The Arena

Travel through any small town in the United States and you’ll find a football stadium.    If the high school population warrants, the town will have a football team and the football team will need a place to play. Somehow the town finds the funds to construct a decent football stadium, complete with surprisingly ample seating and a large scoreboard.  

On the other hand, travel through any small town in Canada and it’s  not football stadiums, it’s arenas, arenas that cover hockey rinks.   Every town with a population of 1,000 or more is home to an arena, usually a domed structure like an over-sized quonset hut.  And, like the football field, the arena represents the pride and spirit of the small town.

The arena I grew up with was completed in 1950.   It was called the PMC arena, Peace Memorial Centre.  It was a grand edifice and the town was very proud of it.  Most prairie towns sponsored lotteries of one sort or another to finance what was for all of them the biggest investment in infrastucture the town would ever make.  The provincial government helped moderately but the town had to essentially find its own way.   Car bingos were very popular, so much so the town of Viking named their building the portmanteau, Carena.

The construction was fairly standard.  Semi-circular laminated beams 

supported a plywood and durable metal skin covering for the roof.  A standard-sized rink (200 by 85 feet) with reinforced wood siding occupied the middle with four rows of benches rising up from either side.  There was no seating on the ends.    At one end, two chutes opened to the outside to allow for ice shavings to be tossed out while the other end housed the entrance, a concession booth, and a boiler room  (Ice froze faster with hot water).  Dressing rooms were framed with plywood and featured a natural gas heater and wooden benches along the walls.  A small alcove for toilet was set in one corner.  Most arenas had only two dressing rooms, with the “home” and “away” designation and doubling as rest areas when there was free skating. At either end of the rink, small “goal judge” cupolas were hung protruding over the goal areas.  These strange objects resembled sedan chairs stuck eight feet off the ground, with a seat, a light switch, and a red light nose. They afforded an excellent overhead view of the net but could be a frightening place to be if a heated dispute arose over a goal.  Think of a raccoon being treed by a pack of vicious dogs. Okay, not thatbad, but it could be tense for a bit.

Still and all, everything about the rink construction and appointments was fairly basic.  The crowning achievement was that it was an indoor rink and it was beautiful.

Without an artificial ice plant, the arena manager had to wait for the weather to cooperate before making ice.  This generally happened in late November or early December. Occasionally, his arduous work was undone by an unexpected warm spell.  In any case, once the ice was made, the arena hummed with activity.

As near as I can recall, this is how a typical week played out in the PMC arena-rink and is likely representative of all arena-rinks in Western Canada in the 1950’s.   Weekday mornings the rink was generally closed, the rink manager’s time to flood the ice and repair any damage to the boards and the building.   What with pucks, sticks, bodies, and skates battering the boards every hockey game, maintenance was a big expense and time-consumer. Monday afternoons and evening were set aside for hockey practices.  Tuesday afternoons and evenings were free skating.  Wednesday was either a senior hockey game or free skating.   Thursday was either free skating or minor hockey.  Friday was free skating, afternoon and evening.   Saturday was hockey in the morning, closed in the afternoon for flooding and senior hockey at night.  Sunday was figure skating in the morning, free skating in the afternoon, and broomball in the evening.   

Every hockey-mad boy knew the schedule by heart.  And from December to early April, no matter how much snow fell, there was always a well-beaten path to the arena.  Obviously, the installation of an ice-making plant would extend the utility of the arena exponentialy. But that was some distance down the road for Wainwright.  As it was, the arena sat idle for several months.   It did host the occasional function –  another car bingo, concerts (the acoustics were terrible), religious revivals,  and that staple of home-grown entertainment, “A Search for Talent”, wherein cousin Clyde could showcase his gift for playing Debussy on the accordian. 

Oddly enough, figure-skating never became more than moderately popular. The sport had a beautiful Canadian champion in Barbara Ann Scott, but nothing seemed to inspire the youth of Wainwright to try to emulate her fame.   Like hockey, the sport also suffered from the absence of instructors. 

Over the nine-plus years I played hockey in the PMC arena (1950-1959), there were only two manager/icemakers.   The first was a portly older gentleman named Miskimmon who was assisted now and then by his wife.  He was very quiet, she was even quieter.  It was nice to watch the two of them imperturbably going about their business with dozens of noisy, clamoring kids hanging around the arena, on the ice and off.  It never seemed to upset them. Whether there was skating or not, the arena was a magnet for the town’s youth throughout the winter.  

The Miskimmons lasted a couple of years before moving on and rink management was turned over to Mr. Sheffield.   Both managers were well-liked but the laconic and self-assured Mr. Sheffield was, perhaps, afforded more respect. His respect was undoubtedly helped by the fact he was raising a family of accomplished athletes, three boys and a girl.  He would lecture kids occasionally, usually on the evils of alcohol and the superiority of soccer to all other sports.  In addition to his rink management job, he also worked for the town and was a familiar sight buzzing about town in all kinds of weather on his small gray Ford tractor.  For some reason, he preferred the tractor to a car.   Auras of mystery are a scarce commodity in small towns and a grown man commuting in a tractor provided real mystery to many school kids.

