Our community has always taken great pride in the number of athletes, coaches and officials that have developed their skills locally and gone on to represent their hometown with distinction. Another type of contribution that Thunder Bay has made to the world of sports came in the form of an invention that some say revolutionized sports from a spectator’s point of view.
Although we take it for granted today, fans of yesteryear did not have the benefit of knowing how much time had elapsed in a game, or how many minutes were remaining before their team was back at full strength. In fact, it was not until the 1933-34 hockey season that it became a stated requirement that all NHL arenas have visible time clocks in use.
The Lakehead was ahead of the game, however, having been home to such a device in the late 1920s. Laying claim to the invention and patents of the first version of an automated arena clock was Port Arthur jeweller W.F. ‘Billy’ Martin, who got his introduction to hockey as a player as a member of the Rat Portage (Kenora) Thistles, who challenged for the 1905-06 Stanley Cup. Originally known as the Martin Clock, it was patented in 1927 and was described at the time as a huge four sided stopwatch which could be seen by fans, officials and players throughout the game. Joining forces with the Port Arthur Shipbuilding Company, to manufacture the clock frames. The first version to be used in a rink was a two-sided version which was unveiled at the Prince of Wales rink in March of 1928 in an interprovincial game between teams from Fort William and Manitoba.
The newspaper account of that historic event noted that Martin planned to start manufacturing more clocks which would be four-sided and carry advertisements and that fourteen orders had already been received from rink owners in Canada and the United States. Promotional advertisements for the Martin clock said it would be furnished free to any rink, on a five-year contract, with the only expense being the cost of installation, which was valued at approximately $50. In March of 1929 Billy travelled to Winnipeg, although fighting pneumonia at the time, to help install a clock in the Amphitheatre for the Allan Cup finals. Sadly, upon his return to Port Arthur he continued to battle health issues and passed away in May of that same year.
Under the direction of Fenton A. Ross, the superintendent of the electrical department of the Port Arthur Shipbuilding Company, the clocks continued to be manufactured and eventually became known as the PASCOL SporTimer. During the early 1930s, the first buyer outside of the region was the Canadian Arena Company of Montreal who operated the Montreal Forum.
The SporTimer was installed in the Forum in November of 1931 and in Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens shortly thereafter. Mr. Ross oversaw the installation of both of the clocks during that time. His expense receipts for nine days in Montreal and Toronto totalled $153.
The design of the clock was such that the 20-minute and 40-minute division marks were in red for easy visibility by the fans, along with illumination. The clock also had features such as a record of the score, penalty time and the number of players serving penalties and a bell-ringing capability all controlled from the time-keeper’s box at ice level.
The SporTimer also carried an advertising feature in the form of two revolving drums on top of and below the main body. The manufacturers of the SporTimer advertised that it could also be used for box lacrosse, prize fights, wrestling matches and other sports of the day which were commonly carried out in arenas. It was also noted that it could be used to time the bands at intermissions and when skating took place.
Promotional material at the time noted that, “the SporTimer adds a new thrill and satisfaction to hockey and improves the game both as a spectacle and a sport in that it gives the spectators the additional interest and information involved in the time element of the game, and at the same time ensures fairness and accuracy as to time.”
As the years progressed, more and more companies got into the arena-clock business. Today’s versions provide the fan with every imaginable visual and audible feature they could ever dream of. Mind you the price has gone up a bit. That original clock that provided the fan with four-foot display panels, and could be installed at a cost of approximately $50, has been replaced by such designs as the The Prudential Center scoreboard which was installed in 2017 at a cost well into the millions and is almost four stories tall, weighs 88,401 pounds and is the NHL’s first 4K digital display scoreboard.
In the early 1980s while cleaning up at the Port Arthur Shipbuilding Company, staff came upon an old wooden box. Upon closer examination it was discovered that what was contained in the box were the mechanical workings and face plates of a SporTimer Clock that had never been sold.
The clock — Copy 25 to be exact — along with some photographs and archival materials, were donated to the Northwestern Ontario Sports Hall of Fame’s collection. As a result of being able to preserve items such as these, we will always be able to take great pride in knowing that long before Sony invented the Jumbotron, it was people from our community that invented and manufactured the first automated hockey clock ever to hang in an NHL arena.
Until next time keep that sports history pride alive.