Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A centennial for ice hockey on Vancouver Island

Professional hockey made its debut on Vancouver Island at this magnificent arena in Oak Bay on Jan. 2, 1912. The arena was one of two built by the innovative Patrick brothers. The Arena burned to the ground on Nov. 11, 1929. Modest apartment blocks have been built on its site.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 2, 2012

VICTORIA

The arena opened to great fanfare. A ticket was sold for every seat. The standing-room area was packed to the building’s timber rafters.

A band struck up the national anthem when the lieutenant-governor entered the building. The hockey teams skated onto the ice, the home side first, followed by the visitors.

The vice-regal officer then stepped onto ice made hard and cold by an ingenious system of pipes beneath the surface. Thomas Wilson Paterson, a railway contractor and former politician, dropped the puck for a ceremonial opening face off.

One hundred years ago today, on Jan. 2, 1912, the exciting sport of ice hockey made its professional debut on Vancouver Island at a new arena built in Oak Bay, just outside the city of Victoria’s borders.

“The sport is all it was cracked up to be and more,” trilled the Daily Times after the game.

“With all due reverence to cricket, we think hockey is a trifle faster.”

It seems hard to imagine the game now so deeply associated with Canadian identity needed any introduction at any time in the Dominion. Hockey was played in the province, especially in the mining towns in the frozen valleys of the Kootenays, but fair weather on southern Vancouver island only permitted the occasional children’s game of shinny on a frozen pond.

On that day a century ago, the seven members of the New Westminster Royals sailed across the strait to play the Victoria Senators in the inaugural game of the three-team Pacific Coast Hockey Association.

The modern arena with artificial ice, the three teams and the league were all the product of Frank and Lester Patrick, ambitious and far-sighted brothers who had made a fortune with their father in the lumber business.

Both brothers had played pro hockey back east. They figured another fortune was to be made in promoting the sport in Canada’s booming Pacific cities. They also intended to challenge for the Stanley Cup, even then inspiring fevered dreams of hockey glory.

In Vancouver, the brothers built a grand, $175,000 arena on Georgia Street overlooking Coal Harbour. It boasted a seating capacity of 10,000, making it the largest arena in the Dominion. Incredibly, the city’s population was just 120,000, though it had doubled in five years.

In Victoria, they built a more modest, but still modern building of wood. It stood at the corner of Cadboro Bay Road and what is now Epworth Street. (The arena burned to the ground in the early morning hours of Remembrance Day in 1929. The flames, first spotted by a passing milkman, lit up the night sky. The site is now occupied by a pair of three-story apartment blocks across the street from the Oak Bay Secondary sporting grounds.)
Jack Ulrich

The world-class arenas helped lure to the coast some of the best-known names in hockey, including Newsy Lalonde, Harry Hyland and Tom Dunderdale. (The Vancouver Millionaires also employed a 19-year-old player called Silent Jack Ulrich, as he was deaf and mute.)

The Royals wore black and orange sweaters, while the Senators sported a red, white and blue combination.

The sportswriters wrote in purple.

“Every moment provided a fresh sensation and never while playing was going on was the blood given time to cool,” ran a report in the Daily Times. “As the puck darted hither and thither with such dazzling rapidity that at times it was impossible for the crowd to follow its course, the most phlegmatic were stirred to their deepest depths; as spectacular burst crowded upon spectacular burst in almost unending succession, this unrestrained delight brought the spectators up all standing.”

Of course the referee came in for criticism from the Daily Colonist for having missed “one or two rough house stunts.”

The Victoria arena opened to the public with an offer of free skating on Christmas Day, leading several downtown stores to advertise their new stocks of equipment.

James Maynard’s store in the Oddfellows Block on Douglas Street suggested “hockey boots and skates make fine Xmas gifts for all.” Peden Bros. boasted carrying a complete stock of the best skate makers, including Lunns, McCulloch, and Automobile. A pair of McPhearson’s skating boots for ladies costing $3, a pair of Gales hockey boots for men at $5.

J.R. Collister, at 1321 Government St., now occupied by The Gap, also sought customers interested in the new skating rink. “Be in the swim, join the merry throng, and remember you can procure the latest model skates here,” the store stated in an advertisement placed in the Daily Colonist. “All kinds, all sizes, and of the very best makes. HOCKEY MODELS, used by amateurs and professionals the country over. The blades are remarkably hard and tough, retaining a keen edge through long use. OUNCES LIGHTER THAN ANY OTHERS.”
Bert Lindsay

Victoria lost the first game at the arena by 8-3. In goal for the home side was Bert Lindsay, 31, who had been lured away from the Renfrew (Ont.) Creamery Kings by the Patricks. Lindsay spent four seasons on the coast before returning east, where he played for the Montreal Wanderers and Toronto Arenas in the inaugural two seasons of the National Hockey League. Lindsay’s son also became a hockey star. Terrible Ted Lindsay is now 86.

The Patricks are credited with such innovations as permitting forward passing, adding blue lines, and substituting skaters while play continues.

At the end of the short 1912 season, Frank Patrick suggested the Stanley Cup be decided by a series of games, not just a two-game playoff as was the practice.

His league sent a letter to the Stanley Cup trustees offering to send their champion to Eastern Canada to challenge for the trophy. The suggestion was rejected, as the natural ice used in rinks in Montreal, Toronto and Quebec City would be too slushy by late March. By the end of the year, the Arena Gardens (later known as the Mutual Street Arena) in Toronto had artificial ice

These days, the Stanley Cup finals end in balmy June. And the storied trophy has even been won by a team in Florida.

A forgotten arena in Victoria was once the stage that showed how such wonders were possible.

Lester Patrick and Frank Patrick were the masterminds behind pro hockey on the Pacific coast.