Mick Kern appears courtesy of Live From Wayne Gretzky’s
What makes an arena or a stadium special? Why do we attach any emotion to them?
They are, after all, just buildings. A collection of bricks-and-mortar, or more likely these days, reinforced steel and other space-age materials.
They are the places where we congregate for a variety of social activities, be it your workplace, your place-of-worship or the place you go to escape the daily grind. When it comes to sports arenas, stadiums and ballparks, we ask that they cover all the bases.
First-and-foremost, they must be functional. The game must be able to be played within its confines.
Second, sports is entertainment, regardless of the best efforts of many of us to turn it into a secular religion, though the worship of a Supreme Being and the worship of a Supreme Team often share many of the same rituals, prejudices and passions. As sport is yet one choice on the vast palette of entertainment choices, a sports arena/stadium must be able to offer the latest creature comforts, in an effort to lure the family to the ballpark, and then to separate them from their cash.
Third, and in the end most importantly, we ask that this temple of sport transcend the everyday, that it become the vessel into which we pour our hopes and dreams. We ask that this collection of bricks-and-mortar become the physical embodiment of that we cannot easily define, that we cannot so readily grasp, that fleeting feeling of magic, the shared ethereal experience.
Of these three qualities, the third is the most difficult to capture, and impossible to manufacture, despite the dogged efforts of the in-house entertainment crew to burst your eardrums by piping in loud, unimaginative music choices during every break in play.
There have been a long line of sports stadiums since professional sports took ahold of North American sports fans during the late 1800′s. Yet only a handful have transcended their sports.
Any die-hard college football fan can rhyme off the names of the temples of football, there are zealots who speak in reverential tones of certain minor league baseball ballparks, many long since gone, and the same thing applies to minor league hockey over the last century.
With all due respect, it is the stadia of the major league teams that have etched their way into the consciousness of a sporting-mad continent. It’s an economy-of-scale thing; the bigger the canvas, the bigger the bang.
Even the most casual sports fan knows about Wrigley Field or Lambeau Field. Even the non-sports fan is familiar with Yankee Stadium or Madison Square Garden.
These structures stand head-and-shoulders over their more mundane cousins, the aptly-named “cookie cutter” stadiums. These buildings of lore may not all be aesthetically wonderful, but they’ve all hosted an impressive resume of big time games and once-in-a-lifetime events.
But that in itself does not mean the humbler arenas/stadiums are shut out of the sepia-tinged memory department. First-and-foremost is the first category of why we continue to flock to these places. The action on-the-ice, or on-the-field. This is truly where magical memories are created. And that can happen anywhere. But it helps when the building itself is special.
An arena such as Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto was a wonder when it was very quickly built during the early days of the Great Depression, and the Stanley Cup winning teams that called that barn home added to its legend. The advent of Canada-wide radio broadcasts, with Foster Hewitt calling the play-by-play, cemented the Gardens special place in hockey lore.
Even when the Toronto Maple Leafs stumbled through some dry years during the 1980′s, there was still an electricity in the air when one took their grey-and-white ticket stub, and pushed their way past the turnstiles. The aging lady was always kept in great shape, and while the action on the ice didn’t always live up to one’s expectations, the ghosts of the past hung heavy in the air.
Which only underscores the sad condition the Gardens is in today. The likes of Eugene Melnick wanted to purchase the arena and install his OHL St. Michael’s Majors as the main hockey tenant, which would have worked nicely with the junior hockey tradition that runs through the veins of the place. The Maple Leafs ownership balked at that idea, no doubt worried that a refurbished MLG would compete with their fancy new Air Canada Centre for lucrative concert dates.
Canadian supermarket giant Loblaws came along next, and planned to turn the building into a combination Superstore and hockey museum, but as of this moment, none of that has come-to-pass.
Many were upset at that prospect, arguing such a fate was worse than death for the hockey shrine. Many pointed out what became of the Montreal Forum, now a glitzy entertainment/movie complex. At least they thought to keep a bit of the old Forum around; a statue of the Rocket and supposedly the spot where centre ice was.
Still, many would rather these places just be bulldozed, instead of reduced to mere shadows of their once glory. But would having a parking lot or some faceless office building built on the grave of our memories be a better shrine? Should we just pack up the ghosts and get out of Dodge?
