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Steven Parry, a 48-year-old resident of St. Lambert, Que., has recently taken up the charge against the planned demolition of Eric Sharp Arena. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Steven Parry, a 48-year-old resident of St. Lambert, Que., has recently taken up the charge against the planned demolition of Eric Sharp Arena. (CHRISTINNE MUSCHI FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Citizens push back at Saint-Lambert’s plan to raze ‘modern cathedral’ of hockey Add to ...

The bottom half of the skating rink in this quiet suburban town is a crumbling obstacle course of concrete, leaky pipes and ice that won’t freeze properly until the cranky refrigeration plant gets an assist from November chill. The roof, on the other hand, is a cathedral treasure with an undulating series of massive laminated wooden beams supporting waves of pristine cedar planks.

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And barring a last-minute intervention, the Eric Sharp Arena in Saint-Lambert will be demolished in April to make way for a spiffy $10.8-million rink.

Naturally, the people of Saint-Lambert are torn up over the plan to tear down an arena many citizens agree is a blight from eye-level down, and a wonder of the skating world up high. It’s not just the more idealist Lambertois who see the beauty. When famous brands like Maxwell House and Nike have sought to capture Canadiana for their ads, they’ve turned time and again to the arena.

City council has already decided to demolish the idyllic Canadian scene, but a band of citizens has mobilized at the last minute to attempt to block the project in favour of renovating all that misbegotten cement beneath that beautiful roof. About 1,000 people have signed a petition to stop the demolition in the town of 22,000 just across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal.

“You can’t go and bulldoze a modern cathedral just because it isn’t 200 years old,” said Jean-François DesBois, a Saint-Lambert native who grew up playing on the ice. “Progress doesn’t have to mean building antiseptic sports facilities that are identical from one town to another. We should cherish a gem like this.”

Built in 1966, the Saint-Lambert rink is home ice for 250 figure skaters and 450 hockey players. The ground-level problems are evident. The sewer drains back up, leaving a lingering smell. Built on a narrow footprint with passages blocked by beams and benches, navigating from one end to the other requires walking up and down steps repeatedly. The confusing maze is hardly pedestrian friendly, let alone wheelchair accessible.

In an age of year-round hockey, the ice and ventilation systems allow it to open for only eight months a year.

The city maintains renovating the rink would cost at least as much as building a new one. A renovation would also face far greater likelihood of cost overruns and future unexpected expenses and leave skaters with no place to go for at least a couple years, while Mayor Phillip Brunet says a new rink will be ready by Christmas, 2013.

“All members of council have affection for that roof,” Mr. Brunet said. “But while it’s pretty, it leaks and the ceiling is too low, and its support beams block the view for spectators. The place is antiquated, and at 47 years, it’s coming to the end of its lifespan. It has a certain heritage, and those parts will be recycled and reused.”

Opponents say the mayor has commissioned little research on the true cost of renovation in his haste to build new, and the estimated cost of a fix-up has been exaggerated.

“This place is like a shrine to hockey, but it’s also about more than beauty. It’s about money,” said Steven Parry, 48, a beer-league hockey player who recently took up the charge against demolition. “Dozens of arenas in Montreal are being renovated, and not destroyed. Those renos are far less costly than building new. Why different here?”

A final heritage study will report on whether the aesthetic beauty of the arena’s ceiling makes it historically important.

“The interior design is very unique. It was avant-garde for the era,” said Robert McNamara, a Saint-Lambert architect who is a critic of the new project. “What’s more, the structure is good. Nobody is saying it’s not. I find it sad that a building that isn’t even 50 years old has been deemed to have no life left.”

Opponents are placing their hopes on Education and Sport Minister Marie Malavoy, who they believe could still cancel the $4.5-million earmarked from the province for the project. Ms. Malavoy recently signalled that she may have to hold off on such grants because of budget problems.

However, the city is determined to go ahead, and plans to secure a loan to make up the provincial share if it falls through. “We have opponents who are against anything we do,” Mr. Brunet said. “They are basically against progress and will sign on to oppose anything that moves. Even the perfect renovation would leave us with antiquated features. The best decision is to start from scratch.”

Follow on Twitter: @Perreaux

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