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It was interesting to see how some are now describing the soon to close Joe Louis Arena (this is the last season for the Red Wings there) as “old school”.

What was once thought of as strikingly modern and sterile is now considered a place of character and charm (in addition to the obvious three and a half decades of history.

This fact may also be seen by a look at  Architecture on Ice: A History of the Hockey Arena, a new book by Howard Shubert (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 316 pages, $49.95). The book is an illustrated study of structures that became iconic and of cultural importance.

Interestingly, a recent article in the Montreal Gazette describes the work as “an unsentimental journey through (the) history of hockey arenas”.

Indeed, Schubert, a former curator at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, takes a detached view. But more on that later.

Unlike baseball, hockey has no Fenway Park or Wrigley Field – now that places like the Forum, Maple Leaf Gardens, the Olympia, Chicago Stadium and the Gardens (Boston & MSG) have been replaces and destroyed. Schubert claims that hockey could not produce new retro venues as has baseball (Camden Yards, Coors Field, et. al.).

It was at that many of those classic buildings were lost (1990’s) that Schubert came to want to write on the subject.

At the time that this was happening, people were saying: ‘These (new) buildings aren’t the same. What’s going on here?’ ” related Schubert to the Montreal Gazette.  “There was talk of American influence, of money and financial interests overtaking sport. In thinking about all that, it struck me how little has been written about the history of these buildings, and about the buildings as buildings.”

So, Schubert, who attended games at the Forum with his father in the 1960’s set out to do so.

What resonated with me was how Schubert described the relationship of the building to the city around it.

“Now they’re ‘in’ the city, but much more self-contained — not just buildings, but now more and more whole districts that pretend to be public but are actually private. They’re designed to bring you in and keep you there as long as possible.”

Folks like me continue to feel that the game is diminished for the lack of a hockey version of Wrigley or Fenway. Asked by the Gazette if he envisioned a new “approximation” of the old Forum or Boston Garden, Schubert’s response disappointed.

“No. The memory of those buildings is generational. People growing up today have only experienced the current buildings, and in fact would probably be horrified if they had to step into the smoky corridors of the old Forum. That mist of nostalgia often eliminates all the things we prefer not to remember.”

Even more dispassionately he told Ian McGillis of the Gazette:

“Buildings change and society changes, and that’s how it has to be,” he said. “I do think there’s something to be celebrated in the kind of bond people felt for those old buildings; I don’t think it exists today in the way it did 60 years ago, but that’s because of all kinds of things. I think it’s important to be aware of our history.” 

This book provided an impressive and interesting history going back to the earliest buildings – Westmount Arena. One wishes a better vision could have been present to empower us today to retain some of the best of this heritage without marginalizing it to “nostalgia”. Other sports venues show that a balance can be struck. It is unfortunate that hockey has been unable or unwilling to do likewise.

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