Most boys skated during the week and looked forward to Saturday morning.   There were six peewee teams and three games, each gsme lasting one hour but without benefit of a stop watch.  If there was one adult present at any time during that morning, it was unusual.  Everything was managed by the kids, including the refereeing.  There were no coaches.  Saturday was a work day for most men.  I never saw a coach until I made it to the senior team at age sixteen.  

Hockey organization was pretty basic in the 1950’s in Wainwright.   As I said, we had six peewee teams.  The big difference was the ages for peewee were 8 until 14.   That’s hard to believe these days but the wide inclusion was a necessity.   The town businesses could not afford another league.  As it was, they did a poor job of supporting the six teams, often providing an inadequate number of sweaters, sometimes forgetting to included stockings, and ignoring any further demands after the season began. Teams were chosen by captains who were elected by the players.   Everyone who wanted to play was placed on a team.   It was all very democratic.

The wide age gaps did have its problems. of course.  The boys aged 8 to 10 were greatly over-matched, unavoidably so. It was always a problem for each team captain, who was, by  default, the coach, and responsible for seeing to it each player enjoyed some “Ice time”.  

It was definitely a different time.  The captains had two, often conflicting goals.  One was to build a winning team, the other was to give everyone a chance to play.  Minor hockey still has to deal with that dichotomy but not with the huge age spread of 8 to 14. Somehow it all worked.  

Midget hockey for 15 and 16 year olds suffered from neglect. Town businesses either would not or could not provide any support and the arena’s time restraints dictated poor ice times.  Midget hockey survived only by the determination of the youth involved.    As a sign of different times, midget hockey’s low profile may also simply have been due to so many boys quitting school to go to work, and hockey was just another childhood activity that was scrapped.   Fortunately, not for all.  

Those that continued with their hockey had hopes of playing for the senior team, arguably any prairie town’s biggest spectator recreation focus. Wainwright, when the PMC arena opened, joined the Eastern Alberta Hockey competing against Viking, Vegreville, Vermilion, St. Paul, Bonnyville, and Lloydminster with a team called the Comandoes. The town actually won a championship in 1951.  But its fortunes waned after that and the Commandoes dropped out of the Eastern Alberta League in 1956.   Another team, the Dukes, was formed and, along with the Viking Gas Kings, joined the Battle River League. Other towns in this league were Camrose, Stettler, Hardisty, Daysland, and Alliance-Forestburg.

In the rite of passage through the rink, from peewee to midget to senior hockey, there was one other small goal open to the seriously-keen hockey player. And that was becoming a rink rat for the senior team.  

Before the days of the Zamboni, cleaning the ice between periods was a labor intensive affair.  For small towns it meant four boys skating with wide rectangular shovels to clean the ice. The ice was not flooded between periods like it was in the city arenas.  It was a coveted job that paid 50 cents and all the hot dogs one could eat after the game.  Mr. Sheffield made the choices for rink rats, an effective way to get most boys to pay attention to his management wishes.  Most importantly, it gave young men a chance to display their skating skills, albeit with a shovel in their hands and a crowd that was only casually interested.

This was the PMC arena in the 1950’s.  For my part, I was a peewee captain for 2 years (age 13 and 14), a rink rat (age 14 and 15), and a member of the Dukes senior team (age 16 and 17).  Hockey was evidently a huge part of my life.

Looking back, I don’t know what role the rink played in forming my character. But I looked at it this way: for 9 years, many of the values held by dozens of Wainwright boys were formed within the confines of that drafty old arena.  They learned teamwork, personal responsibility, caring, friendship, and laughter, plus an awareness that life isn’t always fair,  They learned to stand up for themselves. After all these years, I can still thrill to the hollow sound of pucks hitting boards, skates cutting into the ice, excited voices yelling for the puck, sticks slapping the ice, and whistles heralding the start or stop of play.  Those sounds rolled around endlessly in those cavernous arenas.

And here’s the strange part:  with the exception of the rink manager, there were virtually no adults present.  Unless the arena was closed, there would be, at any given moment, dozens of boys of all ages running about, skating, playing hockey, playing in the stands, or simply sitting in a dressing room trying to keep warm. That it all worked was, i think, a small miracle.   One might think scenes reminiscent of “Lord of the Flies” would develop, but they didn’t.  Sure there were bullies and the usual squabbles of youth but, on balance, it was all surprisingly benign.  It didn’t hurt that the one adult always present, Mr.Sheffield or Mr. Miskimmon, was also the one adult, in addition to a boy’s parent, who could take away any access to the rink.   If he told a boy to behave, he likely did.

The arena functioned much this way for another 20 plus years until it was replaced by a sparkling new sports complex, complete with artificial ice plant. The PMC arena, as near as I can tell, now sits moldering with little or no useful function.   But, for some of us of a certain age, it is a shrine to a wonderful life of growing up in a small Alberta town.

Robert Alan Davidson

November, 2018

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