Hockey Arenas: Canada’s Secular Shrines

The importance of the hockey arena to Canadian society is best summed up by a statistical curiosity published in Harper’s Magazine (circa 1998): The ratio of ice rinks to hospitals in Canada – 3:1. Now, this may have said more about the state of health care in this country at that time than it did about Canadians’ love for the game of hockey, but there is no denying that hockey holds a special place in the hearts and minds of many Canadians. It has been referred to as “our game,” “the Canadian specific,” “our common passion,” “the language that pervades Canada,” and “the game of our lives.” It is part sport, part spectacle, part religion, and as a religion it has its places of worship.

Hockey arenas in this country come in all shapes and sizes, from the numerous small community facilities with perhaps a hundred seats, to the huge (fifteen thousand plus capacity) sports-entertainment complexes of the National Hockey League (NHL). We tend to hear and know more about NHL arenas and the cities in which they are located because of the top-down world of professional sport. During the 70s and 80s, many cities in both the Canada and the US built new NHL arenas, while others lost their bids for new facilities, and in some cases these cities lost their teams. The prime Canadian examples from those years were Winnipeg and Quebec City, and they have subsequently taken their place in the mythology of hockey in Canada. While their respective battles to save local NHL hockey – and as some saw it, to save their cities – was intriguing and to some even heart-wrenching, for myself, it paled in comparison to the story of Radisson, Saskatchewan in the 1980s!

In 1986, Radisson, a small prairie town of 434 people, was trying to raise funds to replace their aging arena. The issue was simple: replace the arena or lose the community. The people of Radisson had reasoned that the first thing to go is the arena, then in succession the gas station, the school, the co-op, and finally the town itself. While this may seem a tad melodramatic, it is a scenario that has frequently played out over the years in many small towns like Radisson across the country. It is also something that the people of Saskatchewan have been dealing with for some time, as technology and changing cultural and economic patterns made obsolete many of its 800 communities. The ones that survive are the ones that can provide the amenities to keep the people there.

Why is this story more intriguing than the examples of Winnipeg and Quebec City? It is really a question of scale: when a fundraising dinner was held to kick off Radisson’s arena campaign, 420 of the community’s 434 people attended! This kind of dedication to the cause was repeated time and time again over the course of the campaign. But the most amazing aspect of this story, and the one that perhaps best illustrates the importance of hockey to Canadian culture and community, is the now legendary story of Joe Tutt. Tutt, then a twenty-five-year-old driveway contractor who had heard about Radisson’s situation through a national media campaign sponsored by the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, decided to cycle around 1,875 miles from his home in Milton, Ontario (yes, he did not even live in the province let alone the town of Radisson), to Radisson to raise funds for the arena. He not only completed the trip, raising $25,000, he subsequently refused the return air ticket purchased for him by the townspeople, because the trip had raised less than he hoped for. He got back on his bike after a few days’ rest and cycled back home, raising an additional $10,000! To my knowledge, there has never been an effort made such as this to raise money for a new hospital, which might explain in part the statistical oddity quoted in Harper’s Magazine mentioned above!

There are two reasons for this rather protracted introduction to the cultural significance of hockey arenas: first, it is important to understand how widespread and deeply ingrained the game of hockey is on the Canadian psyche; and second, while the discussion that follows deals specifically with NHL arenas, this by no means indicates their superiority over smaller regional facilities. Again, it’s a question of scale. The focus here is primarily on Vancouver and Montreal, as both these NHL cities opened new state-of-the-art arenas in 1995 and 1996. The contrast between the new buildings, as well as the ones they replaced, is quite revealing.

One does not have to look too deeply for evidence of a difference in dialect in “the language that pervades Canada.” While Vancouver’s newspapers reported daily on the Canucks’ progress as a team, the Montreal papers wondered if this year’s Canadiens team was another dynasty in the making. Canadiens fans have always believed in their history and legacy; Canuck fans are still waiting for theirs to materialize. Such is the difference in this country between a team founded in 1909, and one that was formed in 1970 after the league’s second expansion. The most illuminating evidence of this difference in dialect can be seen by examining the coverage of the closing and subsequent opening of each city’s NHL arena. When the Vancouver Canucks started the 1995-96 season in their new home, GM [General Motors] Place, little was said in the papers about their old home, the Pacific Coliseum., as it quietly passed into oblivion.

By comparison, when the Montreal Canadiens began playing in the new, then called, Molson Center near the end of 1996, the closing of the old Montreal Forum was orchestrated as a nostalgia-ridden, gut-wrenching event. Consider the language of the following headline: “Vancouver City officials unsure of what to do with the Coliseum,” versus “Forum wake starts with silence,” or “Hockey’s temple passes into history.” As the author of the latter wrote, “when the Forum finally closes down for good this week, its passing will mark the end of an era, the sad demise of a venerable structure that has long been regarded as hockey’s high temple.” This kind of hyperbole was the norm in the days leading up to the last game to be played in the Montreal Forum. And while the more cynical among us may attribute this groundswell of emotion to shameless advertising on the part of the NHL, for myself it is hard to believe it was all insincere.

