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COLUMN SIX | Adieu to an arena

A s predictable as its demolition was, it was still jarring to see photographs of the old Pelham Arena last week, reduced to rubble.

As predictable as its demolition was, it was still jarring to see photographs of the old Pelham Arena last week, reduced to rubble. Just as it was surely difficult to imagine skating where you previously picked fruit, it is difficult to envision pulling into the parking lot, taking your hockey bag from the car, and having nowhere to go.

Maybe it’s more surprising that it took this long. When I first began going there, I was on a team of kids barely seven but still old enough to complain about the Pelham Arena. We played games in Welland, Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, and Thorold, and even the arenas that looked like Pelham’s from the outside always seemed to be more put together on the inside: the lights brighter, the paint crisper, the bleachers warmer, the washrooms—well, less frightening. We imagined other teams dreaded coming to play in Pelham and facing our dressing rooms, which were cramped even when we were small, and must have been positively claustrophobic for the full-grown. Luckily, I stopped playing before I was old enough to use the showers. I would not have believed that the arena was barely 25 years old when I started using it. It seemed to be dismantling itself even then.

Still, though, we played hockey in that barn, and we loved it. Competition for convenient ice time meant that junior teams practised early—and what must have felt even earlier for our parents. The Thursday 6 AM slot is the one I remember most, my father shaking me awake in the dark, me wolfing down cereal while he warmed up the car outside. I was a goalie and took longer putting my pads on than most and so had to be there even earlier. Some parents would save time by having their kids get completely ready at home, then drive to the rink in full uniform save for their skates and helmet. When we practiced I would forget how early it was, even if I remembered later, when trying to stay awake in class.

On weekends, or in the evenings, we played games. Was there anything more glorious than this? I could pretend that the bleachers were full of paying spectators, rather than occasionally disturbingly enthusiastic parents. As a goalie, especially when playing bad teams, I had a lot of time to daydream on the ice. I was never good enough to truly think that hockey was ever going to be something more than my childhood passion, though never bad enough to accept (at least for a while) that this was all it would be.

Only a few things got in my way. For one, the buzzer that screeched when the arena’s ancient clock hit zero was too grating and dissonant to be confused for the more subdued horns on TV. Worse still, if we were really hammering a team, or getting hammered ourselves, the referees would instruct the clock operators to stop marking the score on the board, so as not to embarrass anyone. Did they think we didn’t know how bad we were losing?

Nothing angered me more than that—except maybe the other little rules that were insidiously designed to remind me how small I was. With two goalies on the team, I only played every other game, and spent my nights off either sitting on the bench or in the penalty box. No matter how high the protective glass ran, the referees always forced me to keep my helmet on while riding the bench all game long. No NHL back-up had to endure such an indignity! And neither did our coaches, standing on the benches without any protection at all. If anything, they were bigger targets to get hit.

I could pretend that the bleachers were full of paying spectators, rather than occasionally disturbingly enthusiastic parents

I had my revenge on the rules, though, when it came to mouthguards. Neurologists or dentists or some cabal of the two had decided that all junior hockey players had to wear mouthguards. Skaters hit each other, after all, so the law seemed fair enough for them. But I couldn’t stand that they made goalies wear them too, which made as much sense to me as forcing skaters to wear a goalie’s helmet would have. I hated mouthguards. I hated how they would both provoke saliva and create reservoirs for it. I hated how the rubber flaked off and made its way into the back of my throat. Most of all, I hated that the rule was for junior players only.

After a reprimand from some referee for failing to wear mine, I came up with a compromise. At home, I took a pair of kitchen scissors and cut my mouthguard down in size until it barely covered my front two teeth. The next time a referee asked to see it, I bared my lips and fooled him. It occurs to me now that I was probably introducing a choking hazard into the sport, one of the few dangers it was otherwise without. But the headline “Goalie suffocates on mouthguard” may have eliminated the rule. It was a cause willing to die for.

All of these humiliations could be forgotten during a game if only those operating the clock played music during warm-ups and at whistles. Nothing felt more professional than those 15 seconds of Coldplay after an icing, or perhaps a few bars of Blur between periods. Later, when I was old enough to take on this job myself, I would stay on at the rink on Saturday mornings after a practise, when the day’s games began. If the teams didn’t have their own operators, I would step in.

Two of us in the box, five dollars an hour each. Working the clock itself, as opposed to filling in the game sheet, meant being able to play music myself, a thrill I was happy to pass along to those playing. But it also meant wrestling with the prehistoric console that controlled the big external display. POUND NUMBER NUMBER? Or NUMBER NUMBER POUND? Oh no, here comes the ref. When in doubt, pound the POUND.

The author, a champion at 14, with his father. PICCOLO FAMILY

The resident refs all had their distinct reputations. I will not name names, out of respect for the living, the dead, and the living dead, but we all knew who was attentive, who was asleep, and who could barely skate. They had their own little changeroom at the end of the hall. During tryout season, at the beginning of the year, this space often doubled as the cut room. Some coaches handed out letters, to be opened in the privacy of the car on the way home, while others preferred speaking to their charges face-to-face and either welcoming them to the team or wishing them better next time.

I’m not sure which was more merciful in the end, but it was merciful when, having been cut, I was allowed out the back door, free to go without passing by the rest of the team while crying harder than after any injury on the ice. Is there anything worse than being cut from playing A hockey, to A/E? Or from A/E to house league? At the time, I didn’t think so. I’m sure I wasn’t alone.

The arena wasn’t only hockey on the ice. The upper tier was the site of many card sales, a few parties, and even a memorable ballroom dance class. (Don’t ask.) Many times I saw figure skaters out before us, and while we complained about the divots left by their toe picks with much bravado, I always watched them with the suspicion that they were better skaters than we.

Good skaters and bad turned out on Friday nights for public skating. It was a time for hockey players to show off, zig-zagging dangerously, and to point to our misspelled names on the banners. Other things happened on Fridays: first requests for a date, first dates, first breakups. The sorts of adolescent moments that for a while afterwards, you would give anything to erase from history, but which later you appreciate having happened.

The old Pelham Arena cost only $525,000 in 1975, which works out to about $2.4 million dollars today. Cinderblocks, steel beams, concrete, and not much more besides wood for the benches.

What will I remember of it? The smell of the fryers in the lobby, my mother insisting that I take some money so that I would not become a “mooch” off others. Her watching me play, trying to keep warm under those spotty heaters. My friends on the ice. My father opening the bench’s door. My palms sweating and stomach lurching on a Friday night. $2.4 million doesn’t seem like a lot to pay for a whole town’s-worth of times like those.

The cheapest of the coming homes in the arena’s footprint will apparently cost $600,000, or one quarter of the cost of the whole arena, adjusted for inflation. This fact alone makes it seem as though there’s something terribly wrong with what’s replacing the old barn, but seeing those photos last week reminded me that there was a lot terrifically right with what it was.