With the OHL playoffs just around the corner, I thought I would bring up an old arena with a lot of history.
It was home to current NHL players Tim Brent, Matt Ellis, Cal Clutterbuck, Kevin Klein, Shane O’Brien, and Peter Budaj. Jason Spezza played his last game as a junior there before becoming an Ottawa Senator. Fellow NHLers and Canadian Olympians Rick Nash and John Tavares also played in that rink as visitors. It was also home to Hockey Hall of Famers Frank Mahovlich, Dave Keon, and Ted Lindsay. The St. Michael’s College School Arena is located on the grounds of St. Michael’s College School on Bathurst Street in the historic Forest Hill section of Toronto.
There was some incredible hockey played that venerable old barn. It was small compared to an average major junior hockey arena — 185 by 80 instead of 200 by 85 (or 200 by 100 like the one in Belleville) — but the atmosphere was exciting. I remembered being perched high above the rink in the northeast corner of the building when I was covering the OHL’s St. Michael’s Majors for York University radio. This was before netting at the ends of the rink were mandatory so me and my colleagues in the press gallery had to take cover when a flying puck was headed our way. Intimacy and hockey are two words one would never associate but in this case it worked.
Attendance was also small compared to other OHL cities but the place was packed every game. To put it in perspective, 1,700 fans at a 5,500-seat arena like the Hershey Centre in Mississauga is disappointing. However, 1,700 inside St. Mike’s is not just a sell out, it’s considered a fire code violation. No one was more than 20 feet away from the action. When the Majors scored you felt like the place was going to come down.
If there were downsides to the venue, it would be the amenities were not up to date. There were no seats, just benches so fans were packed like sardines. It was not easy getting around because of the lack of room in the concourse. If you were able to get to one of the two washrooms in the arena, there was a considerable amount of waiting time. Beer consumption was restricted to the lounge at the south end so there was no alcohol allowed in the stands. Hydro wasn’t exactly the most reliable. One time the lights went off during a playoff game that forced a postponement. Parking was also limited on the property so people had to park their cars on the street several blocks away from the building. I guess not many people knew that the arena was just steps from the St. Clair West subway station.
But it is those kinds of characteristics that makes St. Mike’s a great place to watch hockey. Nothing too fancy, just enough for us to enjoy the game. Nowadays, much of the focus has been on venues that can hold 10,000 people and has money-making luxury boxes. The Majors have since moved away from their natural home to Mississauga. In 2012, they also changed their name to the Steelheads. It’s too bad that we may never see a venue like this in the OHL again.
If you like to know more about the hockey history of St. Michael’s College, I suggest you pick up the book St. Michael’s College: 100 Years of Pucks and Prayers by Kevin Shea.