Earlier, when I referred to the “language” of hockey, I was really commenting on the inherent connection between language and culture. Since hockey is definitely a major part of Canadian culture – indeed, a culture unto itself – then its language evokes meaning and understanding from those that share in that culture, while leaving others baffled, perhaps understanding the words but not the way in which they are being used. In “Farewell to the Forum,” financial analyst Francis Scarpaleggia shared his connection with his readers:

I had entered a physical and spiritual landmark. The Forum was more than a hockey arena. It had value beyond the purely functional. It figured in anecdotes that became part of family histories, stood as a symbol of the national spirit, and functioned as a microcosm of the larger society outside…. The Forum is more than a storehouse of personal memories. It is a part of the soul of the nation, a place where the country’s myths are played out in weekly rituals. Players, rugged, independent yet graceful, move over frozen ground like coureurs de bois, overcoming the obstacles in their path with grim determination and roots carved from the wood of the land…Besides its role as guardian of the country’s sacred myths, the Forum has been a mirror of the society that surrounds it…The Forum is more than the world shrine of a fast and exciting sport…It is a crucible in which individuals from around the world are transformed into Canadians.

To some, this way of speaking about a building may seem unnatural, even a little overstated, but to many Canadians – and more importantly to many Montrealer’s – it is perfectly acceptable, even warranted. What is particularly interesting about this article is that it was written in 1989, when talk of a new arena was just that, talk. One can only wonder what Mr. Scarpaleggia would have been saying in 1996!

In Vancouver, debate over what to do with the Pacific Coliseum after the Canucks moved to their new home was virtually non-existent; in Montreal, there was a persistent “buzz” over the possibility that the Forum might be razed. At the time, Derek Drummond, the director of the school of architecture at McGill University, said that the proposed demolition of the Montreal Forum “focuses our attention on how fragile our urban environments have become; … it reveals how little our collective memories and traditions are valued by not only the corporations who make such proposals but also by those in our community who purport to protect our heritage.” Drummond, who felt that the Montreal Forum was regarded both locally and internationally as the “high altar of hockey,” also stated that, “As do all these great places, the Forum evoked an emotional response that was based on far more than its mere physical structure. In a society where hockey has always been more than just a game, the Forum assumes a role far greater than that of just another arena. To destroy it will be tantamount to cutting out a piece of the heart of Montreal.” Well, the Forum was never razed! However, after the departure of the Canadiens, the building was used to film some arena sequences for Brian De Palma’s 1998 film Snake Eyes, and then the interior was completely gutted and turned into an entertainment complex, which in my mind is pretty closed to razing! The Pacific Coliseum on the other hand has been updated and was used as a venue for the 2010 Winter Olympics, as well as many other sporting and entertainment events.

What is immediately clear from Drummond’s thoughts is that there is much more to the Forum than its merits as a piece of architecture. Here, the importance of brick and mortar is supplanted by collective memories. It is the people that give these buildings life, and it is their shared cultural activities that give these buildings meaning. This is precisely’ what Drummond meant when he further stated that “for the vast majority of the population the urban places that evoke the most poignant memories are not necessarily those of architectural significance.” Montreal sports columnist Jack Todd summed it up best when he stated that it was “the people who made the building, not the building that made the people. The Montreal Forum has never won a Stanley Cup.”

Of equal importance to the relationship between the arena and the people is the arena’s relationship with the city. As a civic monument, the arena becomes an outward representation of the city, a badge the city may wear with pride. In “The Stadium and the City: A Modem Story” (1995), Niels Nielsen wrote that “the city influences the stadium, just as the stadium influences the city; the stadium landscape is both staged by the city and a staging of the city.” This duality demonstrates the important role an arena can play in the overall landscape of a city. The conventional wisdom is that “world-class” cities, an oft-used phrase these days, have “world-class” arenas and stadiums, sometimes more than one. The importance of hockey arenas to Canadian and other country’s cities is highlighted by the phenomenon of team owners holding their respective cities for ransom with the threat of moving the team unless their demands for new facilities are met. And while larger cities might not lose their communities if they don’t get that new arena, they might lose their status as “world-class” cities which, some city officials believe, will result in grievous social, political, and economic harm.

