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Memorial Arena left a capital legacy

Despite a shaky start and a history of missteps, the Barn on Blanshard had plenty of good times

As Victoria's first major building project after the Second World War, Memorial Arena was a bit of an embarrassment. The "Barn on Blanshard" was well over budget and behind schedule - and that was just the beginning.

The idea for an arena arose during the war. City council and a citizens' group decided a showpiece on Blanshard Street would be the best way to pay tribute to those killed fighting in Europe and the Pacific.

There was another reason: A 1944 fire had destroyed the arena at the old Willows Exhibition Grounds in Oak Bay.

Greater Victoria needed a new ice surface, and an arena that could double as a war memorial was a convenient way to go.

In May 1944, representatives from the Kinsmen Club and Board of Trade raised the idea, and soon, the good citizens of Victoria were contributing to a building fund, raising $65,000.

The initial design was nothing like what was finally built. The arena was supposed to have a peaked roof and shops at street level to help cover operating costs. The first estimates were $215,000, so the city covered the shortfall with a $150,000 debenture.

Clearing the site began in June 1945. A few months later, plans for commercial space were dropped and the arena was given the distinctive barrel roofline we came to know and, um, love. Construction started in June 1946, and things began to go wrong soon after.

In January, the city had added the proceeds from the sale of its Willows property as well as Willows insurance money to the arena fund, which stood at $403,000. By then, the projected cost had soared to around $500,000.

The roof went up in 1947, but the site sat idle for months while the city tried to figure out how to pay for the remaining work. In November, the city announced the arena would open in September 1948. A few weeks after making that bold prediction, it confessed the projected cost was now $800,000. The city needed voters to approve another borrowing bylaw to help cover the cost.

Taxpayers approved another $325,000 in May 1948, which got work going again. Four months later, with $750,000 invested, the city's building inspector decreed that another $25,000 would be needed. He was out by only $240,000.

Ever-patient voters approved a $265,000 loan in December 1948. Total cost in the end: $1.2 million.

The arena was a classic example of how not to build a public project. With too many people involved, there was no clear authority. Plans were fuzzy at best; officials weren't clear on the seating capacity even as the project was nearing completion.

Some of Victoria's lighter-fingered residents didn't help matters. The pile of lumber outside the arena kept getting smaller, even when construction was stalled. Finally, a bright light at city hall thought of moving the lumber inside, where it would be protected from the (human) elements.

The building was designed as a showpiece - it was the first all-concrete arena built in Canada. Bugs were to be expected, but some of the problems were just silly.

The bleacher walls had to be lowered 35 cm to allow a view of the ice surface. The surface itself had to be lowered by 20 cm. And after the boiler room was finished, it was discovered the boiler would not fit through the door. Workers had to punch a hole in the wall.

Finally, in the summer of 1949, the floor was finally in place and the building was complete. The first event, a production of The Merry Widow, was on July 20.

The official opening ceremony on Sept. 25 drew 2,000 people.

The first major sports event was a Pacific Coast Hockey League game on Oct. 10 between the Victoria Cougars and Portland Penguins. Victoria won 4-1.

Still, there was no end to the grief.

The $1.2-million investment was a financial headache for the city, with a dripping roof, leaking brine pipes, cracked flooring, coughing ventilation, a public address system that was sometimes inaudible and poor seating arrangements. Thousands of cracks in the walls had to be filled before the building could be painted.

No provision was made for ventilation of the storerooms for the folding chairs, and more than half were ruined by mildew by 1951.

That September, the arena commission was told that turning on the showers in the locker rooms was no simple matter.

The showers relied on the arena's main boiler, which meant three members of the maintenance staff had to be on duty to let the players clean up after a game.

The only washrooms were "half a city block" from the front office, making work there a tad uncomfortable.

One day in 1951, a bunch of fuses blew. It turned out there was no chart of the electrical system, so an expert had to be called in to put together a diagram for future reference.

The lights were mounted so high above the ice surface that it took three times the power used in a normal arena to get the same level of brightness. And lights that burned out stayed out until so many were dark that the situation was critical. That's because it cost $200 to build the scaffolding needed to replace the bulbs.

Then there was the day - Sept. 23, 1950 - when the centre ice clock fell down. Luckily, no one was standing under it.

The people running the arena did their best to explain the mounting losses. In 1956, they said that while revenue was down, business would pick up as soon as Victorians got over their fascination with this newfangled television thing.

But there were plenty of good times. Like the day in September 1959 when the arena took delivery of a marvellous new machine with a foreign name - Zamboni - that could redo the ice in no time flat.

By the time it was retired in 1979, Victoria's original Zamboni was the oldest in operation anywhere in the world.

Despite all the glitches, the arena was Greater Victoria's only major sports outlet for most of its 53 years.

The Memorial was home to hockey, lacrosse, curling, figure skating, public skating, boxing, basketball, wrestling, trade shows, conventions, concerts, circuses, horse shows and more.

It played host to the training camps of three National Hockey League teams, the Vancouver Canucks, the Montreal Canadiens and the Los Angeles Kings (featuring a centre named Wayne Gretzky).

A 1969 hockey game between the Soviet Union and Canada gave Victorians a sneak peek at a 17-year-old Russian goaltending sensation named Vladislav Tretiak.

Boxing champions such as Archie Moore and Bob Olson fought there, and Gene Kiniski, Jake the Snake and Gorgeous George wrestled there.

Andre Agassi and John McEnroe played tennis in the Memorial. Barbara Ann Scott, Toller Cranston, Brian Orser and Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean skated there.

Entertainers who appeared at the Memorial, fighting lousy acoustics all the way, make an impressive list - Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, the Beach Boys, Johnny Cash, Tina Turner, Roy Orbison, the Doobie Brothers, Dire Straits, Nickelback - and a few thousand others.

G eorge Formby's performance in October 1949 was, for some, the most memorable. The ice had to be removed before his show, and the melting pit adjacent to the arena was too small to handle it all. So the crews took the ice over to the harbour in the middle of the night and dumped it there, causing a bit of excitement for passersby at first light.

On Aug. 6, 1958, a bomb threat was called to the arena before a lacrosse game between the Shamrocks and the Nanaimo Timbermen. The caller said a bomb was taped to the bottom of a seat.

Did the arena managers order the building emptied? Of course not. Those were different times.

The manager, Joe Dukowski, announced over the public address system that a prize of $10 would be given to the person who found a mystery package taped under his seat. Dukowski added that whoever found the package should be careful not to touch it.

Dukowski ran the arena for its first decade, and exchanged words with more than a few people. In the spring of 1958, he ruled that boys who did not have wellgroomed hair would not be allowed to attend the Easter Bunny Hop.

A few years later, all six office employees resigned to protest Dukowski's acerbic management style. The resulting furor was front-page news for weeks, and became an issue in the civic election.

In the end, Dukowski left, too, moving on to manage sports facilities in the Lower Mainland. His replacement, Jack Morgan, ran the arena for the next 26 years - half the life of the old barn, which was finally torn down in 2003 to make way for the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.