Phantom of the Rink

Arena architecture shaped hockey, but will the new generation of entertainment multiplexes diminish the game?

Hard to say just when the ghosts got into the Montreal Forum. We know that they were definitely ensconced in the rafters of that bygone rink by 1989, if only because the upstart Calgary Flames, in town that spring to challenge the Canadiens for the Stanley Cup, are on the record talking about having to conquer them. The Flames’ 20-year-old dynamo Theo Fleury, for instance: “I’ll bet if you sat there with all the lights off, when it was quiet, you’d see the ghosts skating,” he said. “Morenz, The Rocket. I don’t really believe in ghosts. But in your mind, I bet they’d be there.”

Easy to dismiss the musings of a young rookie before a big game—especially when (awkwardly enough) Maurice Richard still, at that point, had eleven years of corporeal life left to live.

But since Fleury is not the first to have evoked the spirits aloft in old hockey arenas (even as he denies them), let’s stick with the ectoplasm for a moment. To speak of a hockey arena’s ghosts—or, for that matter, to talk about the game as religion, played out in “cathedrals”—may be fanciful, but that does not mean that it is without meaning.

If the spirit of Howie Morenz did ascend after he died of a broken hockey heart in 1937, it was mixed with the clouds of collective memory and nostalgia that had already been accumulating under the Forum roof over the years. That is what we are talking about here, I think: the connections we make with venues where we gather as communities, where strong feelings take hold and activate our own memories of playing the game, or watching our kids play, of the rituals of taping our sticks and tying our skates, of the smell of Zamboni exhaust, of what it is to skate out on pristine ice after the flood.

That emotional relationship is a big piece of the story that Howard Shubert is telling in his learned and entertaining new book, Architecture on Ice: A History of the Hockey Arena.

You would think that somebody would have bored into the vernacular of rinks and arenas before. For structures that are as distinctive in the historical Canadian landscape as sod huts or CP hotels, they dwell in a curiously neglected field. Harold Kalman’s two-volume History of Canadian Architecture, for example, all but passes them by. Meanwhile, on the hockey shelf, many of the histories of the game have touched on the development of hockey’s arenas—Michael McKinley’s Putting a Roof on Winter: Hockey’s Rise from Sport to Spectacle comes to mind, and Bill Fitsell’s How Hockey Happened: Pictorial History of the Origins of Canada’s National Winter Game. In 2005, hockey historian Martin Harris published a helpful regional catalogue, Homes of British Ice Hockey. Shubert’s is a cultural study, rich in scope, rewarding in its details, which goes well beyond any of those.

Given the grip that the game has had on Canadian culture for nearly 200 years, it is surprising that there is such a blank in the literature to be filled. Shubert, who is an architectural historian and former curator at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal, does it in style. Teeming with illustrations, this is a thorough and broadly thoughtful chronicle not simply of design and development, but also of the social and cultural spaces that ice-houses occupy in our hearts and on our streets. It is a bit of a ghost story, come to think of it. A trigger warning may be in order: if you are anything like a hockey purist, or suffer from acute sentimentality, Shubert’s account does get a little scary toward the end.

 

What took us so long to get around to hockey? If we hesitated, as a people, to pick up sticks and put them to use chasing pucks, we did have a crowded winter of pastimes to beguile us. We are back in the middle of the 19th century here, wherein Canadians found much of their wintry delight in snowshoeing and tobogganing. If it was the ice they were headed for, then curling was the thing, or pleasure skating. People were doing a lot of that in the 19th century, and much of the time they were in masquerade costume, with a band playing nearby.

Yet when you look back, it is difficult to conceive of a time when hockey was not pre-eminent in Canadian life. The game (we have come to feel) is both a natural resource and a proprietary technology of ours. The freedom and purity of the outdoor, natural rink is something that we persistently idealize, and it has a history all of its own that continues to feed the emotional relationship that Canadians have with hockey even as the professional game tests our patience.

Back in those early 19th-century days, though, hockey was an outsiders’ game, and even a blight. Hockeyists, when they showed up on your pond, came in hordes, they were loud and heedless, knocked you down. As Shubert notes, polite skating society tended to line up at this time more or less with the opinion expressed by an English writer in London Society magazine circa 1862. Hockey, he declared,

ought to be sternly forbidden, as it is not only annoying (to leisurely skaters on a pond) but dangerous … It is more than annoying to have the graceful evolutions of a charming quadrille broken up by the interruptions of a disorderly mob, armed with sticks and charging through the circle of skaters and spectators to the imminent danger of all. I should be truly glad to see the police interfere whenever hockey is commenced.

Hockey has gone on, of course, offending its critics and detractors, and mostly it has done so without the interference of the police. That is not to say that the game did not face an array of other existential threats in its early days. There were the struggles over amateurism, and over whose rules should prevail. Warm winters threatened early professional hockey, and so did fires, which burned down its arenas with alarming frequency.

Hockey leagues were expensive to sustain, and often tottered under financial strains in those earliest days as the 19th century turned over. War did not help—with it always came the questions of whether young men should be doing their patriotic duty at the front rather than idling away on ice trying to chase a puck into a net.

