A version of this review appeared in the October, 2016 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.
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 isn’t 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” — is fanciful, maybe, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without meaning.
Maybe the spirit of Howie Morenz did ascend after he died of a broken hockey heart in 1937, but if so it was mixed with the clouds of collective memory and nostalgia that were accumulating under the Forum roof over the years. That’s what we’re 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’d 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 (1994), for example, all but passes them by.
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 (2000) comes to mind, and Bill Fitsell’s How Hockey Happened (2006). In 2005, hockey historian Martin Harris published a helpful regional catalogue, Homes of British Ice Hockey.
Given the grip that the game has had on Canadian culture for nearly 200 years, it’s surprising that there’s such a blank in the literature to be filled. Shubert, who’s 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 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 might be in order: if you’re anything like a hockey purist, or suffer from acute sentimentality, his account does get a little scary towards 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 pastimes to beguile us. We’re 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 you had a band playing nearby, and you were in costume.
Looking back, it’s difficult to conceive of a time when hockey wasn’t pre-eminent in Canadian life. Others may love hockey and even play it well, and there are occasional international tournaments that Canadians fail to win, but the game (we’ve come to feel) is both a natural resource and a proprietary technology of ours. Hockey comes from the land here, as we well know from all those beer and credit-card commercials that keep on telling us so. 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.
There was a time, though, when hockey was a bit of a blight on the land. 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’s done so without the interference of policemen. That’s not to say that the game didn’t 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 20. War didn’t 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’ 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 of 1875. The venue shaped the game from the start. The dimensions of the ice they played on that day — 80 feet by 204 — set the standard for the surface that the NHL uses to this day. To save the spectators and the windows, a puck was used that day, too, 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 weren’t big enough to accommodate the crowds that wanted in. Take a note of the nomenclature, if you would: the Westmount was an arena rather than a rink. Hockey wasn’t 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 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; thinks about Canadianness and Jumbotrons and cheerleaders on skates.
He sounds a few notes of complaint along the way. There’s 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’re in the age now of what Shubert dubs the corporate-entertainment complex. The hockey arena hasn’t vanished so much as it’s been swallowed, “reduced to a space” wherein no single attraction can be allowed to define the identity of the space. 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. Oh, and did I mention that they’re 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’re lying to you.
Is this a time to bemoan what’s been lost, then, to keen for the past? If you’re a fervent fan of the New York Islanders the answer might be yes. Last season was the teams’ first in the Brooklyn’s Barclay Centre following a move from their 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 a search of home, maybe to Queens or even back to Long Island.
It’s enough to break your heart, as a hockey fan. We’re a hardened bunch now, though, aren’t we, after all that we’ve seen? We’re 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 in this age we’re in. Aren’t we?
Howard Shubert doesn’t share strong feelings on any of this — or maybe he feels it’s 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 wasn’t 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’d thought about stopping in on the way to the game at the Potemkin Village that the NHL had up and running during World Cup week, offering — sorry, my mistake, a little slip there, it was actually the Scotiabank World Cup of Hockey Fan Village. Anyway, I didn’t go. I headed straight for the game. I was on my own, which I didn’t mind, since I had work to do, involving careful watching of just how we were inhabiting that air-conditioned space.
My report: we were dressed up in Finnish blue and Russian red, with many fun accessories, including fur bonnets and small stuffed bears (Russians) and yellow sou’wester fisherman hats (Finns). We bought $14 beer and, because we were more than a little hungry, we thought about ordering a $16.25 sushi burrito. The ACC announcer, who was loud and very chipper, told us to post our photos on social media and don’t forget the hashtag (don’t remember what it was). “Fans!” he called to us, imperatively, when he wanted he wanted our attention, so we knew how important it was that we listen up.
The music was loud and Top-40, it shook us in our seats, and the lights were bright, for TV, illuminating us to the point that we felt a little like we were inside our TVs, which I guess we were — anyway, we felt very garish, exposed, as you do when you’re at risk of an errant puck flying off Henrik Sedin’s stick and smacking you in the temple. We worried, too, about what to do if the camera found us and beamed us up onto the big screen over centre ice, would we wave to ourselves, or pretend we weren’t aware, or … dance?
It was exhausting, with so much corporate concern focussed on every one of us in the building, are you sufficiently entertained, need another beer? 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 difficult, too, to remember not to watch the ginormous screen above the ice as the real live hockey swirled directly in front of me. We felt bad for the Finns, who kept hitting posts. We held up signs (I’m Skipping School To See You, Ovie!); some of us hoped to assist Finland’s ESSO-sponsored powerplay by screaming at it.
It was a good game. I won’t say that I was actively searching the upper reaches of that non-arena for anything other than the score of the game. All I’m saying is that 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 don’t know whether it’s a permanent situation or not, but be advised that if you’re headed there anytime soon, it might be a good idea to bring your own, just in case.
Architecture On Ice: A History of the Hockey Arena
McGill-Queen’s University Press
$49.95 320 pp.