One of the more disturbing attributes of the “world-class” city is that their landscapes are characterized by an increasing trend towards placelessness or sameness. Towering office buildings, fast-food-chain outlets, international airports, and standardized suburban housing designed and built without regard for the particularities of their physical and cultural locations lead “to every such place, regardless of the city, looking the same,” As Nielsen stated, “The similarities are so predominant that one may rightfully claim that young people from larger cities of different countries have more in common with each other than they have with fellow countrymen from rural areas. The new NHL hockey arenas that were built across North America also reflect this sense of placelessness. This is due in part to the “homogenization which necessarily marks a space for sports,” as well as to a need to increase seating capacity and revenues, especially in Canadian cities, as the costs of professional sport continue skyward. It has been 25 years since much of the events above took place, and if anything, it has gotten worse, or better depending on your perspective.

The overall impact of these new monuments to the business of hockey is difficult to measure, but when these new arenas replaced the old ones, the rumblings from hockey fans across the country were loud and clear. For the most part, people found these new buildings cold and impersonal. Instead of symbolizing the culture of the sport and its fans, many felt that they symbolized corporate control and money. I do not mean to suggest that the old Montreal Forum, for example, was somehow immune to the commercialization of hockey; it wasn’t. But that process developed over 72 years, and when suddenly replaced with something that so overtly represented corporate avarice, people were bound to react. By comparison, Vancouver was only in the Coliseum for 25 years before moving to their new digs. Montreal’s new Molson Centre (as it was called when it first opened, now The Bell Center) had to not only replace the Montreal Forum as a hockey arena, it also had to replace it as a site of collective, cultural worship. For this to occur the memories and patina of the old arena had to be transferred to the new one. The big question is: Can this be done?

In Vancouver’s case, team officials were not even trying to answer this question. They viewed their spanking new arena as what they thought, could/would be, a legitimate chance at a fresh start. When GM Place (now called Rogers Arena) opened, everyone wanted to believe that things would be different in Vancouver, that an indifferent team would fare much better in this new venue because this was now home, You can’t blame the team or the fans for wanting to believe, but they simply forgot that it’s not the building that makes the team, it’s the other way around. The Vancouver Canucks have never won a Stanley Cup. Montreal, on the other hand, have won 24!

You can get an idea of just how much has changed over the years by looking at the language used to describe Vancouver’s new arena, GM Place, and that was even before they started digging. When plans for the new arena were unveiled in 1992, this passage appeared in an article entitled “Rink of Dreams,” (echoing, of course, that baseball movie “Field of Dreams,” based on the book “Shoeless Joe”), in The Vancouver Sun:

Yesterday, fathers were telling sons how they played hockey on frozen ponds wearing tube skates and Eaton’s catalogues stuffed into their socks to serve as shin pads. Kids never believed those olden-day yarns. Today, an architect is telling us that the new rink in downtown Vancouver, a slap shot away from B.C. Place Stadium, will have 60 luxury suites, fancy restaurants with a view of the ice, an office tower, retail outlets, a fitness club and replays on vast scoreboards. The kids believe. They have been to Disneyland…. Hockey marries the 21st century in the Chapel of Electronic Dreams.

In Vancouver, at least, childhood memories were being traded for a fresh start. Subsequent coverage by the Vancouver media focused almost entirely on the high-tech aspect of the new arena. Journalist Pete McMartin wrote that GM Place “isn’t built so much as wired.” It’s been built to be plugged in. It’s also a Yuppie dream and white collar to the core. General Motors Place is to the future of sports and entertainment as Microsoft is to communications.” Gm Place was seen as an “futuristic electronic village” more than an arena. It is interactive, wired for fiber optics, and has “smart seats.” It is the next generation sports facility. And if recent history has anything to say about all this, which it certainly does, it’s now 28 years later and all of the above appears rather quaint, and the reality is that the arena will soon have to have a major upgraded or be replaced!

There was a stadium and arena building boom in the late 70s and into the early 90s. According to a Vancouver Sun article in 1996, since 1985 professional teams have built, or are planning, 92 new buildings. This statistic, while substantial, especially considering buildings that were built since 1996, does not consider the many other sporting facilities going up around North America that had nothing to do with professional sport. This was particularly true of hockey arenas being built in Canada. For every GM Place and Molson Center there were countless regional and local facilities springing up around the country. One of the reasons for this was because so many of these hockey rinks were built to commemorate the end of World War II, and then another wave of building to commemorate Canada’s centennial (1967), and these buildings were starting to show their age. The most telling statistic to demonstrate the importance of hockey in Canada is the following, which shows the number of indoor hockey rinks in Canada, the United States, and Russia (2021): Canada, 2,860; United States 1,555; Russia 790.

The game of hockey went through a resurgence in the early 90s, despite the popular disillusionment with the business of the professional version. Minor, women’s and old-timer hockey leagues were all demanding more ice time and more arenas. These are the arenas where dreams and aspirations are born and nurtured. These are the arenas where player and fan alike are equal; there are no corporate boxes here, no “club seats” where you can have your designer hotdog delivered to your seat, no glitzy between-period entertainment. You go to these arenas either to play the game or to watch someone you know play the game – you go to be part of the cultural experience.

