York Arena’s last days honoured quietly by faculty hockey players

 York Faculty Hockey Team

Above: From left, Carlton Williams, caretaker at York Arena for the past 17 years; Steve Dranitsaris, senior executive officer, office of the vice-president finance & administration; Mark Donohoe, director of programming at Beatrice Ice Gardens; President Emeritus H. Ian Macdonald; and members of the York faculty hockey team share ‘Ice Palace’ memories.

March 18 was like most Fridays for members of the York faculty hockey team: they gathered mid-morning for a leisurely scrimmage on the ice at York Arena and shared some laughs when it was over. This time, however, the squad of players of varying ages and ability gathered in the lobby to commemorate the group’s final game in the building affectionately known as the “Ice Palace”.

Also there for the ceremony, was team member Lauren Sergio, professor in the School of Kinesiology & Health Science, and her six-month old baby, and Carlton Williams, caretaker at the arena who retires this year along with the object of his labours for the past 17 years.

Home to York hockey from 1968 until the six-rink Beatrice Ice Gardens opened in 1996, the arena will be demolished sometime this year to make way for the new stadium complex announced in October 2004 that will be shared by the Toronto Argonauts Football Club, the Canadian Soccer Association, York’s School of Kinesiology & Health Science, and the surrounding community.

York Arena cornerstoneLeft: From left, Steve Dranitsaris and H. Ian Macdonald point to the commemorative stone marking York Arena’s construction in 1968.

When the Ice Gardens opened under private management in 1996, the old arena continued to be used for York’s intramural hockey and broomball leagues but was managed by Ice Gardens staff. The York faculty hockey team, which has a reputation as one of the best in the province with more than its share of tournament titles over the years, decided to keep using the old arena because of its traditional ambience and the ice surface. York President Emeritus H. Ian Macdonald, team stalwart and still an active member at age 75, calls it the best ice in Ontario.

For years, the ice was taken out at the end of March each year to make space available for student exams in April but Sherry Lewkowicz, assistant registrar, systems, said there will be no exams scheduled in the rink this year. Thanks to York’s ambitious building program of recent years, there are many new (and brighter) spaces available for students to write exams. There was also the small detail of the arena’s impending demolition, expected sometime in the late spring or early summer of this year.

Steve Dranitsaris, senior executive officer in the office of the vice-president finance & administration, said that in addition to the site being needed for the new stadium, the ice-making equipment would need replacing at a cost of about $2 million – no bargain with six state-of-the-art rinks available right next door.

Despite York’s history as a perennial hockey power and three-time winner of the national university championship, the “Ice Palace” was never the stage for these triumphs, which were always played at larger arenas due to its lack of seating and chilly environment. “It’s not called the ‘Ice Palace’ for no reason,” said Dranitsaris, who also doubles as an unofficial sports historian at York.

 York Arena 1996

Above: Wilfrid Laurier captain Izmit Kulafski (far left) and York captain Shane Dungey (far right) take ceremonial final face-off at York Arena on Feb. 9, 1996. Also present were, from left: Al Smith from the Orange Snail; Don Gedge of the then new Beatrice Ice Gardens; Sheldon Levy, vice-president institutional affairs (holding puck); Pat Murray, acting director of sport & recreation; Jason Kicks; Chris Kotska; Beth Hopkins, vice-president campus relations/student affairs(holding puck); Les Herr of London Life; Murray Stroud, former York coach Bill Purcell, Darren Wilson, Bill Maguire, Bruce Penny, John Campbell, Darren Gani and Willie Popp.

Graham WiseThere were however, many occasions when York won a provincial championship in the arena, remembers York head coach Graham Wise (right). The men’s team won the Ontario championship (Queen’s Cup) at the “Ice Palace” on March 8, 1986, defeating Laurier, 6-4, in a final game in front of 1,000 fans. They won again on March 13, 1988, downing Western, 5-1, in front of 1,125 fans. The final men’s varsity hockey league game in the arena was played on Feb. 9, 1996. A photographer was on hand to record the final faceoff ceremony (see photo above) before York went on to defeat Laurier, 4-3, in overtime. The team played a few more playoff games in the arena before its cup run ended on Feb. 20, 1996.

Both the York men’s and women’s hockey teams enjoyed many glory years in the 1980s winning nine provincial or national titles. The women’s team, led by Hall of Fame member Sue (Howard) Gaston, dominated the Ontario Women’s Interuniversity Athletic Association in the early years, winning a silver medal in 1980-1981 and 1981-1982 before finally capturing gold in 1982-1983. The team returned to prominence in the late ’80s winning the provincial crown in 1987-1988 and going all the way to the national final in 1988-1989. The men’s team, which included Hall of Fame goalie Mark Applewhaite, won four provincial titles in a row from 1984 to 1988 and captured the national title three times in 1984-1985, 1987-1988 and 1988-1989.

Dranitsaris recalls many games in the cold arena when the temperature for opposing goalies was positively hellish once the fans in the Red & White Spirit Crew gathered behind the visitors’ net to heckle them. “They were ruthless. You pitied the visiting goalie who let in a couple of early goals, they would really get on him,” he said.

Wise, who played for the University of Toronto before joining York as a coach in 1984, remembers the arena well: “great ice, bad lighting,” he said. “I first played in the ‘Ice Palace’ on Dec. 10, 1975, as a member of the Varsity Blues. We defeated York, 11-2, that night.” York rebounded in the second half of that season beating the Blues, 3-2 and 5-3. Those were the early glory days of York hockey when the team was nationally ranked for weeks on end, winning four provincial titles in 1969-1970, 1971-1972, 1974-1975 and 1976-1977. Names from that era include York Sports Hall of Fame members Doug Dunsmuir, Al Avery, Murray Stroud and Steve Latinovich.

The Spartan surroundings of the Ice Palace seem to register with many as key to its peculiar charms. “I remember that both players benches were on the south side of the arena originally,” Wise said. “It was just one long bench and only the two backup goalies separated the teams.” What few bleachers the rink had were taken out annually for use along the football field for York home games. When football finished, Wise said, the stands would be put back in the arena. It was standing-room only until the stands were relocated into the rink. Permanent bleachers were installed in the arena in 1984.

York Sports Hall of Fame member Bill Purcell, a former firefighter for the City of Toronto and York’s part-time coach from 1965-1972, oversaw the move of the hockey program from Glendon, where games were played outdoors in sub-zero temperatures, to the new York Arena, where conditions were little better.

“That was a cold arena,” said Purcell. “There were days when you could scrape snow off the inside walls. There were no bleachers and I remember games where people were standing four and five deep to watch.”

Purcell also recalls how, in the early days of the “Ice Palace” players would suit up at the Tait McKenzie Centre and walk across the field to get to the rink. There were no dressing rooms – they used the Zamboni’s lair sometimes – and players would have to walk, in full uniform, to the arena’s public washrooms.

“But it was great ice,” Purcell said, confirming others’ judgements of the playing surface. Tom Watt (former coach for U of T, Canada’s National Team and the Toronto Maple Leafs) said he loved playing in the rink because of the ice. Purcell said the secret to the ice was that it was very hard and kept thin, about an inch and a half, so it had plenty of bounce.

Purcell’s time at York saw the emergence of the hockey team as a national powerhouse able to challenge the vaunted U of T with its ability to recruit top players. “We worked with what we had and we worked hard,” Purcell said, adding, when Osgoode Hall Law School became part of York in 1968, it became a key source for quality players, many of whom went on to successful careers.  Many of those alumni continue to support the team through donations to the team’s annual golf tournament.

Photos provided courtesy of Graham Wise, head coach of the York Lions men’s hockey team.