From proposal to fundraising to contracts to construction and completion all in about a year! In 1937, the people of St. Catharines decided they needed a hockey arena, and fast! Host Sean Dineley visits the Garden City Arena to get a good look at the legendary puck palace that has stood for 85 years but will soon be gone forever. This is History from Here: a video series presented by the St. Catharines Museum and Welland Canals Centre.
The Garden City Arena has a storied history that involves numerous tenant changes, name changes, additions, and renovations. The arena was built in response to the growing popularity and organisation of hockey in St. Catharines where, up to that point, the sport had been limited to natural ice on ponds, in barns, and even on the old Welland Canal. By the 1930s, modern facilities were popping up in smaller communities like Grimsby and Niagara Falls while St. Catharines lagged behind. During this period local teams were sometimes forced to play “home games” in these neighbouring towns when natural ice was unsuitable. When Thorold opened its arena in 1937, it was the last straw, and St. Catharines sprang into action.
Construction costs for the Garden City Arena were split between city funds and public fundraising. The hockey-starved public raised their $40,000 portion in only five days, a remarkable achievement considering this was during the Great Depression and the sum equals close to $800,000 in modern terms! Despite the significant capital put aside for the project, money ran dry before seats could be added. Hockey fans were saved by a last second loan from local businessman H.G. “Touch” Wood.
The original section of the Garden City Arena was opened on December 20th, 1938, when the Toronto Maple Leafs played an exhibition game against three local teams. This game had been arranged as a fundraiser to pay back Wood for his loan. Leafs owner Conn Smythe would comment that, “the arena is the best in the world for its size, and every person in St. Catharines ought to be proud of [it].” The Leafs and other NHL teams would go on to play several more pre-season and exhibition games at the arena over the next few decades, including during the 1964 Niagara Grape and Wine Festival, when matches between the Chicago Blackhawks, Boston Bruins, and Detroit Red Wings were advertised as part of the festivities.
Visiting pros were a welcome treat, but for most St. Catharines hockey fans, the real excitement here has always been the junior leagues. From 1943 to 1976, the arena’s main tenant was an Ontario Hockey Association franchise that was first called the Falcons, later the Teepees, and finally the Black Hawks. Throughout its history, the team won four league championships and two Memorial Cups, spent five seasons as the official farm team for the Chicago Blackhawks, and boasted an impressive list of players. Future NHL Hall of Famers Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito, Marcel Dionne, and Mike Gartner all spent time with the team, and so too did local legend Stan Mikita.
In its heyday, the Garden City Arena was adored by fans and rivals. It was considered the envy of the Ontario junior hockey system when it was constructed and was labeled “the finest hockey arena anywhere in Ontario outside of Maple Leaf Gardens”. 1960s and ‘70s hockey games here were so popular that teenage fans were known to climb rafters and hang over the stands in order to get a better view over sold out crowds.
The Garden City Arena may be most associated with hockey, but St. Catharinites have walked through these doors and gathered here for many reasons. The St. Catharines Athletics lacrosse team played here as well as other locations in the city. Two of their six Minto Cup championships happened right here at the Garden City Arena. The arena was also known to host public skates, figure skating, union meetings, and rock concerts. The first time Rush played here on July 12, 1974, it was two-and-a-half weeks before Port Dalhousie’s Neil Peart joined. The band returned to the arena the following year for Peart’s only hometown show with the band.
With the building aging and a new OHL team gaining steam, the decision was made to build the larger, more modern Meridian Centre in 2011. The Junior B Falcons hockey team continued to play here until the facility’s final closure in 2022. Having graced the ice since 1968, the Falcons were the Garden City Arena’s longest ever tenants.
The Garden City Arena’s legendary story is coming to its conclusion in 2023. And though this building has seen its last championship game, the meaning it has instilled in fans, players, and the community is palpable, and will live on for generations in the stories told.