Molson Centre, a Boston Bruins match at FleetCenter, not the musty confines of the old Boston Gardens, and to watch the Blackhawks in Chicago in the cavernous new United Center, not in the incredible din of Chicago Stadium, brings a pang of regret and nostalgia.

However, the precedent is strong for the shift to new facilities with no diminution of interest. Detroit Red Wings supporters survived a late 1970s switch from the dilapidated Olympia to Joe Louis Arena. While the sightlines for their rabid fans suffered when the New York Rangers made their 1967 switch from the intimate old to the spacious new Madison Square Garden, the sellout sign has been used every game night, even though the team had a yawning gap—1940 to 1944—between Stanley Cup triumphs.

"Those of us who have been around the game for a long time figured the old rinks of the 'Original Six' teams were the only places where the game could be played and appreciated properly, or so it seemed," commented Harry Sinden, president and general manager of the Boston Bruins since 1972, who guided the team from one of the top 'character buildings,' Boston Garden, to the new FleetCenter.

But those were the places where our hockey memories from an early age were formed, the magic names and if you said, say, the words Boston and Bruins together, Boston Garden simply popped up.

"The team, the town and the rink were inseparable in your thoughts. Fortunately, there are good examples of how it doesn't take long for that caliber of identity to become established. The Philadelphia Flyers came to the NHL in the 1967 expansion and when the team became a contender in the early 1970s and won the Stanley Cup a couple of times, Philly, The Spectrum and the Flyers meant something in hockey."

"To compete in the NHL with today's economics, the old houses simply were not adequate. We must have a building with the posh appointments people want in entertainment facilities these days—plenty of private luxury boxes, clean restrooms in abundance, high-quality concessions, comfortable seats—to generate the revenue to have a competitive team on the ice."

Ed Snider, chairman of the Flyers and the man who built the franchise into a model hockey business, claims he likely always will be homesick for the Spectrum, even when checking the revenue generated by the CoreStates Center, the 19,500-seat arena opened in 1996.

"I loved watching hockey games in the Spectrum, I suppose, because that's where the team had its first success and the atmosphere was so electric." Sniden said. "Of course, our fans are the same in the new building and as time goes by, I likely will feel the same way as I did about the old spot, especially if we win another Cup."

Since the NHL was founded as a four-team league in 1917—the Montreal Wanderers ceased operations six games into the season when their arena burned—the NHL has had 35 teams that played in 41 different cities and performed in a total of 63 arenas up to the end of the 1997-98 season.

Add 13 cities and arenas, never on the permanent lists, that hosted neutral site games earlier in the 1990s and the total climb to 54 towns and 76 buildings.

The hockey houses range from the tiny Jubilee Rink with a natural ice surface and 3,250 seats where the Montreal Canadiens played a few games in their first season (1917-18) to the 28,000-seat ThunderDome, home to the Tampa Bay Lightning for a couple of seasons until the new Ice Palace was completed.

The 1990s was the boom years in the construction of arenas. From 1993 to the end of the 1998-99 season, 13 new arenas with NHL clubs as major tenants were opened in Anaheim, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Montreal, Ottawa, Philadelphia, St. Louis, San Jose, Tampa Bay, Toronto, Vancouver and Washington.

By the end of the century, additional new houses were completed in Carolina (Raleigh), Florida (Miami), Denver and Los Angles. The four-team expansion will see new facilities in Columbus, Nashville, St. Paul and Atlanta.

Thus, the 30-team NHL will be playing its games in 21 buildings less than 10 years old. In addition to the from-the-ground-up edifices, the Edmonton Coliseum, Calgary's Canadian Airlines Saddledome and Madison Square Garden in New York have had recent upgrades at a cost close to their original construction value.

While the final decade of the century produces the splendid stages on which the modern NHL drama is played, the first decade was when the first modest indoor arenas were built. The major step in that direction was the perfecting of the early freezing plants to make artificial ice and remove the game from the whims of nature.

The first artificial ice rinks suitable for hockey in North America were built in the 1890s.

These massive American ice plants inspired the Patricks, often called hockey's "royal family," to launch a daring plan that had an enormous influence on establishing the NHL. Frank and Lester Patrick already were important hockey names in the east as members of the fabled Redfrew Millionaires and other teams in the pro game's early years. But it was as administrators and coaches that they most effectively shaped all levels of the early game.