Mike Beamish of The Vancouver Sun (1996) wrote that “we live in an age when cities are compressing much of their creative instinct, culture and community into stadiums and arenas, yet GM Place doesn’t offer much [in the way] of spiritual significance beyond its purpose to entertain and make money.” The spiritual significance that Beamish alluded to is similar to the concept of topophilia, which in one sense is the antithesis to placelessness. Topophilia refers to the ties that unite humans and their material surroundings, especially the ties that combine emotion and place. This concept refers to both the “physical-spatial surroundings and to the more or less mysterious – and possibly quasi-religious – aspects of the experience. The “place” with which topophilia is basically concerned is characterized as authentic, carrying from time to time the stamp of the secular shrine.”

Hockey arenas, in this case NHL arenas, provide the physical space needed for a quasi-religious experience to be carried out The fans worship the players and are rewarded with the knowledge that they have taken part in a ritual that defines their own place within the culture. The arena is also the place “where the city and its inhabitants inherit themselves. Here, the city’s sense of history is expressed, not only through museum-like antiquity and the aura of the buildings, but also through the lived history prolonged by the sustained traditions and myths which are an integral part of culture.”

Arenas like the old Montreal Forum or Toronto’s old Maple Leaf Gardens have long provided Canadians a place to carry out these traditions and myths. They were, and in some way still, Canada’s secular shrines. These venerable buildings represented the outgoing culture of professional hockey, while the newer buildings like Gm Place – the “Chapel of Electronic Dreams” – and the new Molson Center represent the new culture. Professional hockey appears to be moving into less “sacred” buildings. Time, of course, will tell if these new buildings can replace the old ones, if indeed memories and patina are transferable. In the meantime, perhaps hockey fans will turn to their neighborhood arena for their spiritual fulfillment, arenas such as the one so eloquently described in this poem by Kelly Jo Burke:

there is


stale popcorn

wood scared by skate blades healed by falling beer

it’s so ugly and cold and


the guys

horning their lust and rage

offer smokes to the snow maidens

cold-eyed at seventeen

who smile hiding their teeth

and turn back to the game

the screams cut the Lutheran air

when everyone leaves

even the Zamboni man

when the unforgiving lights are finally down

and the ice is again virginal

skate out in the vaulting


race and turn

like the great ones

the rafters reverberate with

your name


the scoreboard shows

that Home has finally won.

Los Angeles 2023

9 thoughts on “Hockey Arenas: Canada’s Secular Shrines

  1. That’s a great “tale of two cities” and the importance of the arena in Canada. I had never heard that story about the young lad from Ontario, quite remarkable. There are a few examples of rural communities loosing their arena, as you pointed out it’s like losing your lifeblood. Only a Habs fan would make such passing references to Maple Leaf Gardens, lol!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You sent this 10 minutes ago and I still haven’t stopped lauging! Loved your “tale of two cities” reference. Yeah, that story is pretty amazing. Sorry I didn’t spend more time talking about Maple Laugh, sorry Leaf Gardens! Ya wanna go? LOL.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for that education on hockey rinks. Who would’ve known?! To me a stadium is Kezar, Candlestick Park, Dodger Stadium, the Coliseum and the Rose Bowl!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A terrific and exhaustive article! I’m not a huge sports fan, though I do follow professional baseball and basketball on occasion. That said, the widespread extortion and threats to leave that team owners wage against cities to try to get taxpayers to fund their new stadiums and arenas sickens me and generally turns me off toward professional sports. The hapless and poor city of St. Louis has been fucked over time and again by their football teams, first the Cardinals, who moved to Phoenix in the early 90s, then the Rams, who went back to L.A. not too many years ago. St. Louis taxpayers are still paying for the now abandoned football stadium.

    The other thing that sickens me is the throw-away culture that I thought only existed in the U.S., but I now see applies in Canada as well.

    Interestingly, the Coachella Valley now has a hockey arena (Acrisure Arena) for the Coachella Valley Firebirds. It also serves as a major venue for concerts and shows, and is where I saw the Eagles in late February, and will be seeing Tears for Fears in early August.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Your observations about professional sports are spot on. While the machinations of professional hockey are somewhat different than the other three major sports (baseball, football, and basketball), they too have their own ways of “corporatizing” a cultural pastime. There is a backstory to this piece, which perhaps explains it’s exhaustiveness! I wrote this 25 years ago for an architectural conference I was asked to attend and give a paper on sports buildings. I, of course, chose hockey as growing up in Montreal, I was born wearing skates, and at the time I was also teaching a course called “Hockey in Canadian Popular Culture” at Simon Fraser University. I just recently reread it and thought it needed some freshening up. I learned over the years that academic papers needed to be written a certain way!
      Don’t get me started on throw-away culture! It sickens me as well. Thanks for reading.

      Liked by 1 person

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