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Hockey drills of a different sort

Hockey drills of a different sort

At a time when Queen’s has no on-campus arena, would you believe there once were two ice rinks operating side by side?

The story of how there once were two ice rinks on campus came to light recently with “a blast from the past” – an engaging story of a construction conversion that almost ended in a wintertime tragedy. Thanks to a thoughtful Guelph archivist, Queen’s University Archives recently received an album with graphic evidence from Kingston’s “forgotten past.” Neatly displayed and carefully annotated are 99 photographs of every prominent city building – from churches, schools and stately residences to federal and municipal halls – in 1896.

[photo of inside of Kingston Armouries Drill Hall]This 1896 photo shows the interior of the Kingston
Armouries Drill Hall that served as an ersatz hockey rink.
From the James W. Powell Collection, Queen's Archives

The collection includes images taken by the James W. Powell family, leading Kingston photographers of the period. “It’s an absolutely stunning album,” says University Archivist Paul Banfield, MA’85.

One of the photos knocked me out. There in black and white is an interior view of what was probably the largest building in Kingston at the time, “The Old Drill Shed.”

This frame structure, the only one in the campus core south of Union Street, was the forerunner of the Kingston Armoury.

It invoked memories of one of the Queen’s College founders, John A. Macdonald, who had the Shed constructed when he was Minister of Militia, just before Confederation.

From the portals of this one-time military facility, Kingstonians marched off to fight the Fenians and in the Red River Rebellion. It may well have sent Queen’s hockey players off to battle McGill’s Redmen.

What first caught my eye was the view of eight “hockeyists” posing with two team officials in suits and ties, not far from a lone goal post stuck in the ice. Streaming from the twin skylight windows at the peak of the 35-foot arched roof and from side windows are bands of light that made possible this remarkable exposure in the days before flashbulb ­photography.

Along one side of this cradle or birthplace of the Princess of Wales Own Regiment, 14th Battalion, were “armouries” where militia units stored their gear. The College, which had acquired the Ordnance land south of Union Street and west of Arch Street in 1880 and leased the northern 5.5 acres to the Militia Department, converted the Drill Shed for hockey sessions to relieve the demand for ice time at the Kingston Skating Company’s six-year-old “covered rink” next door.

The Shed’s ice surface was one of the most spacious in Ontario, measuring 193 by 68.5 feet – 40 feet longer than the original covered rink built by the Richardson family next door and comparable in length to the 200-foot-long Kingston Memorial Centre surface (built in 1950), where the current Queen’s hockey teams now play home games.

The Drill Shed, large as it was, and with two-foot-high boards that permitted innovative “bank shots” in billiard fashion, turned out to have the shortest life span of any Kingston arena. The parade surface, first flooded in mid-December 1895, fell victim “to old age and infirmity” during a heavy gale and snowstorm on February 7, 1896.

“The roof fell in first, pulling the walls with it,” reported The Daily British Whig. “Men were at work on it removing the snow. When they saw the roof sinking beneath their feet they hurriedly sought the earth and had just got away… when it fell with a mighty crash.”

Immediate plans were made to clear away the rubble and operate an outdoor practice rink, while City Council moved to have the Dominion government erect a new Armoury, which was built five years later on Montreal Street.

There were few tears over the loss of the Shed. Queen’s-trained historian William J. Patterson, Arts’53, MA’57, who had unsuccessfully sought a Drill Shed photo for his book, Kingston’s Own: The P.W.O.R. 1863-2004, said the leaky-roofed structure was “in bad condition” before it was abandoned.

The collapse was still news weeks later. The Queen’s Journal created a cartoon of the crash scene, which shows Principal George M. Grant advising Queen’s famous hockey captain Guy Curtis, “Never mind, we’ll flood Convocation Hall and the boys can have a good time yet this winter.” Instead, the teams reverted to the Richardson rink, the first indoor rink on a Canadian college or university campus, where Tricolor teams dominated early provincial and intercollegiate hockey competitions.

Retired journalist Bill Fitsell, one of Canada’s foremost hockey historians, is the author of four books and is the founding president of the Society for International Hockey Research.