As work has started to tear down and then rebuild the Don Stewart Rec Centre, many people – both current and former residents of Hay River – are reminiscing about a building that was a big part of their lives.
Among those reminiscing is Ron Cook, who was the recreation director with the Town of Hay River for 20 years – from 1982 to 2002.
Cook now lives in British Columbia but often returns to visit Hay River as he recently did and took one last chance to see the Rec Centre.
“I went in there as soon as I got here before they started tearing it down and I walked through the building,” he said.
Cook’s recollections of the building go back more than 40 years to the mid-1970s when he first arrived in town as a social worker, and he can toss out one unusual fact after another about the rec centre.
“There was a rodeo held in there one year,” he said, adding that this was before he became recreation director.
“In the 1980s, when the RCMP Musical Ride came here, the arena was the barn for all the horses,” he said, recalling it was covered in dirt.
Cook can recall when the Montreal Old Pros – former members of the Montreal Canadiens and other retired NHLers – played in the arena twice in the mid ’80s.
“The Rocket was the referee, Rocket Richard,” he said. “I rode around in the bus with the Rocket and gave him a tour around town.”
Other notables of the day to play were Henri (Pocket Rocket) Richard, Norm Ullman, Andy Bathgate, Steve Shutt and Guy Lafleur.
“I can remember Guy Lafleur scoring on a slap shot from centre ice on one of our goalies,” said Cook, adding that Lafleur was retired from the NHL at that time but returned to play with the New York Rangers in 1988. “So he was here in between. So he was at his prime.”
The former recreation director said the rec centre was built in 1969, after an arena that was built in 1967 burned down.
“It was built with regular natural ice,” he said. “That’s why it’s only 192 feet long. Because in 1971 they shortened it. They put artificial ice in, but then they had to have room for the headers at the ends.”
Headers are the turning areas at each end of the rink for pipes that carry brine underneath the arena surface to create ice.
Before that, Cook said the rink was regulation NHL size at 200 feet long.
Other sports highlights in the rec centre were hosting the Arctic Winter Games in 1978 and the Western Canadian Broomball Championships.
And Cook said the arena was the venue for a number of musical acts, including Colin James, Nazareth, Trooper and Prism, along with a number of comedians.
His memories are not just confined to the arena.
“There used to be a post in the middle of the community hall,” he said. “If you held a dance, you’d better watch where you’re dancing. You could have danced into the post.”
That post was removed during a $2-million renovation of the rec centre in 1985.
As for the curling rink, Cook said four world champions played there – Kevin Koe, Kevin Martin, Hec Gervais and Ed Lukowich.
Gary Hoffman, a director with the Hay River Curling Club, curled in the Rec Centre since the 1980s.
“There used to be the Arctic Brier Championship held here for about 20 years,” Hoffman said, recalling the big prize money attracted well-known names in the sport like Ed Lukowich and Kevin Martin.
“I think top prize was about $20,000,” he said. “You curled for about three days around the clock.”
Hoffman looked after the ice at the curling rink for about 15 years.
While he believes it is time to upgrade the facility, he is a little disappointed because the curling rink will still have only three sheets of ice.
“Over the years we’d ask if they would consider putting a fourth sheet of ice because then we could hold national championships,” he said.”Unfortunately, we still have three. That would have been a great thing for the town. We could have brought in all kinds of people.”
Mayor Brad Mapes said there are many great memories because of the Rec Centre.
“We’ve got our rich history of athletes that have gone through there,” he said. “We’ve got super hockey players that basically had their roots in that arena there, and figure skaters. There’s a lot of history there.”
Mapes also said the rec centre played host to many social events.
“It will be tough to see the building go down but we’re looking forward to seeing new memories that are brought forth in the new building,” he said.
A new rec centre is scheduled to be ready for use by October of next year.