Pictou Advocate sports

Amidst COVID-19, goodbye to a rink


So how am I doing six weeks into staying the blazes home?

I’d say, under the circumstances, as good as can be expected. But thanks for asking. I do wonder, though, is there anything normal these days?

It’s late April, usually the best time of the year to be alive. The weather warms and the blossoms start to appear, the Stanley Cup playoffs dominate the sports channels, and trading begins to warm up in our fantasy baseball leagues.

In 2020, there’s none of that.

My evenings are filled with old reruns of Law and Order, Father Brown, Judge Judy and movies I saw a lifetime ago. When I need some moot entertainment, I switch to CNN to follow the ongoing soap opera featuring Donald J. Trump.

I’m in the habit of walking the aisles in Sobeys a couple times a week. Right now, however, I haven’t been there for a month and a half. Family members get the old guy his groceries and deliver them to my car in the parking lot. And, wow, do I ever miss my weekly Big Mac at McDonald’s and the Canadian tradition of debating issues over coffee at Tims.

Instead of shaving daily, I’m getting the razor out just once a week. The longer the “closed” sign is on my barber’s window, the more I don’t recognize myself in the mirror.

Yes, COVID-19 has altered everything.

Familiar sports commentators like Elliotte Friedman, Bob McKenzie, Buck Martinez, Dan Shulman and Pictou’s own Ken Reid have become strangers, replaced by news anchors and reporters.

Every afternoon is must viewing when Nova Scotia’s captains, Stephen McNeil and Robert Strang, are on the CBC News Network leading the province’s team in up-to-date statistics.

Even when we talk about heroes these days, we’re not referring to Sidney Crosby, Auston Matthews, Vladdy Guerrero or Mookie Betts.

When we use the word “hero” now, we’re talking about nurses, doctors, respiratory technologists and emergency care workers who are labouring tirelessly on the frontlines in our country and beyond. Unlike in sports, we’re all cheering for the same side.

Local sports have all but disappeared.

The Chronicle Herald laid off its sports department, the New Glasgow News and the almost three dozen weeklies under the SaltWire label aren’t publishing, and the Advocate has temporarily sent some staff home.

Strange times indeed.

I’ve had a difficult time trying to keep up with non-virus news. I’m even having a problem remembering what day of the week it is.

It was several days after the fact that I learned of the death of former local boxer Barry Sponagle, a guy I watched in the ring numerous times and interviewed frequently. Same thing with other subjects.

But I did find out one thing quickly last week when, the morning after, I saw Advocate editor Jackie Jardine’s news-breaker that Stellarton Memorial Rink will be demolished.

For me, that arena was the last survivor on my short list of favourite rinks — Memorial Rink, New Glasgow Stadium, Maple Leaf Gardens, Montreal Forum.

As a kid, I was introduced to both local facilities at their openings.

I was an eight-year-old in 1947 when I went to opening night in Stellarton. It was an APC Senior Hockey League game featuring the hometown Stellarton Royals. After that, I was in the rink for many, many hockey games; many amateur and professional boxing cards; many other events like figure skating and concerts.

I was 12 in 1951 when the Stadium opened and I was there watching a Maritime Big Four match between the Charlottetown Islanders and Sydney Millionaires. I watched hundreds of games there, from senior down to the smallest of novices. I was there, too, when a minor league player became the first Pictonian to score a goal in the building. That was John Hamm, the future family doctor and premier.

I was also there for numerous boxing cards, wrestling matches and concerts. It was there that I had my photo taken with celebrities from hockey goalie Terry Sawchuk to country singer Johnny Cash.

The two NHL rinks I loved most are also gone.

The Montreal Forum, where I watched lots of Canadiens games, including the night they won the Stanley Cup in 1965, closed after the 1995-96 season, lowering the curtain on a glorious history that lasted for 72 years.

More important to a Maple Leafs fan like me, Maple Leaf Gardens was like a place of worship with many grand memories, including the three times in the 1960s that I was present for Toronto championships. The last time I walked into that building, it was a grocery store.

So, yes, the closing of Stellarton’s rink has hit home, just like the ones in New Glasgow, Montreal and Toronto.

What impressed me the last couple of years was the work a dedicated group of Stellarton residents put into an effort to save the building. At times, I thought they might succeed. The last while, however, I realized it wasn’t to be.

Even as COVID-19 swept through our towns, provinces and country, leaving us all wondering what the future will be like, I couldn’t help but feel bad when I saw Jackie’s story last week.

It was time to say goodbye to a rink.

In its last years, the building in New Glasgow had become John Brother MacDonald Stadium, named after one of the finest persons I ever knew, the man who got me into journalism so long ago.

And the rink in Stellarton? Not only did it give me hundreds of wonderful memories of events in the old coal mining town, it continually reminded me that the name “Memorial” was “in loving memory of Stellarton’s brave young men who made the supreme sacrifice for the cause of freedom.”

For 73 years, the plaque inside the entrance displayed the names of the 117 Stellartonians who died in wartime.

I mention it, lest we forget.