Nelson Civic Centre

Built to Last

By Bob Hall

CivicThe historic Nelson Civic Centre has served Nelson Minor Hockey well for many years. The old building has since become the secondary ice surface since being replaced in 2005 by the adjacent Nelson and District Community Complex. Here’s a look at how this marvelous structure came to house hockey history.

In the midst of the depression Nelson’s forefathers had a vision few communities across Canada had the courage to undertake. Described by Vancouver newspapers as “B.C.’s major building project of 1935,” Nelson’s Civic Centre was hailed as the best facility of it’s kind from the Lower Mainland to Winnipeg. With a spectator ice rink, curling sheets, performing arts theatre, badminton hall, gymnasium, outdoor track and field, baseball diamonds and a smaller gym (later library), once built the Queen City became the envy of small cities across western Canada.

More than 70 years later the Nelson area embarked on a new era of facilities. The 2004/2005 hockey season was the last winter the historic Civic Centre was used as the primary ice surface. A successful referendum paved the way for the saws and hammers that prepared the new multi-purpose arena just outside these historic stands. Here’s a look back at how this grand old building came to house Nelson’s hockey history for so many years.

The roots of what would become the Civic Centre sprouted in the late 1920s when it started to become obvious that the natural ice spectator arena on Hall Mines Road and Kootenay Street was getting harder to keep frozen during the winter months. With a thriving senior mens’ hockey team, great interest in minor hockey and figure skating, and public skating demands, city leaders began rumblings which would fully take hold by 1934.

The first men to take the lead on building Nelson a new facility were Roy Sharp and Tom Waterss. Though they had trouble mustering the momentum in the early 1930s, by early 1935 the pair had the support of Mayor J.P. Morgan and the city council.

On January 26, 1935 Morgan took a firm stand for what he called “the auditorium”. By-laws were drafted and the Vancouver firm McCarter and Nairn were contracted to head up the project. The City embarked on a “sell job” to inform residents what would be included in the facility and when three by-laws passed a city-wide vote, construction began that spring.

The entire facility cost an estimated $350,000 to build and through federal government relief programs, put many local men to work on the construction during one of the darkest eras in Canada’s history.

When the ice rink opened on the Nov. 29 and 30 weekend, the community came together in celebration. There was a parade down Baker Street, a carnival, figure skating show, ice races with school kids, and of course a senior mens’ hockey game featuring the Nelson Maple Leafs and their dreaded rivals — the Trail Smoke Eaters.

“The whole community was in a state of euphoria,” the Nelson Daily News reported.

By spring of 1936 the badminton hall, theatre and gym were opened, further adding to the facility’s role as the focal point of the community.

In the 70 years since the Civic Centre opened, thousands of local young people have taken their first strides on skates, hit their first badminton birdie, saw their first movie, connected with their first baseball or saw their first hockey game at the Vernon Street facility.

When the ice wouldn’t freeze

When Hans (Fritz) Farenholtz was growing up in Nelson in the early part of the century, there was no need for indoor ice skating facilities.

“We used to skate on the lake”, Farenholtz told the Nelson Daily News back in 1999. “The lake froze over pretty thick and we would clean the snow off and everybody would go down and play shinny. People did that all up the lake.”

In the pre-Civic era, Farenholtz and all his sports buddies were happy to play on the natural ice surfaces on Houston Street and Hall Mines Road.

By the time he was in his early-20s, another important part of community life Farenholtz loved was heading up to the covered Hall Mines arena and watching the Nelson Maple Leafs senior mens’ team take on rivals from all across Western Canada. Because the National Hockey League (NHL) only had six teams at the time, senior mens’ hockey in those days was at the level that many pro teams are at today. At times 2,000 people would pack into the Hall Mines arena to watch the Nelson players take on teams from Kimberley, Vernon and, of course, Trail.

According to Farenholtz, a pivotal point in the future of hockey in Nelson came in 1929.

“We never had trouble making ice in the early days,” Farenholtz explains. “But, probably building the dams changed the winter temperatures here until it got to the point where it was difficult to make the ice. Traditionally we had the New Years Day game here between Trail and Nelson and we would pack the rink. A special train would come over from Trail with six or eight passenger cars on it and everybody would march up to the rink. In 1929 we had a game scheduled to play and there was no ice . . .that was the end of the natural ice.”

When the push was on to build the new Civic Centre Farenholtz was one of the most enthusiastic supporters. When it was finally built, Farenholtz says it changed the community.

“We thought that a new era in the life and history of this town had developed finally. We had everything we needed down there.” says Farenholtz, who spent eight years as a city councillor from 1966 to 1974. “We had the best facility in the country… Timmins, Ontario was the only place in Canada that had a better place than we did. Everybody knew about Nelson and there was tremendous pride in the community.”

