It’s Hockey Night on Sackville — Part One: Building Allison Gardens

It is recognized that hockey evolved early in the 19th century from a game first played on Long Pond, in Windsor, Nova Scotia. Students at King’s College adapted the Irish field game of hurley to the ice of Long Pond, located near their campus. Proof may be found in the writings of an 1815 Kings graduate; later the famous author and judge, Thomas Chandler Haliburton (1796–1865).

Readers interested in the historical background of the game are directed to the web site and to a fascinating book entitled The Puck Stops Here, by Dr. Garth Vaughan.

In all probability, hockey was introduced to the Tantramar region by students at Mount Allison Academy. Skating on the ponds and marshes surrounding Sackville was popular from the 1840s onward. University historian, Dr. John Reid, quotes a letter written in 1846 by an Academy student, Amos Purdy from Wallace, Nova Scotia, in which the dangers of playing hurley are mentioned. Purdy received a severe bruise above the left eye as a result of high sticking by an opponent.

With kilometres of ice on the nearby Tantramar Marsh and ponds, it may be concluded that the ice version of hurley that became hockey was played here by the late 1840s. The appeal of both skating and hockey soon gave rise to covered rinks. It would require several columns to trace their story from the first covered skating rink erected in 1876, through to one that some readers will recall, the Old College Rinkon Lansdowne Street. This Flashback will focus on the building of the rink that replaced the latter, Allison Gardens.

By 1939, the Old College Rink erected in 1919 at a cost of $15,000 had outlived its usefulness. Described as a building of sagging timbers and soggy ice Mount Allison students launched a replacement campaign in 193940. Unfortunately, World War Two intervened and it was not until the autumn of 1946 that another generation of students took up the cause.

As the war was coming to a close, the Sackville Board of Trade also began discussions concerning the possibility of a new rink. Later, many of their members were to be involved in community support for building a new facility.

Don Cameron, Mt. A. ’50 and registrar emeritus, was present at the revival of the campaign. It happened on a special train excursion during the fall of 1946. We were returning to Sackville from a football game in Cape Breton. Mt. A. had just lost to the famous Caledonia squad and conversation turned to the upcoming hockey season.

By this time there was general agreement that the varsity hockey team was at a disadvantage, since their competitors all had arenas with artificial ice. Don continued: Major Waldo McCormack [coach of Mt.A.’s football and hockey teams] joined our discussion and challenged us to raise money for a new rink And thats exactly what we did.

Following discussions with the University administration and supported by President Ross Flemington, it was agreed that a levy would be added to student fees. This provided the very first financial contribution toward construction of the new rink, Don recalled. The high level of student enthusiasm helped propel the project forward.

The matter was placed before the Board of Regents and a special committee struck to develop plans for a new building. No time was lost in getting down to work. A contact was made by Board member C.R. Johns, with an experienced Ottawa arena architect, Cecil Burgess. He was invited to visit Sackville on May 10, 1947. Burgess had just completed plans for a 1500 seat rink in Arnprior, Ontario and was willing to make the adjustments necessary for the Sackville venture.

His revised design and specifications were presented to the Board of Regents; with approval given on July 29, 1947. Following a call for tenders, the contract was awarded to Ambrose Wheeler Limited of Moncton, at an initial estimate of $132,157.42. Eventually this figure rose to $211,842.00, including equipment costs. Construction began soon after the award of the contract. An example of town-gown cooperation came in the raising of approximately $30,000 by local residents; partly from voluntary pay check deductions. Students contributed over $25,000.

Although comparative speed characterized startup of the project, serious problems soon emerged. There were still wartime related shortages of steel, skilled labour was not always available and major financial contributions were slow in materializing. Further, in the 1940s, direct government subsidization of such projects was not in the cards. To raise the necessary capital, a separate company, to be known as Allison Gardens Limited was created.

On the evening of Dec. 4, 1948 all roads led to Sackville. A capacity crowd was on hand for the official opening of the newly completed rink. Once the ceremonial handing over of the keys from contractor, Ambrose Wheeler to Dr. N.A. Hesler, chair of the the Board of Regents had taken place, the program began.

An exhibition by members of the Halifax Skating Club was followed by a hockey game which saw a team of co-eds pitted against the boys from Bermuda and the West Indies. Since many of the latter had never donned skates before, the result was predictably entertaining. Then came a game of Ice Polo featuring teams from two local service clubs the Kinsmen and Rotarians. While no record of the final score was recorded, one spectator remembered that Dr. Flemington, in goal for the Rotarians,easily won the MVP award.

A general skate ended the evening, when dozens of anxiously waiting spectators leaped over the boards. Music was provided by the Sackville Citizens Band. Prominent among the first skaters were Dr. George J. Trueman, President Emeritus (age 77) and A.R. Tingley (age 83) from Amherst. Allison Gardens was well and truly launched!

Another noteworthy event took place when the nationally acclaimed Skating Sensations of 1950 starring Barbara Ann Scott came to Allison Gardens. A renowned athlete, Scott won gold for Canada in the Olympic figure skating competition at St. Moritz in 1948. Three performances were held, and many people still recall Scotts thrilling solo number On Wings of Song. Another special feature The Teddy Bears Picnic took the children by storm. Clearly, this production would not have visited Sackville were it not for Allison Gardens.

To be a financial success, such events and others like it, required arenas with a large seating capacity. Despite capacity crowds, only a small profit was realized from this 1950 show. Yet, the mere fact that people still recall with appreciation, Scotts gala performance, proves that such events cannot be measured solely in terms of money raised. For all of its many years, this old rink was destined to play an important role in enriching local sports and culture.

The next Flashback, to be published Apr. 18, will provide an overview of Allison Gardens from 1948 to 1975. Emphasis will be placed on a selection of the numerous teams and individual players who made Hockey Night In Sackville a reality…