When I was eight or nine, Santa Claus brought my two younger brothers and me a fabulous present.
It was one of those old tabletop hockey games, with a control lever for each player. Unlike the later games that allowed you to move the players down the ice, the older game only let you pivot each player 360 degrees around his stationary post.
That made passing plays a genuine test of manual motor skills.
The two teams wore the liveries of the glorious Montreal Canadiens and the woeful Toronto Maple Leafs. Unlike my brothers Larry and Vince, I was a rabid Montreal fan.
It was the mid-1950s; the days of Maurice (Rocket) Richard, Jean Beliveau, and Bernie (Boom-Boom) Geoffrion. The Montreal Canadiens were the kings of the six-team National Hockey League, winning five consecutive Stanley Cups.
My hero was goaltender Jacques Plante – the first goalie to move beyond the crease to assist his defencemen. My mind was made up. When I grew up, I would be the goaltender of the Montreal Canadiens.
In those days, and in the decade that followed, we lived our hockey dreams at the old Children’s Arena. It stood just a few paces south of the Tricar condo on Front Street, just south of London Road. We used to enter the arena by walking down a sidewalk entrance from Christina Street in the days when the old Gurd Mansion stood on the southwest corner of the Christina Street and London Road intersection.
Built in 1926, the arena where a generation of Sarnia boys and girls first learned to skate and play hockey was constructed for a different sport altogether. It was originally the home of the Sarnia Curling Club.
The Scottish sport of curling was introduced to Sarnia as far back as 1873. The first club members played on the ice of Sarnia Bay, or on ice-covered ponds along London Road. Two years later, they had their own rink at Johnston and Christina streets, and later moved into the much larger St. Andrew’s Arena.
St. Andrew’s was also the site of hockey games in the days before the Sarnia Arena. It was located directly across from St. Andrew’s Church. When that arena was sold, the curling club moved to a building on Euphemia Street.
The old Children’s Arena was thus many things to many people over the years. But for a few brief years in the ‘60s, it was the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens rolled into one, in the vivid imaginations of boys who dreamed of hockey glory.