SUN Hockey Pool

Heritage and hockey meet in Stratford

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:18 PM ET

STRATFORD, Ont. - This elegant town is known for its magnificent Shakespearian theatre in its leafy fullness of summer.

For Hockey Day in Canada Saturday, its people will invite Canadians to share a venerable winter stage, the 85-year-old William Allman Memorial Arena.

Stratford was selected to host our celebration of hockey on CBC, our yearly reflection on this game we consider our own and what it means to us.

The Allman, perched on the shore of the Avon River on Morenz Drive, is a grand old rink with its white steel arches, double-wooden seats, hardwood floors and the town's hockey history between its bricks. The good folks here claim it could be the oldest continually-operated rink in the world.

At one end of the arena, there's a painting of Queen Elizabeth, Her Highness staring down regally (it's covered in protective plastic now after having been plunked by a few pucks).

Even if you've never been to Stratford for the Shakespeare Festival or to see the famous Junior B Cullitons play, you've probably seen the Allman and didn't even know it.

When the people at Bauer were looking for a rink that personified our romantic notion of the great Canadian barn, they picked this rink. Eric Lindros, then at the peak of this game, skated in the starkly-lit rink for a commercial.

A poster of the rink, done up just right for its closeup, hangs in the Cullitons' cozy dressing room under the wooden stands.

The Cullitons' narrow room (it seems you could extend a hockey stick and touch the guy sitting across from you) is first class – neat wooden stalls with the players' rich, red sweaters hanging in each, pictures of former players who went on to great things in the game adorning the walls.

Stratford native Tim Taylor. Rob Blake. Chris Pronger. Ed Olczyk and Bryan Smolinski and Nelson Emerson.

The ceiling is solid, which is more than you can say for the visitors’ room down the tight hallway, where support beams cut the headroom at a 45-degree angle (they would never be able to build something like this now).

"You used to be able to see right down into the visitors’ room from the stands through the cracks in the floor," said Stratford mayor Dan Mathieson, acting as tour guide. "There might have been a few times when a coffee or something was spilled and dripped into the room."

Sadly, there are fewer and fewer of this kind of great old rink left.

It was a stage for Howie Morenz and Wayne Gretzky and Don Cherry, who will do Coach's Corner Saturday night from a corner of the rink.

Cherry said it was in the Allman where he almost quit as a player in 1963, but in an exhibition game with the Rochester Americans, found his game and started on the path that brings him full circle Saturday.

Like most communities, Stratford faced a decision a few years ago. Raze the rink and raise a new one or put the money into renovating this grand lady?

The town hall meeting on a spring night in 2001 returned a vote of 90 per cent in favour of surgery, rather than last rites.

Now the Allman - named after the rink manager, a city employee for 47 years - will be seen by everybody watching Hockey Day in Canada.

It will be jammed with 2,200 fans for a Cullitions game. Another 1,200 are anticipated for a Junior C game afterwards.

In a town of 32,000, there are 400 volunteers helping out Saturday and some 12,000-15,000 people are expected to fill the area around the Allman and the wonderful river setting outside its doors.

Three years ago this week, the mayor and others traveled to Nelson, B.C., to watch that city host Hockey Day. Since then, it's been a relentless campaign to host Hockey Day and, finally, for 2010 Stratford got the nod over Kirkland Lake and Kenora.

The Allman is one of the reasons Stratford won the chance to be the magnifying glass through which millions of Canadians will gaze at our game.

For most of the people of Stratford the rink was - and is - a central part of their lives.

"Everyone dreamed of playing for the Cullitons and playing here," said Taylor, a two-time Stanley Cup champion who has come home to live after retiring in 2007 and whose star of fame is embedded outside the rink's door.

Inside the door, along the walls of the lobby, the glass-fronted trophy cases tell the story of a community.

Who hasn't looked at those trophies and ribbons and banners in their own rink while waiting for their son or daughter, wet hair sticking out from underneath a toque, to come out from the dressing room after a game?

"The whole building is like a shrine to different people's contribution," said Mathieson.

The Allman will be dressed up for another honour Saturday: it will be declared a heritage site.

The old lady can still be a wonderful hostess.


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