Submitted by Brian Roulston
Another January is upon us, and Hamilton is in the midst of another winter. Jack Frost is nipping at our noses, snow shovels are swinging, and dreams of getting drafted into the NHL or competing in figure skating at the Olympics are being acted out in skating arenas around the city. There was a time when there were no arenas, no goalie pads, and no hockey sticks at all.
Long before there was a First Ontario Centre or its predecessor, the Hamilton Forum, between the years of 1840 and 1875, Scottish soldiers in Nova Scotia enjoyed the Scottish game of Shinty. Shinty is played today similarly to field hockey, with 12 members on each side, two of them goalies. A ball smaller than a tennis ball with a corked core covered in leather is used. A hooked stick made of ash and about 48″ (1.2 m) long, known as a caman, is used similar to a hockey stick. Like in hockey, you try to shoot it between your opponent’s goalposts. The history of shinty in Scotland is older than the Bible and the written word. Shinty was adapted by Scots who settled in Canada to play in the cold on a frozen body of water. At the time, there were many regional variations of the game. The word “shinty” or “shinny”is still a widely used term for a pickup game of street or ice hockey throughout Canada.
One of the ways the British exercised influence over Canada was by participating in sports that originated in the United Kingdom. One of these sports was cricket. In 1834, Toronto and Guelph played the first formally acknowledged cricket match in Canada. Throughout the 1830s and up until Confederation in 1867, cricket grew popular in places like Victoria, BC; Montreal; Quebec City; and several townships in Ontario. The sport was dominated by garrisons, soldiers, and upper-class Canadians; the working class was mostly excluded from participation in this sport. Cricket’s popularity in Canada declined as opposed to the rest of the Commonwealth due to a number of factors, including a lack of exposure and participation, the dominance of American sports, and the fact that the game was never really meant to be played on frozen grass or in the snow during the winter. Although cricket and baseball have certain similarities, baseball eventually became more popular in Hamilton throughout the 1860s. Baseball prevailed mainly because it was seen as a working-class sport. The old Crystal Palace at today’s Victoria Park was the most popular place to play the game in those days.
Around the time of Confederation, “lacrosse,” a sport comparable to hockey, became popular. Many amateur and professional hockey players currently play lacrosse over the offseason to maintain their eye-hand coordination, physical endurance, and physical contact skills.
In 1875, hockey, as we know it today, was developed at McGill University, and it became more popular in Canada as the country was looking to find its own identity. On March 3 of that year, at the Victoria Rink in Montreal, a game was played in an indoor arena for the first time. From then on, Canada had two recognized sports: hockey and lacrosse. Men and boys enjoyed playing a game of hockey on ponds, rivers, and lakes with snow banks acting as the boards and wooden posts or even tree branches for the goalposts. Hockey quickly became a worldwide phenomenon as it spread to Yale University in the United States and then to Vienna in 1885. From there, it quickly spread to other European countries like Belgium, France, and Switzerland, the U.K. and Germany joined later.
To play hockey at a competitive level, the athletes needed to be in great physical shape, and to capitalize on that, many of these young men joined the military. Before the first world war, there were games between battalions, such as Army vs. the Navy or the Marines against the Air Force. Even today, some soldiers will carry their sticks when deployed. They have played pickup games of hockey in places like Kandahar and the Persian Gulf. Hockey greats such as Guy LaFleur, Don Cherry, and others have travelled and played exhibition games against military personnel.
Without citation, in 1890, it is believed that the first organized hockey game held in Hamilton was played between the Bank of Hamilton and the John Knox, Alfred Morgan & Company, Wholesalers of Dry Goods.
The world’s first purpose-built hockey arena was the Westmount Arena in Montreal in 1898; it was built because the “rinks,” as they were called then, were too small to handle the large crowds. These much bigger rinks were now called “arenas,” whether they were built in Vancouver, Halifax, Waterloo, or Hamilton.