Canada’s first skating rinks were mostly commandeered spaces, frozen floors of buildings originally designed and built for other, practical purposes: barns and warehouses, armouries and drill halls. Early hockey remained mostly outdoors—the first organized game was played in Montreal’s Victoria Skating Rink in March 1875. The venue shaped the game from the start. The dimensions of the ice they played on that day—80 feet by 204 feet—set the standard for the surface used by the NHL to this day. To save the spectators and the windows, a puck was used that day for the first time, in place of a rubber ball. Does it surprise anyone that the proceedings ended with a fight?

The first purpose-built hockey rink in the country was Montreal’s Westmount Arena, which opened in 1898. Hockey was growing in popularity, and the old buildings were not big enough to accommodate the crowds that wanted in. Take a note of the nomenclature, if you will: the Westmount was an arena rather than a rink. Hockey was not just a game you played with your friends any longer; it was spectacle now, and increasingly builders and owners and impresarios were thinking about ways to attract spectators and—all importantly—to convince them to spend their money.

In tracing this evolution, Architecture on Ice ranges across the map, to early English rinks with their artificial ice, and (at length) across the United States. Shubert lingers on the building boom south of the border in the early years of the 20th century, turning a fine, fascinating focus to what he calls the dialogue between sport and architecture without which professional hockey never would have been able to take root in New York and Chicago, let alone (later on) Anaheim and Columbus. Along the way, he talks about urban revitalization and the role of public financing of private arenas; celebrates the expressive, even poetic form of several West Coast U.S. arenas that went up in the 1960s; visits with the beloved American tradition of tailgate parties; pauses to consider the effect The Beatles had on audiences; and thinks about Canadianness and Jumbotrons and cheerleaders on skates.

He sounds a few notes of complaint along the way. There is an air of mild disappointment that persists throughout the book: if only hockey’s arenas had been designed with a little flair. Sports architecture in North America, he laments, tends toward the safe, the banal. Take Montreal’s Forum: a shrine it may have been, site of many extraordinary events during its 72-year history, but none of them was inspired by the building’s architecture, which was “never more than ordinary.”

Hold on, though: Shubert has worse tidings. Hockey got bigger in the late 1960s, which is to say that the NHL expanded, and for all the virtues of that—new markets and new fans—it was the beginning of the end for hockey’s arenas. We are in the age now of what Shubert dubs the corporate-­entertainment complex. The hockey arena has not vanished so much as it has been swallowed, “reduced to a space” whose identity no single attraction can be allowed to define. What owners want now are “generic, shape-shifting, ‘no places,’” Shubert writes, hubs for development.

And so here we are: in the early years of the new century, hockey is just another tenant in the arenas it used to own. Which, of course, are not arenas any more. Hockey’s professionals ply their trade in Centers now, and Places, with corporations lining up to pay millions of dollars for the privilege of naming them, which is how we end up in buildings called Pepsi and Bell and Canadian Tire. Some NHL venues still may call themselves Arenas, but be careful—they are lying to you.

 

Is this a time to bemoan what has been lost, then to keen for the past? If you are a fervent fan of the New York Islanders, the answer might be yes. Last season was the team’s first in the Brooklyn’s Barclays Center following a move from its long-time Long Island home at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Before the last game had been played at the new facility in the spring, rumours were rife that the team was trying to escape its lease and leave the fan-unfriendly sightlines and wander elsewhere in search of a new new home, maybe in Queens or even back on Long Island.

It is enough to break your heart, as a hockey fan. We are a hardened bunch now, though, aren’t we, after all that we have seen? We are past worrying that our national winter pastime has been reduced by the corporatization of the game, or that our affection for it, and our memories, might be at risk. Aren’t we?

If Howard Shubert has strong feelings on any of this, he does not share them—or maybe he feels that is beyond his brief. He does offer a word of … solace? Religion, he points out, is in decline, too, replaced by a deeper interest in wealth and consumption. You see churches being deconsecrated and repurposed all the time, so … not … to … worry.

I had some of these questions in mind one midweek afternoon during September’s World Cup of Hockey as I went down to watch some of the hockey at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. The weather was not really in the mood, and the city still had most of its downtown attention fixed on baseball’s Blue Jays and their run for the playoffs. Still, Finland was playing Russia with a place in the tournament’s semi-finals at stake, so I bought a ticket. I was on my own, which I did not mind, since I had work to do, involving careful watching of just how we were inhabiting that air-conditioned space.

My report: Top 40 tunes blasting at seat-shaking volume still are not an upgrade on the old organ. And with the lights so bright—for TV—what phantoms could hope to haunt in such a glare? It was exhausting, with so much corporate concern focused on every one of us in the building. Are you sufficiently entertained, need another beer? It was difficult, too, to remember not to watch the colossal screen above the ice as the real, live hockey swirled five rows in front of me. Commodified relics were available in the concourse: “Own a piece of history,” the announcer commanded—vials of melted World Cup ice were on sale, he wanted us to know, a huckster of holy water.

It was a good game. I will not say that I was actively searching the upper reaches of that non-arena for anything other than the score. On that day, as the Russians pressed their advantage and went on beating the Finns, whatever ghosts usually reside in the rafters at the ACC seemed to have left the building. I do not know whether it is a permanent situation, but be advised that if you are headed there anytime soon, it might be a good idea to bring your own, just in case.