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Confessions of an Arenaholic

There are a ton of great stories in arenas both old and new.
by Dave Wright

When you are the new kid on the block, the first thing you need to do is introduce yourself.

Hi. I’m Dave and I am an arenaholic. There. I said it. I feel better already.

When I was discussing taking a position with the new boss, I forgot to tell him about this little idiosyncrasy of mine — I have a weakness and an insatiable curiosity about arenas and their little oddities. I suspect he already knew but, just in case, I thought I should make it perfectly clear.

Like many readers of this site, I also have an affinity for old baseball parks. I was lucky to grow up on one of the great ones — Detroit’s Tiger Stadium — and also got to see several games in another wonderful facility, Crosley Field. Games in both parks were always wonderful — even when the home team wasn’t very good.

One reason was both places had wonderful quirks that led you to see things that couldn’t occur anywhere. As a wee lad, I once saw Willie Horton hit an inside-the park homer at Tiger Stadium when Ken Barry (who was a fine center fielder) ran smack into the flag pole, which was in play in deep center field. Berry went down in a heap and Horton, who was not fleet of foot, lumbered all the way around the bases.

In the very first pro baseball game I ever saw, Frank Robinson hit an arching shot that was a home run in any place but Crosley Field. The ball hit far up the big scoreboard in centerfield (which was in play in those days). Robinson could really run and decided to try for an inside-the-park home run. In the process of rounding third base, he collided with Eddie Matthews, causing two very different occurrences:

1) Robinson was tagged out.

2) Robinson and Matthews engaged in a whale of a fight, a rarity on the baseball diamond in 1960.
This all happened because of the facility. If the game had been in, say, Milwaukee, the ball would have been in the center-field bleachers.

Okay, what does the above have to do with arenas? Fair question.

Although this seems to be true in hockey rinks more than basketball gyms, the fact is the building sometimes is more interesting than the teams playing in it. As a result, some weird things happened that affected the games.

One of my first tasks is to update this site with notes and history of the original NHL rinks. For starting points, we are going to work on the Original Six NHL teams (Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Montreal, New York and Toronto) and the first group of expansions teams in 1967 (Los Angeles, Minnesota, St. Louis, Oakland, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh).

As it turns out, like the old baseball parks, they all have stories to tell. For example, take the Olympia, the home of the Detroit Red Wings until 1979. On the outside, it looked like just a big, red brick building. Inside, one of its main features was a huge clock scoreboard that hung over center ice. (Chicago and Boston had similar boards. Oh, yeah. I’m a scoreboardaholic, too. But that’s another column.)

But the Olympia had an oddity known only to the players and some very alert fans. For years, the latest hot car would appear on the ice between periods at Red Wing games. The car would come through the gate that let the Zamboni on the ice as the p.a. announcer extolled its virtues. After several years of this, the weight of the cars wore down the end board slightly. As a result, the Red Wings knew if they fired the puck into the Zamboni corner at a certain angle, it would shoot in the front of the net instead of going around the boards. A Detroit player would be waiting for this gift and — presto! — an easy goal past a flummoxed goalie. This play was good for 2-3 goals a year. More than one NHL defenseman left cursing the auto industry (and the Olympia) after getting fooled by a bad bounce.

At Chicago Stadium, players had to walk up a long set of wooden stairs to get to the ice. The start of games there was always a wild experience. The sight of the first Chicago player coming up the steps usually brought the vocal crowd to its feet. The din would get louder right up to the national anthem, one of the highlights of a trip there. This was frequently performed by a guy who stood on a platform up near one of the largest organs in North America. (The organ had 3,633 pipes to it and was taken down separately when the Stadium was torn down.) It was a helluva welcome for the visiting team.

In Toronto, there was the famous bunker in the northeast corner of Maple Leaf Gardens. For 20 years, Toronto owner Harold Ballard watched ever home game from there with his right-hand-man King Clancy, a former player and coach and the city’s resident hockey god. About once a season, a puck would get deflected or fired into the box. Nobody ever claimed it was done on purpose. But, during the Maple Leafs’ down seasons (and there have been many; their last Stanley Cup win was in 1967) fans frequently yelled at Ballard from the close seats below. It made for great atmosphere.

For many fans, the original Montreal Forum was the NHL’s answer to Yankee Stadium. It was a revered facility — and not just because the Canadiens were the class of the league in the ’50s and ’60s.

Visiting NHL teams hated going to the old Madison Square Garden because ice was notoriously bad and caused bad hops. For years, it was well known that Boston Garden actually played to less than the NHL-required 200 by 85 feet. Bobby Orr was tough enough to handle on a regular sheet. On a smaller sheet…well…let’s say the Bruins knew how to play on it.

You get the idea. The arenas all had character and originality. In the next weeks, look for icons to slowly appear on the left, telling the history of the NHL’s original homes. (Only one of the original 12 facilities — Pittsburgh — is still in use. By the time you read this, a deal may be complete to ring the death knell for the building that was known for many years as “The Igloo.”)

In the meantime, there are new arenas to visit and information to be dissected. I hope you enjoy the ride.

Dave Wright is an editor at August Publications.