OPINION: Sarnia’s hockey history – when the game moved indoors

Indoor hockey arrived in Sarnia in 1894 when the Sarnia Hockey Club moved to the two-year-old St. Andrews Rink on Christina Street. Photo courtesy, George Smith’s A History of Sarnia in Pictures.

Randy Evans & Gary Shrumm

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

When the Sarnia Curling Club built St. Andrews Rink in 1892 its winter activities were restricted to curling and public skating.

But two years later the club offered hockey enthusiasts ice time at the downtown facility, and it ushered in a new era of hockey history in the city.

Members of the Sarnia Hockey Club met at the Belchamber Hotel on Dec. 21, 1894 to accept the offer, bringing the sport indoors for the first time. It was an exciting time.

A playing schedule was quickly developed and soon special trains were arriving in town carrying hockey teams and fans from Petrolia, Chatham, Forest, London, Stratford and Ayr.

A hockey game then — and well into the 1900s — consisted of two, 30-minute periods. A single referee oversaw the play of seven (later six) players per team: A goalie, a point, cover point, and four forwards.

Sarnia’s first organized indoor hockey game was played on Jan. 20, 1895, and it pitted Sarnia against Petrolia, or Petrolea, as it was then known.

The visitors won 3-2 and The Observer noted the “large number of spectators … indicative of the popularity of the game in town.”

Interest in the sport continued and the newspaper, with an eye to readership, began covering hockey games.

Even during the St. Andrews years, though, Sarnia’s hockey scene was still a largely outdoor affair. Adult and youth teams competed at various venues including McFee’s Rink, at the corner of Cromwell and Victoria streets.

The primary organizations were the City League and the Church League (including SCITS).

Sarnia also competed most years in the Ontario Hockey League, with both an intermediate/senior team and a junior team.

Competition came from as near as Wyoming and as far away as Detroit and Toronto, with teams often travelling on special trains with their devoted fans.

Not surprisingly, a terrific rivalry developed between Sarnia and London – “the enemy,” as news reports noted. The tradition continues today with the OHL’s Sarnia Sting and London Knights regularly waging what’s known as “The Battle of the 402.”

When big city teams came to town, the St. Andrews Rink would rock with up to 2,000 fans “jammed to the rafter.”

Athlete and sports journalism pioneer Lou March, in whose name a memorial trophy is awarded annually to Canada’s top athlete, often referred games there. And future NHL Hockey Hall of Famer Jack Adams played as a 21-year-old on the 1916 senior Sarnia Sailors.

For 42 years, teams with names like the Spauldings, the Exhibits, the Sailors, the Intermediates, the Silverwoods and the (no doubt feared) Bear Cats played at the St. Andrews.

The indoor rink closed on Dec. 23, 1936, the building became home to the Lambton Motors auto shop, and Sarnia’s hockey history moved on to its next phase.