WINDSOR, Ontario — People are still playing hockey at the hulking old building on the corner of Wyandotte and McDougall Streets in downtown Windsor, but not for much longer. Within a few days, the Windsor Arena will most likely host the last of the tens of thousands of hockey games played over the past 87 years beneath the arched steel girders that hold up its wooden roof.
On Saturday, the University of Windsor men’s hockey team played the last regular-season game of its Ontario University Athletics season, the players’ shots echoing off the same cinder-block walls that once deflected the sounds of Hall of Famers like Duke Keats, Howie Morenz and Bill Cook.
“I remember walking in here for the first time when I was 8,” said Kevin Hamlin, the 50-year-old University of Windsor coach who also played in the arena as a Windsor Spitfire and as an opponent for other Ontario Hockey League teams . “Frankly, even now when I walk in I feel like it’s a special place. I can’t quite believe it’s closing.”
Windsor Arena is among the oldest hockey rinks with spectator seating. (Northeastern University’s Matthews Arena, which opened in 1910, is believed to be the oldest.) When Windsor Arena opened as the Border Cities Arena in November 1925, the Montreal Forum was a year old. The old Madison Square Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets was a month away from opening. Maple Leaf Gardens would not be built until six years later.
Under a proposal that is expected to be approved by the city council, the arena, known as the Barn, would be converted into a market next fall.
The arena is an intimate part of Windsor life. From its inception, it has been in constant use for hockey, hosting pickup games, youth leagues, junior hockey and even the NHL boxing matches, lacrosse games and concerts took place here, too.
“I used to come here as a kid,” said Randy Cloutier, who started working as a rink attendant at the arena in 1975, when he was 18. “I’ve spent a big chunk of my life here.”
When the arena opened, articles noted that “the ice surface will be formed by artificial means, thus guaranteeing hockey in all kinds of weather.” A huge “No Smoking” sign covered a wall at one end; the grand new building was, after all, made of wood.
The arena hosted its first professional game three weeks after it opened, the Stanley Cup champion Victoria Cougars versus the New York Americans before a sellout crowd of 7,200. Victoria won, 1-0, on a goal by Bullet Joe Simpson.
In 1926, the Victoria Cougars became the Detroit Cougars when the city was granted an NHL franchise. But Olympia Stadium in downtown Detroit existed only on blueprints, so the team that would eventually be called the Red Wings played its first season across the river at the Border Cities Arena.
There was no bridge or tunnel between Detroit and Windsor for fans to use then, so those on the American side took a ferry to see their team play. When Detroit opened that season against Boston, eight future Hall of Famers were on the ice. Keats, playing for the Bruins, scored the first goal in a 2-0 win.
Later, Windsor’s teams were the arena’s main attraction. The Red Wings, with their young star Gordie Howe, occasionally crossed the river to play exhibition games against the Spitfires of the OHL, who skated at the arena starting in 1947.
“I was 16, and we were all thrilled to play against Gordie,” said Marcel Pronovost, a former Spitfire player and coach. Pronovost went on to a Hall of Fame career with the Red Wings and now, 81, he lives in Windsor, working as a scout for the Devils.
By 1961, the arena was “already a white elephant,” said Lou Bendo, who at the time was the 27-year-old captain of the Windsor Bulldogs, the city’s senior amateur team. Bendo headed a group that bought the arena that year for $300,000 to keep it from being converted into a curling club.
The next year, Bendo’s Bulldogs trounced the Soviet national team at the arena, 9-2. In 1963, they won the Allan Cup, the amateur championship of Canada, and fans poured onto the arena ice to mob the players.
The junior Spitfires were Windsor’s darlings from the mid-1970s on, and fans, many of them autoworkers, packed the arena and made it among the most raucous rinks in junior hockey. In 1981, Ernie Godden set an OHL record that still stands by scoring 87 goals. Adam Graves skated for the Spitfires, as did the future NHL head coaches Joel Quenneville, Claude Julien, Peter DeBoer and Paul Maurice.
In 2008, the Spitfires moved to a new building, the WFCU Centre, in another part of town. The Spitfire alumni came for a nostalgic final evening, the old pictures lining the arena walls were taken down, and fans remembered on web sites.
“There was nothing like seeing a game at the Barn,” one fan wrote. “Sitting right on top of the ice, the place shook with the howl of the fans, a scene I’m afraid the old girl will never experience again.”
Vagrant still occasionally drop in to keep warm at the arena. People hang around and watch hockey throughout the day. Children run rampant through its narrow hallways. Birds and other animals have lived in the arena rafters. Elisa Mitton, who grew up in Windsor and is now the university’s sports information officer, remembers when a squirrel ran along the ceiling girders and fell to the ice below.
“It wasn’t pretty,” she said.
Last Saturday, people lugging their equipment bags went in and out of the arena all day. There was a recreational league game, followed by a pickup game that ended in a near-fight.
Then the University of Windsor played the University of Waterloo before about 300 fans. A teenage girl stood guard at the Zamboni doors; her friend was stationed at the other end. Small children stick-handled in the hallways and danced along while music played over the public-address system.
Outside, the modern hockey world rolled on. The Spitfires were playing at the WFCU Centre; the Red Wings were on the eve of tying an NHL record by winning their 20th straight at Joe Louis Arena, almost directly across the river.
The Lancers won, 6-3. They will host a playoff game against York University on Thursday. Then on Friday, Boston Bruins alumni, featuring Ray Bourque, will play the Ontario Law Enforcement team in a Special Olympics benefit game. Unless the Lancers advance in the playoffs, there will be only community hockey until the building shuts down. On March 18, the ice is scheduled to come out of the arena.
The Barn will live on, much as the Montreal Forum lives on as a cineplex and Maple Leaf Gardens does as a supermarket.
“It has a great history, but it served its purpose,” said Bendo, who runs a real estate firm in Windsor and sold the arena to the city in 1990 for $750,000.
Cloutier, the rink attendant, said: “Whatever that final game or event is before the building closes, I’d like to do the last flooding. It would be nice to go around the ice that one last time.”