When the Patricks sold their large lumber operation and had money to invest, they came up with the idea of their own hockey league in B.C. in which they would own all teams and, most importantly, the arenas, including the largest indoor rink in the world in Vancouver.

The Patricks planned to stock their teams by raiding those in eastern Canada, enticing the players west by doubling salaries. On a honeymoon trip to Boston, Lester Patrick checked out the artificial ice plants and recruited players for his Pacific Coast Hockey Association, including the game's top star at the time, Cyclone Taylor.

The Patricks constructed a 4,000 seat arena in Victoria, B.C., at a cost of $110,000, while their 10,500-seat building in Vancouver budgeted at $210,000 wound up costing $275,000 to finish. Ground was broken in April 1911 and the buildings were ready for the opening games of the new league in December of that year.

The Patricks did two things: they provoked a challenge series between their league champions and the top team in the fledgling National Hockey Association, which was struggling for stability in the east; and the success of their artificial ice arenas in B.C. eventually inspired construction of similar rinks in the east.

Eastern promoters had sneered at the creation of the western league and the building of "expensive" arenas. But the success of the league in its early stages and the obvious advantages of an ice surface independent of the weather changed that outlook.

The first eastern freezing plant was in the Westmount Arena, located a block away from the site of the Montreal Forum. The building was constructed in 1898 and artificial ice installed in 1914. The rink was home to the Canadiens and Wanderers in the NHL until destroyed by fire in 1918.

Mutual Street Arena in Toronto that year added artificial ice and March playoff games between other pro teams played on natural ice were occasionally shifted to Toronto if spring came early. The rink in Hamilton and the new Auditorium in Ottawa added artificial surfaces with crowds of 10,000 attending many games of the Ottawa Sentors.

Due to its long cold winters, hockey-mad Montreal lagged behind in the acquisition of artificial ice. But when the Canadiens were forced by warm weather to switch their opening game in the 1923-24 season to Hamilton, postpone two other games and win the Stanley Cup with a "home" game in Ottawa, plans to construct the original Forum were completed quickly.

The first of the great NHL arenas was completed in 159 days to be ready for the opening of the 1924-25 season. The original plan was to have the Forum house only a new NHL expansion team called the Montreal Maroons, but when the building opened for hockey, it was the Canadiens on the ice for the first game.

Boston was granted a franchise, too, the Bruins playing in the old Boston arena.

That launched the largest NHL growth period in teams and arenas until the six-team expansion in 1967. The Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Americans joined the NHL in the 1925-26 season, the last season of operation for the Pacific Coast league.

In 1925, fabled promoter Tex Richard built the second Madison Square Garden in New York and the NHL sold a franchise, called the Americans, to bootlegging baron William Dwyer to play in the new arena.

The next season, the New York Rangers shared MSG with the Americans while the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Cougars joined the NHL. The Cougars played their NHL first season in the small rink in Windsor, Ontario until construction on Detroit's Olympia was completed. The Black Hawks started NHL life in the 6,000-seat Chicago Coliseum, which was constructed for livestock shows, the smell in the building revealing strongly its previous tenants. They moved to the very loud Chicago Stadium in 1929.

Of the fabled, enduring hockey houses, construction of Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto supplies the most illustrious folklore. Playing in the Mutual Street Arena, the Toronto team started life in the NHL in 1917, becoming the St. Patrick's in 1919.

Builder of the first New York Rangers roster for the 1926-27 NHL debut by that team, Conn Smythe was sacked before the season opened. He returned to his hometown, Toronto, with a vow to build a team that would be better than the Rangers and scraped together enough money from a variety of backers to buy the St. Pats and change the name to the Maple Leafs during the 1926-27 season.

As Smythe slowly built the Leafs towards contender status, heavy hockey interest dictated the need for a new, large arena because the 8,000-seat Mutual Street building was packed every night and potential customers were turned away at the door.

But the 1929 stock market crash and the start of the Depression seemed to rule out the raising of money to build a large arena. Smythe was undaunted by such odds and in a daring gamble he found a way to start construction.

Despite backing by a few financiers who were not wiped out in cash and modest support from a bank, Smythe was well short of the revenue needed to start construction on land he had purchased at Church and Carlton streets in downtown Toronto.