The rink rat

In the early days of the Civic Centre, the ice surface was so much in demand that it was hard for young people to get a lot of skating practice. That wasn’t a problem for little Jimmy Todd, who always found ways to increase his ice time.

“I hung around so much that I eventually got to be a rink rat when I was eight-years-old,” says Todd, who is now in his early-70s and was the chairman of the Nelson and District Community Facilities Committee that was unsuccessful in getting a referendum passed back in 2001. “We would clean the ice with the big brooms because there was no zamboni in those days.”

Todd’s family moved to Nelson the year the Civic Centre opened and grew up in a Front Street house adjacent to the current Civic field.

“I had the whole Civic Centre complex as my backyard,” he says. “That’s where I played and took part in all the activities because I could be there in virtually seconds. We even had a hole in the fence so I get there faster.”

Once Todd did get involved in minor hockey, he remembers a much different place than he visits today.

“The change rooms had pot bellied stoves,” he says. “When we went over there at seven in the morning to play we all crowded around the stoves so we could keep warm while we were getting changed.”

Todd’s enthusiasm for hockey and his desire to get on the ice as much as possible did pay dividends when he got a little older. When he was playing for the Fairview Athletic Club as a 13-year-old, Todd shattered all local records when he scored an amazing 71 goals in 16 games. By 1948 the group of boys he grew up playing hockey with were 16 and worked so well as a unit that they captured the B.C. Juvenile Championship with a thrilling 2-1 victory over Vernon at the Civic Centre.

“Because I was lucky enough to score a goal in that game, that’s probably my best memory I have of the facility,” he says, thumbing through a scrapbook of newspaper clippings.

Though Todd went on to play major junior hockey in Lethbridge, he realized he was too small to make the NHL so instead decided to go to the University of British Columbia where he worked on an education degree while playing for that school’s hockey team.

Todd says the Civic Centre has served the Queen City well.

“It has really been a mecca for the community,” says Todd. “It’s been the area that everybody had some use for in one way or another, whether it was because you were involved in sports or you were involved in just going to the theatre or the library or whatever.”

So, you’re a figure skater?

Mike Laughton Sr.’s journey to the National Hockey League began on a pair of tiny white figure skates. Up on blades by the time he was two, one the best hockey players to ever come out of Nelson took most of his early turns figure skating rather than body checking.

“That’s where I learned how to skate, but I learned to defend myself too,” says Laughton, who has just entered his 60s. “Walking home from school there would always be guys waiting for ya and you would take a lickin’. As I grew up though I started to give it back a little bit.”

Laughton fell in love with skating on the backyard pond of his parents’ Nelson Avenue home. Like Todd, Laughton’s first thirst for icetime could not be satisfied with the one game a week schedule of minor hockey, so he joined the figure skating club. Before he was 10, Laughton would be at the rink with the figure skaters before dawn.

“When I made the NHL everybody said, ‘you are so lucky.’ I would say to them that I didn’t really see too many of them at 4:30 in the morning passing them on the street on the way to the rink,” says Laughton. “It (Civic Centre) was there for everybody, but I just loved it so much.”

Laughton kept spending time between figure skating and hockey until he was 16. At that time he had been identified by NHL teams as a prospect and the demands of junior hockey forced him to hang up the figure skates.

“It (figure skating) was important because that’s what I base my success on, that I was a pretty decent skater,” he says.

While going to Notre Dame University in the early 1960s, Laughton played for the senior Maple Leafs. He remembers the enthusiasm for hockey at that time was at a fevered pitch.

“You couldn’t get in,” Laughton says about the hottest ticket in town. “For playoffs people would sleep on the streets to buy the tickets the next morning. When the games would come you had people sitting on the beams and the fire chief threatening to close the place down. In those days that was a way of life and these days there is a lot more to do for people.”

When he was 21, Laughton went to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs farm team in Victoria. When the NHL expanded in 1967 Laughton was chosen by the Oakland Seals and began a four-year NHL career.

After an injury slowed him down, Laughton found himself playing besides the likes of a young Larry Robinson for the Montreal Canadiens farm team in Nova Scotia, captaining a team which won the Calder Cup. He played three seasons for the World Hockey Association’s New York Raiders before retiring from pro hockey in the mid 70s in order to settle down with his young family.

Between skating himself, summer hockey schools he put on while a pro hockey player, coaching his two sons through minor hockey and now skating with his grandson, Laughton has spent countless hours at the Civic Centre. Like many people who hold a special place for the Vernon Street facility, Laughton says though he wants to see a new community centre for future generations be built, he will be sad to see the old building go.

“I grew up in that rink,” says Laughton. “Between figure skating and hockey, I ate my suppers in there and I eat my lunches there. Sometimes I would start there at five in the morning, go to school and not get back home until 11 at night. I’ve spent 55 years of my life there… it’s sure been good to me.”