At least there’s a nod to the past, a place where fathers can take their sons (or mothers and daughters), and point out where Johnny Superstar scored that big goal or hit that big homerun, and made the world safe for democracy.
With few exceptions, almost every place we inhabit is built upon the past. This past summer, after a particularily nasty last June rainstorm, there was a mini Lake Ontario between my house and the neighbours. There’s not much worse than a flooded basement, so with bucket-in-hand, we bailed out what we could before the neighborhood cavalry arrived, all clutching shovels and pitchforks, like some Gothic lynch mob.
As we dug a makeshift drainage ditch, I struck an area next to a basement window that held the remnants of a coal dump. The house was built circa 1946, one of the new suburbs of Toronto, as servicemen returned from Europe, looking for their piece of post-war prosperity.
Before there was central heating, the house was heated with coal. I have no idea when that conversion would have taken place, but the modest house I inhabit holds its own ghosts, the majority of which I am unaware of. This long-abandoned coal dump was a reminder of that past.
As we dug further, someone mentioned that the entire area was once a flood plane for the nearby (now pretty much buried) river, which explains the heavy clay around the house, and the manner in which the entire area is sloped.
As I struggled to dislodge the stubborn clay, it made me think of places such as Nashville. During the 1971 excavation of the area where their arena now stands, the workers came across a long-lost cave. There they found a foreleg bone and nine-inch fang of a sabre-toothed tiger, which had been extinct for thousands of years.
It was only natural that when Nashville joined the National Hockey League in the late 1990′s, they took the inspiration for their name from that find, a great example of acknowledging your past.
I once read that each of us walk with seven ghosts at our heels; for every person alive on Earth today, there are seven souls from the past. I’ve never had those numbers verified, but the point is haunting nonetheless. The past matters.
In sports, the past throws a huge shadow over everything. It’s unimaginable for any sports fans not to become immersed in the history of whatever game they follow. The past informs the present, which directs the future.
The constant dance of different corporate names for arenas strikes me as short-sighted. Yes, a number of teams need that sizeable cash infusion, but they’ve mortgaged off some of their days of future passed for mere cash. Filthy lucre that won’t last.
Do the Buffalo Bisons play at Pilot Field, or at NorthAmerica Park, or at Dunn Tire Park? The Montreal Canadiens skate at the Molson Centre. That I’m sure of. Though I think they changed the name. Yeah, that rings a Bell.
So what exactly makes an arena/stadium special? In the end, it’s your personal memories.
Maybe your father took you there for your first game. Maybe it’s when the Curse of (insert Curse here) whatever was lifted, when your team finally vanquished the enemy. Maybe it’s all the championship banners hanging from the rafters, or all the near misses that made you love your team even more. Maybe it’s the way the building feels before a game, as you feed off the electricity of the crowd, or maybe it’s the way the building sounds after a game, as the echoes of the just-completed game continue to bounce around the place.
I’ve always thought the New Year should begin the day after Labour Day. It’s when we put aside the illusion that life is leisurely, and we return to school or work..and the weather begins its slow, inevitable march towards winter, at least in this part of the continent.
Each autumn I can feel the clock tick a little louder; another step towards the grave. The closing of Yankee Stadium is yet another small step in that direction. Just another part of my past that now is gone.
Add it to the roll call of other great buildings. Maple Leaf Gardens, the Detroit Olympia, Chicago Stadium, Boston Garden, the Montreal Forum. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. No doubt you have your own arenas/stadiums to add to that list.
For me, it’s Clarke Stadium in Edmonton, the Montreal Expos, the Calgary Cannons, the St. Catharines Stompers, and Ottawa Rough Riders. The Hartford Whalers, Winnipeg Jets, and Quebec Nordiques. The Atlanta Flames at the Omni. The Winnipeg Arena, though I never saw a game there, but once peered in through the windows and caught a glimpse of the seats. 10 cent chocolate bars at the corner store, milk in glass bottles, Saturday morning cartoons, and playing outside without sunscreen.
The past is a great place to visit, but a lousy place to live. For someone, the Air Canada Centre, or the new Yankee Stadium will be their shrine, their holy place. And that’s how it should be.
- Mick Kern
Mick Kern appears courtesy of Live From Wayne Gretzky’s