Larry Evans: Artificial ice comes to Fort St. John

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My favourite sport growing up in Fort St. John was, of course, hockey. In those days, you played hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer. Hockey took on various forms from organized hockey to street hockey to front room hockey, played on your knees with rulers for sticks and usually a ball of black tape for your puck.

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Fort St. John's first hockey arena was built over a period of years by volunteers and was completed in 1958. It burnt down in 1971 and was replaced by the Kids Arena which is now the Kids Field House. The first arena became the home of the Flyers. 

Kenny and I, along with the rest of the town, became Flyers fans and attended every game we could. Some of our favourite players were Jimmy Anderson and Rod Fonteyne. The arena did not have artificial ice and suffered occasionally when a chinook blew in. This led to cancellation of games. Then, in 1963, artificial ice came to Fort St. John. It goes as follows!

By October the pipes were laid in the arena, all nine miles of them. They would carry the brine which would freeze the sand that would support the ice for the coming winter’s hockey games.

Work on the arena floor had gone well for quite a while. It started after the bylaw was passed in the summer, approving the sale of debentures for the installation of ice equipment and the rushing by eager fans to buy the debentures in time for the coming winter’s skating.

The first part of the process was to level off the old floor. The floor also had to be dried, as water had drained in from various storms as well as from melting snow the past spring. This was accomplished early on. The next thing was the purchase of gravel and sand to make a base. About 2,000 yards of dirt was removed from the old floor, to a depth of 3 ½ feet. Then three feet of gravel was put in, covered by a foot of sand, to bring the floor a little above its previous level.

Next was the pipe-laying, and this was a major operation. In its naked state the floor looked like a glorified pinstripe carpet, stretching wall to wall in the arena. There were 246 pipes lying side by side, four inches apart and 200 feet long. At the east end of the arena they were all connected with six inch header pipes, which ran alongside the east wall and pointed towards a hole on the south side. Through this hole the brine would come in from the compressor, bringing its welcome chill and then run out again for recompression.

The pinstripes were of black plastic pipe, 1 ¼ inches, outside measurement. The header pipes were of steel.

The compressor arrived in town on October 15th. They were to be housed in a concrete block structure, 16’ x 24’. In this little house there would also be a pump., which would push the compressed and chilly brine into the header pipe and a condenser, which would work the brine over on its return, removing air bubbles before sending it back to the compressor. The whole operation would take about 75 hp, in two motors.

The brine would be made right here, being nothing more complex than a mixture of water and calcium chloride. The whole operation was basically the same process as that used in anybody’s refrigerator, though on a larger scale. The chill came from compression. The temperature was lowered by pressure and was kept low by constantly returning the brine for recompression.

The change in the floor was not all that happened in our arena. The inside fencing was completely replaced and so were many of the seat supports which were showing signs of rot. A dressing room for visiting teams was being completed, with washroom facilities and shower. Though there was still much that could be done, the arena would soon be much more worthy of our winning team than it had been in the past.

The idea of an arena was born ten years previously, in 1953, but it was slow coming to maturity. The North Peace Arena Association had the work in hand for many years, constantly hampered by lack of funds and a short season. For years the shell stood there, without enough enthusiasm for enough people to finish it off.

Then there was a bylaw from the town of Fort St. John, granting $35,000. This was enough to get it working. The town contributed at other times as well, until a year earlier when the arena association dropped the whole concern in the town’s lap. Private enterprise had gone as far as it could. The town had to take over, if the Flyers were going to have a fair shake.

By the fall of 1963 the joint enterprise of town and Flyers had worked well. So well, in fact, that there was talk of the arena being too small and needing enlargement, or even replacement. The arena was 120 feet wide, with an ice width of 85 feet and 250 feet long. It was 45 feet high. In addition, there was an annex at the west end which contained a coffee shop.

It was expected that it would take two weeks to set up the equipment and get the ice in shape, then skating could start. There would be time for some exhibition games before the league games started. In addition, minor hockey and figure skating classes could get going at least a month earlier than usual.

To make the ice, more sand would be spread on the floor, enough just to cover the plastic pipes. Then, with the brine running through, the sand would be gently sprayed, until a bed of frozen sand had built up. On top of this the ice was to be built. For the time being, plastic pipe and sand would be the only floor. Before too long they would see the need for a concrete floor on top of this, so that the arena could be used for summer activities.

The new look in the arena would put Fort St. John’s hockey players in line with those of Dawson Creek and Grande Prairie. Local fans thought that this was no more than what was due to a team that had twice walked away with the top honours in the South Peace League.

Larry Evans is a former fire chief, city councillor, and lifelong historian living in Fort St. John.

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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