If it wasn’t for the Delhi Arena, most of our youth would have been spent watching TV. But as it turned out, the “rink” was the birthplace of our skaters, hockey players, and curlers. It was also the winter playground where we grew up, showed up, showed off, fought, danced, laughed, spectated, spat, scraped, yelled, screamed and inexorably, became self aware.
The building was the largest and tallest in Delhi, a cinder block fortress with a vast yawning wooden frame roof. Below were two rows of wooden-backed spectator benches painted in bold reds and blues. Sitting in these, one could look up and wonder at the ceiling. Massive multi-ply planking formed the immense rafters in a parabolic curve that supported tons of shiplap and asphalt roofing tiles.
Under the rafters, there were hangers and struts arranged in geometric, weight-sharing designs. These were bolted into the 120-foot wooden joists that stretched the width of the rink. The walls were held together by penetrating steel rods that crossed the expanse twenty feet above our heads. One could only marvel at the steeple jacks that created this edifice. And suspended in the middle, at center ice was a four-sided game clock and score box, sponsored by Players cigarettes, that was large enough to house a two-story chicken coop. Fully automated, it could record Home and Visitor teams scores, count to twenty minutes, and blast a brash game-over siren that was unmistakable.
Here was every Delhi kid’s excuse to get out of the house. We had a raucous, robust minor hockey league that was a rite of passage for boys. Typically, we were up before 7am on a Saturday, grabbing a breakfast, and then hiking down to the rink.
For most of us, standard equipment included flimsy little shoulder pads, hardly more protective than a grilled cheese sandwich. Plastic kneepads, held up by rubber Mason Jar rings, were worn under our jeans, or if we were devoted to the sport, inside Canadiennes or Maple Leaf socks. Most of us had huge sweaters, hockey pants and suspenders. We stuffed the whole kit with our skates into a burlap potato sack, and slinging that over our hockey stick, shouldered our gear along streets, alleys and wooded paths, over Big Creek, and down to the rink.
The rep teams, the All-Stars, had company-sponsored jerseys and played their games in the evenings and weekends, at home and away. Our rink hosted future hockey royalty too, when a championship match included a young 12-year-old Wayne Gretzky. He glided across our ice like a jet, maybe aware of what was to come.
But the rep game was far beyond my mediocre skills, intuition or strength, so I spent my hockey hours on Saturday mornings chasing runaway pucks, bouncing off the boards, picking myself up, with occasional wobbling shots aimed at scrambling goalies.
The highlight was Sunday at the rink when our Junior B team, the Rocket 88s would take on a visiting team from neighbouring towns, like Simcoe and Waterford and Tilsonburg, all within 10 miles of Delhi. The 88s were named for their sponsor, Wills Motors which proudly sold Oldsmobiles. These games were the quintessential celebration of small town spirit. 500-600 fans would fill the wooden seats and cheer the 88s for every goal, upset and penalty called.
As kids, we ran up and down the concrete aisles, popping empty paper Dixie Cups under our heels, razzing the visiting team behind their bench, banging the boards with broken hockey sticks, scarfing down hot chocolate and cups of salted french fries. The fans roared for our hometown heroes like Rolly Thibault, Bob Sabatine, Tony Benko, Earl O’Neil, Dan Barrett and Joe Kelly, who was rumored to be Red Kelly’s cousin, but we never knew for sure. And beside home bench, sat Dr. Ron McCallum, the team’s very own, who eyed every shot, and high stick for a possible injury.
Worthy of note, the ice hockey back then was different from today: no head gear, including the goalie, and no fights.
Between periods there was a solemn procession that never varied. A cadre of older teen age guys had earned the right to shovel the ice. This was in the pre-Zamboni era. About ten of them split into two teams, and would push heavy steel shovels up and down the length of the rink in formation like Canada geese. The shaved ice would flow off the first shovel onto the one beside and back a few paces, until it had cascaded across 5 or 6 blades.
The shovelers had a uniform, too. Not with stripes or corporate sponsoring, but just as important. They were on display. It would be a flight jacket or heavy windbreaker, zipped half way up the chest to reveal a plaid flannel shirt open at the collar displaying a white t-shirt. The jacket collar was always turned up. Their hair was slick and groomed to perfection. The uniform called for jeans that were draped into black rubber wellingtons with orange trim, folded down to reveal about 4 inches of the boot’s canvas lining. An acceptable alternative was the zipped rubber boot which by consensus must be unzipped down to the toes so that the boots’ collars flapped open like Batman’s cape.
After circling the rink, the two shovel teams corralled all the shaved ice into the middle lane. There, in the grande finale, they would cup the snow into one pile and all ten shovelers would push the shavings out the back door of the rink. They didn’t return, but it’s likely they paused for a smoke out back as the crowds waited inside for the next act.
It was very special. A small, quiet, older gentleman with silver hair, Ivan, would apply a new surface to the ice. Before Zamboni, ice makers rigged up a 45-gallon drum filled with steaming hot water. It was mounted on two black rubber tires, and had two 6-foot-pipe outriggers that oozed hot water through toweling onto the ice. Ivan wore steel cleats. He would carefully pull his contraption along the scarred and riddled surface, and opening the valves a tad, create a smooth satin sheen before us. Ivan could resurface the entire rink in about ten minutes, under the watchful eyes of impatient ’88 fans who couldn’t help but notice the “Vandenbussche Irrigation” sign displayed on a tent over the drum.
The rink was the town’s sports center, in use all year. It hosted bicycle races, wrestling matches, roller skating, a little curling – and hockey, for sure. But that was only part of the program. The rink had figure skating too, which was magical, and wildly exciting in another way I can’t begin to tell you now. A weird place for a guy to show up, but there I was.
More to follow, next week.