In 1910, Hamilton, with a population of just over 100,000 people, saw a new roller skating and lacrosse arena built between Bristol Street and Sherman Avenue, capable of accommodating 1500 people. It was located across from Woodland Park and the old Westinghouse property; little did they know the role it would play in Hamilton’s sporting and entertainment future. On a gorgeous, sunny New Year’s Day in 1913, thousands of out-of-towners and residents gathered for a skating session on the new, freshly laid ice. Unfortunately, they would be disappointed when they were turned away from the new Alerts Arena due to the incomplete installation of the ice-making equipment. The arena’s power had only been switched on the previous day, and it would’ve taken two or three days to build the ice. They would not have been able to accommodate the crowd if the arena had been opened that day anyways. The grand opening would now take place on Wednesday, January 8, 1913. From Saturday, January 4, through Tuesday, January 7, the ice belonged to the hockey players. Despite bitterly cold temperatures and light snow that evening, the new Alerts Limited Arena opened to a capacity crowd at 8:00 p.m. It was estimated that 1200 skaters took to the ice that night. A live band, the 13th Royal Regiment, played many of the most popular tunes of the day.
The arena was remodelled by the Abso-Pure Ice Company, and it reopened as the Britannia Arena, aka the Barton Street Arena, in November 1920. It was also affectionately known as “The Barn” or simply “The Arena.”
The city was awarded an NHL franchise called the Hamilton Tigers, and three weeks after the opening, it played host to its first NHL game on December 22nd. General seating cost 80¢, and the best seats in the house sold for $2.25. An 8,000-seat expansion was announced in 1925 and was ready to go. Unfortunately, the Hamilton Tigers, who were poised to play in the Stanley Cup that year, went on strike. Neither side budged, and instead of competing for the Stanley Cup, the Hamilton Tigers were sold. They were briefly known as the “New York Hamilton Tigers,” but by the time training camp rolled around, the name was changed again to the New York Americans.
The Barton Street Arena began a slow and steady decline until March 1944, when it was closed down due to fire code violations and overcrowding issues. It was revamped and reopened again in 1948. Ken Soble, whose name is honoured and now adorns a low-rent apartment building on the corner of Macnab and Burlington Streets, bought the old Barton Street Arena in 1953 and rechristened it “The Hamilton Forum.” There were other maybe not-so-flattering nicknames, like “The Igloo” or the “World’s largest penalty box.” Due to parking regulations at the time, Soble had three choices: use Woodland Park across the street for parking, approach Canadian Westinghouse for permission to use its Birch Street parking lot, or build the forum on what is now The Centre on Barton, then the former grounds of the Hamilton Jockey Club, which at the time had been turned into an empty field. The city and the Forum reached an agreement, and the building was rebuilt from the ground up. 150 men worked tirelessly, sixteen hours a day, for over three months to reconstruct the arena, brick by brick, at a cost of between $500,000 and $750,000.
On October 1st, 1953, the Hamilton Forum opened to over 4000 people. Norm Marshal, the one-time CHML radio sportscaster and later a former CHCH sports and news anchor, was the master of ceremonies. The evening’s feature was an exhibition game between Hamilton’s own OHL team, the Hamilton Tiger Cubs, and the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, with Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. Through the 1960s, the junior A Hamilton Redwings would play every Thursday night, and it would be televised live on CHCH. King Clancy is reported to have scored his first professional goal at The Barn. On the ice were some of the top hockey players of the day, including Bobby Orr and Bobby Hull.
The Harlem Globe Trotters and the Barnum & Bailey Circus were just two of the many events that took place at the Forum. Wrestling and boxing matches were held every week during the winter. Some of the old-timers would attest there were just as many fights outside the arena, and sometimes they were more interesting.
Frank Sinatra’s T-Bird and the original Batmobile are said to have made an appearance at a car show at the old Forum.
Following Ken Soble’s death, The Forum changed hands several times until it underwent its last facelift in 1974. The last team to play in the Hamilton Forum was the Hamilton Fincups, a mixture of the last two owners’ names, Joe Finochio and the brothers Ron and Mario Cupido. At 5:00 pm on a hot and sunny Friday afternoon in September 1976, the kids skated off the ice for the final time at the Forum’s final hockey school practice. Thirty minutes later, without fanfare or even a tear, the Hamilton Forum was no more as it met its fate with the wrecking ball. On the 2-acre site where the Forum had stood, 29 3-bedroom single-family homes priced at $49,000 were constructed, and it would be called Forum Village.
Sadly, there are no plaques or any indication that the Barton Street Arena ever existed; it is truly a ghost of Hamilton’s past.