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Frank Patrick was an important figure in Vancouver hockey. (City of Vancouver Archives/City of Vancouver Archives)
Frank Patrick was an important figure in Vancouver hockey. (City of Vancouver Archives/City of Vancouver Archives)

Tom Hawthorn

A centennial for ice hockey on Vancouver Island Add to ...

The arena opened to great fanfare, a ticket sold for every seat, the standing room area packed to the building’s timber rafters.

A band struck up the national anthem as the lieutenant-governor entered the building. The hockey teams then skated onto the ice, the home side first, followed by the visitors.

The vice-regal officer stepped onto ice made hard and cold by an ingenious system of pipes beneath the surface. Thomas Wilson Paterson, a railway contractor and former politician, dropped the puck for a ceremonial opening faceoff.

One hundred years ago today, on Jan. 2, 1912, the exciting sport of ice hockey made its professional debut on Vancouver Island at a new arena built in Oak Bay, just outside the city of Victoria’s boundaries.

“The sport is all it was cracked up to be and more,” trilled the Daily Times after the game.

“With all due reverence to cricket, we think hockey is a trifle faster.”

It seems hard to imagine a game now so deeply associated with Canadian identity needed any introduction at any time in the Dominion. Hockey was played in the province, especially in the mining towns in the frozen valleys of the Kootenays, but fair weather on southern Vancouver Island permitted only the occasional children’s game of shinny on a frozen shallow pond.

On that day a century ago, the seven players of the New Westminster Royals sailed across the strait to play the Victoria Senators in the inaugural game of the three-team Pacific Coast Hockey Association.

The modern arena with artificial ice, as well as the three teams and the league in which they played, were the creation of Frank and Lester Patrick, ambitious and far-sighted brothers who had made a fortune with their father in the lumber business.

The brothers played pro hockey back east. They figured another fortune was to be made in promoting the sport in the booming Pacific port cities. They intended to challenge for the Stanley Cup, which even then inspired fevered dreams of hockey glory.

In Vancouver, they built a grand $175,000 arena on Georgia Street overlooking Coal Harbour. The Denman Arena, as it came to be known, boasted a seating capacity of 10,000, making it the largest in the Dominion. Incredibly, the city’s population was just 120,000, though it had doubled in five years and the Patricks anticipated further growth.

In Victoria, they built a more modest, but still modern, building of wood. It stood at the corner of Cadboro Bay Road and what is now Epworth Street. (The arena burned to the ground in the early morning hours of Remembrance Day in 1929. The flames, first spotted by a passing milkman, lit up the night sky. The site is now occupied by a pair of three-storey apartment blocks across the street from the Oak Bay Secondary sporting grounds.)

The world-class arenas helped lure to the coast some of the best-known names in hockey, including Newsy Lalonde, Harry Hyland and Tom Dunderdale. (The Vancouver Millionaires also employed a 19-year-old player called Silent Jack Ulrich, as he was deaf and mute.)

The Royals wore black and orange sweaters, while the Senators sported a red, white and blue combination.

The sportswriters wrote in purple.

“Every moment provided a fresh sensation and never while playing was going on was the blood given time to cool,” ran a report in the Daily Times. “As the puck darted hither and thither with such dazzling rapidity that at times it was impossible for the crowd to follow its course, the most phlegmatic were stirred to their deepest depths; as spectacular burst crowded upon spectacular burst in almost unending succession, this unrestrained delight brought the spectators up all standing.”

Of course the referee came in for criticism from the Daily Colonist for having missed “one or two roughhouse stunts.”

The Victoria arena opened to the public with an offer of free skating on Christmas Day, leading several downtown stores to advertise a new stock of equipment, with the cheapest pair of men’s “skating boots” available for $2.50.

Victoria lost the first game at the arena by 8-3. In goal for the home side was 31-year-old veteran Bert Lindsay, whose son also became a hockey star. Terrible Ted Lindsay is now 86.

The Patricks are credited with such innovations as forward passing, adding bluelines and substituting skaters while play continued. They also sold franchises to interests in Seattle and Portland, Ore., creating an international major pro league a decade before the National Hockey League allowed a New England grocery-store magnate to enter their league with the Boston Bruins.

At the end of the short 1912 season, Frank Patrick suggested the Stanley Cup be decided by a series of games, not just a two-game playoff, as was the practice.

His league sent a letter to the Stanley Cup trustees offering to send a champion by train to Eastern Canada to challenge for the trophy. The suggestion was rejected, as the natural ice used in rinks in Montreal, Toronto and Quebec City would be too slushy by late March. By the end of 1912, the Arena Gardens (later known as the Mutual Street Arena) in Toronto had artificial ice. It was the way of the future of pro hockey.

These days, the Stanley Cup finals end in balmy June. And the storied trophy has even been won by a team in Florida.

A forgotten arena in Victoria was once the stage that showed how such wonders were possible.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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