In reality, Smythe's assistant Frank Selke, a former labor union executive, rescued the arena project. At a time when construction work was very scarce, Selke convinced the business managers of the 24 unions who would be involved in construction of Maple Leaf Gardens to take 20 percent of their salaries in shares in the new building. When the unions agreed that 80 percent of a salary was better than nothing, the contractors signed on, too, followed by the banks and investors.

Although Maple Leaf Gardens was constructed in just five months in 1931, opening on schedule in November, the job was done well. Sixty-seven years later the basic structure of the building remains intact, the only changes in that time being cosmetic, with increased seating, escalators and private boxes added.

Replaced by the magnificent Keil Centre in 1994, the Arena in St. Louis was another building with a hectic history. Built at a cost of $2 million, the structure at the time was a brilliant architectural achievement, its roof span construction used on the Houston Astrodome indoor stadium almost four decades later. The arena's seating capacity of 21,000 was the largest indoors in the U.S.

The Arena opened in 1929 as permanent home for the National Dairy Show. But the cows moved on a year later when the building went bankrupt. It was reopened in 1932 for minor-league hockey. The ice melted on one game day because the electric company pulled the plug when the bill was not paid.

When the Senators failed in Ottawa, the team was moved to St. Louis as the Eagles for the 1934-35 season, then disbanded. The minor pro St. Louis Flyers lasted until 1941 and the building had no hockey for six years.

In the late 1940s, the Writz family, owner of the Black Hawks, bought the Arena and posted a minor pro team there. The Black Hawks, who were attracting small crowds in Chicago, played a few NHL games in St. Louis, where they also failed to draw big crowds.

When the NHL expanded by six teams, as a favor to the Wirtz clan the league stipulated that St. Louis would be granted a franchise if its owners took the deadbeat arena, too. The Salomon family bought the franchise and a building, spending more than the $2 million original construction cost on improvements.

With Scotty Bowman as coach, the Blues rounded up an aging but effective team, slowly won over the fans and by playoff time, were playing to full houses. The Blues went to the Stanley Cup finals in their first three seasons to turn St. Louis into a good hockey town.

The team fell on hard times in the 1970s and was close to leaving town in 1978 when, at the last minute, the Ralston-Purina Corporation bought the team, the Arena was renamed the Checkerdome after a leading product of the owner and the team climbed the ladder again.

The Blues were close to moving again when Ralston-Purina dumped the franchise during the early 1980s recession but California promoter Harry Ornest purchased the franchise for a song, resurrected the Arena name again and the Blues had another good run in the 1980s. Strong local ownership took over from Ornest, the Keil Center was built and another grand old hockey house bit the dust.

To older fans who grew up on the "Original Six" teams, many new arenas have a "cookie cutter" sameness to them in spite of their architectural differences, the variety of materials used in their construction, the array of amenities provided for fans.

The shorter neutral zones and egg-shaped ends of the Boston Garden and Memorial Auditorium in Buffalo demanded a slightly different style of hockey than the standard 200' x 85' surfaces of many other rinks.

A trip to the old Olympia in Detroit was memorable because the building housed what appeared to be the longest, steepest escalator in the world, the Mount Everest of rolling staircases that carried fans to the upper reaches of the building where Gordie Howe played the first 25 seasons of his extraordinary 32-year big league career.

Who can forget the incredible opening face-off din in the Chicago Stadium, which in reality was built like a steel tube running straight up to the third deck, which itself was high and seemed to tower over the ice surface? When Al Melgard played the world's largest unified organ with 25 keyboards, 883 stops and 40,000 pipes, you felt its vibrations on your feet as much as you heard its enormous sound in the Stadium.

Then there were the fans in the top level at Madison Square Garden, the most abrasive, perhaps crudest spectators in sports, berating opposition players with chants based on the players' foibles and vices. A writer once suggested that the last expedtion planned by anthropologist Margaret Meade, who specialized in the study of primitive cultures, was going to be made in the MSG gallery.

Of course, with a few years under the seats and contending teams on the ice, the new buildings take on a collection individual characteristics that set them apart. After all, would the Montreal Forum be regarded as a hockey shrine if the Canadiens had not won 22 of their 24 Stanley Cup championships on its ice surface? Every arena was new sometime.