OPINION: Sarnia’s hockey history – from early days to St. Andrews

Hockey players in this 1908 postcard are seen on Sarnia Bay sharing the ice with skaters, curlers, and, at left, a horse. Image courtesy, Dave Burwell Collection

Randy Evans

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series

For the Sarnia Hockey Club, it was huge progress.

In the winter of 1894, its players were granted permission to move indoors to the two-year-old St. Andrews Rink, across the street from St. Andrew’s Church in downtown Sarnia.

Indoor hockey!

The sport had come a long ways from the day when strap-on skates meant a visit to the blacksmith. By 1894, Sarnians could buy ready-made skates at Gwyn’s Gunsmith Shop, Neil’s Boot and Shoe Store, and other dry goods retailers.

Playing shinny outdoors on Sarnia Bay wasn’t all bad – especially if the wind was at your back. But the Bay definitely had drawbacks.

Hockey players had to share the limited ice with curlers, recreational skaters, sleighers, and horse-racing teams (with their residual patties).

That same winter one guy added to the muddle with a new contraption:

“A skater navigating the frozen surface of the Bay, with sails to utilize the wind as a propelling power has been one of the novelties of the New Year,” The Observer noted in January of 1885.

Most of all, hockey on the Bay depended on the weather, and it wasn’t always up to freezing water. While climate data indicates our winters are getting warmer, news reports of the day reveal melting spells weren’t uncommon in the 19th century.

— “Very mild weather… River still quite clear and boats running regularly as usual.” (February, 1858)

— “The river in front of the town is perfectly open.” (January, 1859)

— “Sleighing is exceedingly backward this season … To all appearances the sleighing of this season will be of short duration.“ (January, 1862)

— ‘The River St. Clair is as free of ice as in midsummer. (January, 1863)

— “The ice was rather thin for safety … A number of venturesome skaters found this out.” (January, 1892)

The risk of a cold bath was resolved when William Taylor opened The Ontario Skating Rink in December of 1867 near Russell’s Brewery, at Front Street and Derby Lane.

A month later, another option appeared when Marcus Hitchcock developed the groomed ice of The Victoria Skating Rink, at the corner of Maxwell and Front.

The Sarnia Curling Club also had a rink. It opened with two sheets in 1874 at 180 Christina St. S. and was the city’s first indoor ice surface.

However, activities there were restricted to curling, public skating and ice carnivals, held in costume with local bands providing the musical accompaniment.

It was also the scene of some scandalous behaviour.

“Young married men,” The Observer sniffed in January of 1881, “would look better in the company of their wives than flirting with the girls on the Sarnia skating rink.”

But when the curling club offered the hockey club a chance to play at St. Andrews Rink it meant only one thing for puck enthusiasts — good, entertaining matches played indoors and mercifully out of the cold.

Randy Evans is a Sarnia resident and regular contributor to The Journal