Until just recently, the last time I was in the Fort William Gardens was on the evening of February 25, 2020, to watch the opening ceremonies of the 2020 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games which saw the facility filled to capacity.
As we all know, shortly after the hosting of that event, the world came to a screeching halt due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fast forward 19 months and I found myself once again in the arena, this time with members of the 2022 Scotties local organizing committee and delegates from Curling Canada and TSN who were touring the building in preparation for the hosting of the national women’s curling championship set to take place from Jan. 28 to Feb. 6, 2022. As soon as I walked into the building I was pleasantly surprised to discover that a lot of work had been done to the facility since its last major upgrade in 1994.
From the shining floors to fresh coats of paint and bright new LED lights, the facility has undergone a great facelift. We were informed that work had also been done to install new rigging in the roof, upgrades were made to heating and cooling units and some new boards to cover the ice surface are arriving shortly, which will make it easier for event organizers to host events.
The exterior of the building has also been painted, and the famous curling rock at the front entrance, which dates back to the hosting of the 1960 Macdonald Brier, has been refurbished. Some other improvements are still in the works, which will all add to the enjoyment of people visiting and using the facility.
One of the highlights of the tour was watching the crew working on the installation of the brand new digital scoreboard which, once completed, will truly bring the building into the 21st century.
A big shout out to City of Thunder Bay staff, including Paul Burke, who have worked tirelessly on this project under very difficult COVID-19 conditions.
As I was walking around and seeing all of the nooks and crannies of the building I was reminded of the fact that this year marks the 70th anniversary of the opening of the fabled structure. With that in mind, I thought this would be a great time to celebrate that milestone by taking a look back at its origins and history.
While there were various rinks utilized by the residents of the twin cities during the early 1900s, as the need for more permanent indoor rinks grew, both Port Arthur and Fort William both built larger facilities.
In 1919, the Fort William Arena Company completed the construction of the Prince of Wales Arena, which was located at the corner of Leith and Archibald Streets, adjacent to McKellar Park. Officially opened on Jan. 13, 1920, the arena, which had a 3,000-seat capacity, was a very popular community facility. It hosted a number of sporting and entertainment events and remained active until 1942, when it was turned into armories in 1943 and eventually torn down becoming the site of the former Archibald Post Office.
In July of 1945, a fundraising drive called the Fort William Community Centre Fund was launched by the Fort William Junior Chamber of Commerce to show evidence of support by the citizens to replace the old Prince of Wales Arena.
After one year of canvassing and hosting fundraising events, the Jaycees had raised over $105,000, which they presented to the city to be set aside for the new arena.
By 1947, construction plans began with a sod-turning ceremony taking place in September of 1949. The old Fort William Curling Club was on some of the land required to build the structure, so a deal was struck to incorporate a new curling club into the new Fort William Gardens, which is why they share an ice plant to this day.
After 1 1/2 years of construction by local general contractor Claydon Co. Ltd, at a total cost of close to $900,000, the Gardens was officially opened on March 6, 1951, as the first municipally-owned arena in the area.
The new arena was administered by a board of directors made up of three city council members, four citizens, and a secretary. The first promotor-manager of the Gardens was Ralph Gorill of Toronto, who was selected from a field of 48 candidates from across Canada.
A number of dignitaries were on hand for the opening ceremonies, including Mayor Hubert Badanai, who gave the official address and dropped the puck for the first official hockey game, which was a Thunder Bay junior semifinal between the Fort William Hurricanes and Fort William Canadiens.
The faceoff was taken by Jerry Kirk of the Canadiens and Alex (Moe) Irving of the Hurricanes. The newspaper account of the game noted a record crowd, with 5,400 paid admissions, and hundreds more entering the building in other ways. The first goal was scored by the Hurricanes with Don (Beaver) Poile netting the puck, assisted by Frank Richardson and Joe Malo.
Other firsts were recorded by future NHLer Eddie Kachur, who was the first to lose a puck over the boards, doing so on the opening faceoff and the first to try out the new penalty box for boarding Hurricanes player Ernie Oakley.
In what was described as a grueling contest, 22 other players tested out the new box throughout the game. The fans got into the action as well, littering the ice with programs
and other debris when two Hurricanes goals were called back by the referees. When the dust had finally settled in the historic matchup, the Canadiens emerged victorious by a score of 4-2.
Over the past 70 years, the Fort William Gardens has served as the site of local, national, and international sporting competitions including the 1960 Macdonald Brier, 1988 Skate Canada International, and the 1996 Scott Tournament of Hearts, to name but a few.
It has also been home to such teams as the five-time Allan Cup champion Thunder Bay Twins and the two-time Centennial Cup champion Thunder Bay Flyers. Members of the Royal Family and Prime Ministers have graced its stage, as well as members of the entertainment industry from the Beach Boys to Celine Dion. It has also served as home to members of local skating clubs and hosted a number of community events.
And, if all things go according to plan, it will once again be alive with activity early next year as it welcomes our country’s top female curlers and curling fans to the 2022 Scotties.
If you haven’t done so already, get your tickets as they are going fast, and sign up to volunteer through Curling Canada’s website. It promises to be a great event and a great way to christen the newly-renovated Fort William Gardens.
Until next time keep that sports history pride alive and stay safe.
The Opening Ceremonies of the 1960 Macdonald Brier included players and dignitaries being piped into the Fort William Gardens. A number of upgrades have been made to the Gardens in preparation for the hosting of the 2022 Scotties.
The coach and players of the 1951 Fort William Hurricanes Junior team who participated in the first goal scored in the Fort William Gardens. L-R: Coach Louie Passador, Frank Richardson, goal-scorer Don 'Beaver' Poile, and Joe Malo.
The front of the Fort William Gardens was decorated as part of the hosting of the 1960 Macdonald Brier. The large curling rock which is currently located at the front of the building made its first appearance during that national championship.
Figure 4 and Featured Figure:
The Fort William Gardens March 6, 1951, Opening Day Souvenir Program Agenda.