For 70 years, the New Glasgow stadium stood as probably the most influential sports palace in northeastern Nova Scotia for thousands of Pictonians, particularly the youth of the town.
For the stadium, as we knew it in the 50s, 60s and 70s, before it became the John Brother MacDonald Stadium, to honour the memory of one of our greatest coaches and a mentor to thousands of young Pictonians, was where we went to train, play and watch some of the finest hockey in the nation as well as boxing, dances, graduations and many other community events.
A young Johnny Cash and a myriad of country stars played there as did Bill Haley and the Comets in the early days of rock ’n roll.
In a word, the stadium was where young people met to enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company and hone their skills in whatever activity interested them.
Many will recall skating to the music of the 85th Battalion band playing in the stands.
It was painful to see it torn down, a building which outwardly at least looked like it could last another 50 years.
As a youngster who came to Canada from the DP camps of Germany a year before the stadium was built in 1950, its construction provided some of our Estonian refugee carpenters work. When they appeared at the site with their outdated tools carried over from the “old country,” Canadian workers reportedly scoffed at their wooden planes, strange appearance and lack of language until they saw them go to work.
Personally, I spent time in the stadium in the late 1950s learning the rudiments of boxing from Eddy Langille and Gary Simon during hot summer evenings. In winter months we often sneaked into the stadium with our buddies after church group meetings on Monday nights to watch the New Glasgow Rangers of the Nova Scotia Senior Hockey League take on all comers for seven seasons. Later, it became a venue to learn to skate and meet girls, including one who later became my wife.
Brother MacDonald, as we knew him, was there almost daily working with young athletes, refereeing or broadcasting hockey and boxing and watching his student charges take their first steps as athletes.
I remember Lowell MacDonald leading his East Pictou Rural High team to victory in the 1958-59 finals of the provincial high school hockey championships and Gary Simon and Doug Odo battling in a torrid 10 rounder. There were many others like Jackie Hayden, Keith and Percy Paris, Buddy Daye, but at this stage names are sometimes hard to recall.
The large sign over the scoreboard declaring that Eastern Woodworkers, the company that built the stadium, sold everything “From Sill to Saddle” always puzzled me. I knew what a sill was but wasn’t sure how a saddle had anything to do with construction. Later it was explained me by my father-in-law.
When tragedy struck the county with the underground explosion at the Westray mine, the bodies of some of the 26 miners killed in the blast were taken to the stadium.
One evening Steve Murphy and I, both covering the disaster for the Atlantic Television System, drove slowly by the darkened stadium and saw first responders carrying the bodies into the building. It was almost too much to bear.
Times change, the cost of maintaining the new Wellness Centre would require the county to come together and focus financially on the facilities there. So the New Glasgow council decided to sacrifice the old stadium so that young players would take to the two ice surfaces in the Centre. The other towns were not willing to close their facilities, but I recently hear that the grand old Stellarton rink may be next on the chopping block.
If so, the memories it holds are also precious. For me, the night I saw a young high school kid by the name of Blair Richardson of South Bar, Cape Breton, knock out Slug Turnbull of Stellarton was stunning. Blair went on to become one of the greatest fighters to come out of Nova Scotia along with the great featherweight Art Hafey of Lourdes who also got his start there.
John Soosaar is honorary consul for Estonia in Nova Scotia