It’s a rare quiet moment at the Antigonish Arena. The home and visitors’ benches are empty. At the far end of the arena hang jerseys of hockey players with Antigonish connections who made it to the big league. One of these jerseys is Paul MacLean’s, who played with the Winnipeg Jets and other teams. Now an assistant coach of the 2007-08 Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings, he paid a special visit to the arena in August.
“Paul played minor and junior hockey in the Antigonish Arena,” says arena manager Bud MacInnis. “That’s why he brought the cup back here to his home arena. We had roughly 10,000 people come to the event.”
The Antigonish Arena, which has an NHL regulation-size ice surface, is on the go from 6:30 a.m. until, on some days, after midnight. Home to the Nova Scotia Junior Hockey League’s Antigonish Junior B Bulldogs, the arena also houses the Antigonish Skating Club.
MacInnis says 580 young people were enrolled in minor hockey last year and roughly 200 in a combination of learn to skate, power skate and figure skating programs. Also included on the roster are the only senior contact hockey teams in the province, a number of recreation teams, free skates for parents and tots, adults and seniors, and figure skating and hockey camps (which have attracted participants from across Canada and overseas).
And then there is the annual Eastern Nova Scotia Exhibition held in August which sees the arena ice replaced by 800 tonnes of earth. Tug-of-war competitions, barrel racing and pole bending are just some of the activities that take place within the arena.
“It looks large when you look at it as an ice surface, but when you have something like an eight-horse hitch with a wagon dragging behind it the arena starts to look a little small. It takes quite an area to turn something like that,” says MacInnis.
To sum up, the Antigonish Arena is “the centre of the community, there’s no question,” according to MacInnis. In addition to the managerial role he’s carried out for 13 years, he is also willing to strap on his pads to serve as a backup goalie.
The arena involves a team effort from every player. There is the ongoing ownership and involvement of the town and county of Antigonish. There are the community businesses which together provide $25-30,000 in advertising revenue each year. There is the staff who take pride in keeping the nearly 40-year-old arena humming, and there are the faithful volunteers.
Antigonish Mayor Carl Chisholm is one of those dependable volunteers. He first came in contact with the arena more than 20 years ago when his then four-year-old son was taking part in a learn to skate program. As a volunteer hockey coach, Chisholm has progressed through the ranks from atom to senior. And his son has been on every team he has coached.
Chisholm, who figures he has probably spent the equivalent of years in rinks, points out that there are many dedicated volunteers.
“The minor hockey system in Antigonish is definitely known throughout Nova Scotia as one of the best minor hockey systems in the province, and it’s all attributable to the level of volunteerism,” he says. “People are so dedicated to the minor hockey system, giving hours on end. It’s made our system strong from atom right up to midget.”
For Chisholm, “the greatest reward has been that today all those kids remember me for the time that I put in. You see them on Main Street, you see them anywhere and they say, ‘Hi Carl, how are you doing?’ Now they’re grown and they have families and they have their kids involved in minor hockey and they come in and say, ‘Remember when?’ and I say, ‘Do I ever,’” he chuckles.
The commitment of volunteers allows the arena to keep programming costs down. “The main goal for everyone – whether it be the arena, the town, the county – is to keep the ice cost affordable for the children so they’re able to access the facility,” says MacInnis, who is past president of the Recreation Facility Association of Nova Scotia. “And I think for the most part that’s what every community does across the province. You look at ice rental rates in Nova Scotia and they’re an awful lot cheaper than they would be other places.”
MacInnis says there is a shared sense of pride in the arena. “When you have a facility that’s going on 40 years old there are always struggles. If you didn’t have pride in your facility, it would make it that much more difficult to keep it looking good, keep it working well.”
There is also an openness to new ideas. “In any given day you don’t know what’s going to happen,” MacInnis explains. “Someone could walk in the door in five minutes time with another great idea and we have to be open to those all the time.”
An example of creativity in action is an annual collaboration between the arena and the Antigonish Golf & Country Club. The event involves up to 10 gentlemen’s league teams from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick who come to play three games of hockey and 18 holes of golf. And, as MacInnis observes, “You can’t stack your team with hockey players and expect to win the tournament. They’ve got to be able to golf as well.”
When it comes to work-life balance, MacInnis, who was born and raised in Ohio, Antigonish County, and is able to see his six grandchildren nearly every day, regards his work and play as intertwined. While there are long hours, “Managing an arena and playing hockey is almost like being at work when you’re playing. It’s kind of a unique situation to be in and probably that’s why a lot of people say ‘you have the best job in the world,’ and I don’t argue that fact. It is a great job.”
Feature story written by Marie Weeren