After one last public skate on Saturday, the James Whyte Arena is permanently melting its ice—a heartbreaking moment for many Thorold residents who grew up in and around the rink.
“This was the hub of the community in the 1950s,” Bob Elliott, the former chair of Thorold’s Runway of Recognition, tells ThoroldToday. “That’s where everybody went, you were a rink rat.”
Elliott says the arena, which was built in the 1930s, was a huge boon for the region and Thorold residents.
“It was the first artificial ice indoor arena in the peninsula,” Elliott says. “Back in the day, when St. Catharines or Niagara Falls hockey teams made it to the provincial playoffs, they didn’t have any ice left in their arenas so they’d come up here and play.”
According to Elliott, the arena looked a little bit different back then.
“The size of the arena, the way it is configured today, isn’t what it was when it was built,” he says. ”On Junior B night—the Junior B team was formed in 1963—or when the midgets were playing in the 1950s, they’d get 1,500 people in that place. If you look at it now you’d go: ‘No, you couldn’t do it,’ but they would. They used chicken wire for where the plexiglass would go around the rink. Many a finger was broken where people were hanging on to the chicken wire and a puck would hit their hand.”
Even the way the ice was maintained was different.
“In those days, they hand-shovelled the rink, they hand-flooded it,” says Elliott. “There was no Zamboni to do it for you, that was all done by hand. It was called ‘The Barn’ because it looks like a barn from the outside, it was built like that. It is kind of sad because there’s a lot of memories in there.”
It's not just hockey teams that have fond memories of the James Whyte Arena. The ice patch is also a significant historical location for the Thorold Skating Club.
“I have skated there my whole life growing up,” says Carly Temple, the former president of the club. “As an adolescent, as a teen, on Friday night we’d all hung out together there. It was a fun night for us. We would put on our favourite music and we would just skate together for fun, rather than competitiveness. The canteen would be open, we would get some snacks and hang out.”
Temple says the ice in the arena was very important for the success of the skaters.
“We used to call it: ‘the old arena magic,'" she says. "The ice was really hard in there so a lot of us landed some of our significant first jumps. I know myself, I landed my first axel there and then my daughter landed her first axel in that arena as well.”
“The ice was magic,” agrees Jennifer LeBlanc, the current president of the Thorold Skating Club. “It was so cold, I remember it used to snow in there on a cold, crisp winter night. There was an old tin roof, and now and again it would expand and contract so that the snow could get through. You’d be on patch and see the snowflakes coming down.”
Seeing the ice removed will be a difficult moment for LeBlanc.
“It’s going to be bittersweet,” she says. “We do need to upgrade, we do need a newer facility, but you can’t beat the simplicity of the old arena. It was not like you ever wanted to be there because it was so cold but looking back they are probably some of the fondest memories of my skating in Thorold.”
The City hasn’t yet announced what they will do with the James Whyte arena, but Temple hopes that sports will continue to be played there.
“Ball hockey and lacrosse are growing, there needs to be a home for that as well," Temple says. “If the building is still able to be used then it should be. It should be preserved at this point. You can’t find a citizen in Thorold that doesn’t have a photo of someone in the family in that arena.”