From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:
In the fall 2017, the Community First Soo Pee Wee Arena celebrated its 50th anniversary.
On any given day of the week, the parking lot at 285 Northern Avenue is fully occupied and it is difficult to miss the hustle-bustle of young hockey players at the front entrance.
With big hockey bags slung over their shoulders, 1,000 local children gather at the “Pee Wee” each hockey season to play Canada’s beloved game. While the “Pee Wee” arena itself has an unassuming appearance; it has an extraordinary story that begins over 52 years ago.
Prior to the establishment of the Soo Pee Wee Hockey League in 1958, youth hockey in “the Soo” was made up of unofficial leagues that played on outdoor rinks.
One such league was an informal elementary school league organized by Merlin Moore and Clifford Sweet. Each school was allowed to enter one team. Sadly, the number of elementary school boys interested in playing hockey was far greater than the number of spots available on a team.
Parents, teachers and others involved in the hockey community, including Moore and Sweet, understood that a minor hockey league would afford more boys the opportunity to learn the sport, developing hockey skills and more importantly life skills that come from playing organized sports.
From this idea, the Soo Pee Wee Hockey League was born and sanctioned by the Northern Ontario Hockey Association (NOHA) for the 1958-59 season.
The league was an instant success with teams playing 12 scheduled games on the outdoor Central Park and Wilcox rinks each season, including seven hours of weekly ice time at the Soo Memorial Gardens, the only indoor artificial surface in town.
In the fall of 1964 the demand for indoor ice time at the Memorial Gardens was so great that the hours allotted to the Soo Pee Wee Hockey league were significantly reduced.
Although the newly formed league provided structure and skill development for more players, temperamental northern weather made outdoor hockey a challenging endeavour for players, coaches and parents. With a growing number of applicants, unreliable weather and limited indoor ice time, the Soo Pee Wee Hockey League was on the brink of collapse.
Determined to stay afloat, the Soo Pee Wee Hockey League, with the help of Jack O’Neill, an Algoma Steel tradesman, submitted a proposal to city council asking them to build a second indoor artificial ice rink. The proposal was rejected because the city was not prepared to build another indoor rink for another 4 to 5 years.
Not content to accept this decision the Soo Pee Wee Hockey League executive would take on the challenge of building a rink themselves. The Soo Pee Wee Arena Association was formed as a non-profit organization made up of the following ten board members: Jack O’Neill, Alf Booth, Gren McGonegal, Al Burke, L. Carr, Jack Stewart, Emerson Bentley, Larry Evoy, Clifford Sweet and Jim Glenwright.
These board members were personally invested in the success of the Soo Pee Wee Arena and the youth who would play hockey in it. At a city council meeting, Mr. Jim Glenwright, speaking on behalf of the association, stated that a charter was held making it a non-profit entity. If profits were made, they would be used to cut the cost of ice rentals.
With the help of engineers from Algoma Steel, blueprints were drawn up. Board members wanted the rink to be centrally located so that league players from all over the city could access it easily. The city offered to sell a piece of land on upper Pim Street to the association for a nominal price of $1 but this resolution was rejected by council. Next the city proposed another city owned property on Lennox Avenue, but the association rejected this property for being too small and not centrally located.
The arena finally found a home at 285 Northern Avenue. In order to purchase the property owned by Lorne Palmer, all ten board members signed personal notes to cover the cost of $20,000.
Funding the construction of the arena would be the biggest challenge for the association. Board members and families with ties to the league campaigned for donations. Local businesses both big and small made generous contributions with over $62,000 being collected between 1965 and 1967, representing over 1,600 donations from businesses and individuals. A bank loan was secured in order to pay the remaining balance.
The Soo Pee Wee Arena was built through the combined efforts of board members, family, friends, community volunteers and generous local businesses. Construction began in 1966 with contractors working diligently to complete the arena quickly. Costs for materials, equipment and skilled tradesmen were often partially or completely waived.
The first ice was made in September 1967 and on October 1 the arena celebrated its grand opening with a public skate, making the board’s dream a reality.
The Soo Pee Wee Arena is one of two volunteer built arenas in Canada. Co-founder, Mr. Emerson Bentley still sits on the Soo Pee Wee Arena’s board of directors. The facility continues to operate as a non-profit organization. 50 years after its opening day the arena and its founding spirit live on.
Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.