BRIDGETOWN - If you haven’t been inside the Bridgetown and District Memorial Arena lately, maybe you should take in a hockey game or two.
Or just go skating. The place is in better shape than ever.
Mark Goudge, SaltWire Network’s roving photographer was back in Annapolis County Jan. 17 and stopped in for a coffee (large, two milk one sugar) at Tim Hortons in Bridgetown. He was well into the warm beverage and who should walk in but Steve Clayton who sat down at a nearby table with some of his pals.
Steve Clayton is a household name in the Bridgetown area and in hockey circles across the province. He was one of the RBC Local Hockey Leaders in 2010 and was flown to Toronto and honoured by Hockey Canada and the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Mark didn’t know any of that but introductions were made and Steve was asked if there was anything going on at the arena. It was 10:30 a.m. on a stormy weekday, so chances were slim. Steve said he’d just come from the rink and there was nothing happening. It was locked up tight. Mark looked downcast. He wanted pictures.
“But I’ve got the key,” Steve said. Mark smiled.
At the rink, up on a snow-covered Jeffrey Street beside the Legion, Steve opened the front door and turned on the lights to a bright, newly insulated building with a virtually new ice plant, a great ice surface, and new LED lighting. There’s more work to do, like new boards, but it will get done.
For the next hour Mark toured the rink with Steve who pointed out all of its unique features and recent upgrades, and told some of the stories behind the building and the people like Leo Kaulbach who played in nets for the 1946-47 high school hockey team with Jim Robinson and Peter Graves. Kaulbach’s goalie gear is in a display cabinet in the warm room along with dozens of photos of Bridgetown teams, coaches, and players from over the past 75 years or so.
The display case is packed, but it started out with just a couple of old hockey sticks somebody gave Steve. The collection grew, but the biggest problem was identifying everyone in the old team photos. It got done with lots of help from some of the older folk in the area. Steve eventually built the glassed-in floor-to-ceiling display case and it’s now a focal point in the arena.
The first rink on that site was built in 1922. To put it in perspective, the Montreal Canadiens, the first professional hockey franchise in the world, was founded in 1909, just 13 years earlier. Steve’s a Leafs fan so when you say ‘Habs’ you have to keep your voice down.
Fire took that first rink 43 years later in the spring of 1965, leaving the town without an indoor ice surface. The Bridgetown and District Memorial Arena arose from the ashes with a total community effort, built as the money was raised, and opened on Jan. 18, 1975. Another 43 years passed since that day in 1975 -- almost to the day -- and Mark marvels at a town that kept hockey going for almost 100 years – with pictures to prove it.
Over the years dozens of locals played key roles in keeping the rink and hockey going in Bridgetown. Steve knew them all. Like Terry McNeil. There’s the story of McNeil telling him the kitchen needed a sink. One day McNeil came in and installed one. Or Colin Chipman, a promising hockey prodigy killed in an ATV accident when he was just 13. There’s an annual tournament in Chipman’s honour and last year they started a memorial tournament to some of the local greats like Terry McNeil, Harry Verran, Paul Spicer and a long list of others. This year the tournament is March 23, 24, and 25 and those being honoured are locals Eddie Gillis, Merle Connell, David Shackleton, Kevin Long, and Theresa McNeil – mother of both Terry and Stephen McNeil.
It’s the Premier’s home rink where he spent a lot of time as a youngster. Steve remembers Stephen McNeil on the ice. Once he broke out of his own end there was no stopping him. “He had arms eight feet long,” Steve joked. And going back years the Premier and his large extended family have an annual tradition of renting the ice for two hours every Boxing Day and 2017 was no exception.
Up in the announcer’s booth, where Steve spends a lot of time, he has his CD collection, buttons for his flashing red lights and his horn, and his ‘high tech’ communication device to get the goal scorers and assists from the scorekeeper’s booth to the announcer’s booth – lengths of black PVC pipe that the scorekeeper can talk into and Steve can put the other end of the pipe to his ear upstairs. People marvel at how quickly Steve can announce a goal, not knowing about the old-tech PVC telephone.
While the rink is filled with memories of people and games past, Steve sees a great future as well. There was a lot of uncertainty when the Town of Bridgetown was dissolved several years ago, but things worked out. Young families are moving to the area. Minor Hockey actually grew this year. Homes are being sold and he credits the new Bridgetown Regional Community School for attracting families.
The current work on the arena is part of a five-year plan.
“Phase 1 was the LED lights throughout the whole building, new heat pumps were installed,” said Steve. “In Phase 2 was new compressors and insulating. Phase 3 will be electrical panel with Softstart. We haven’t gone beyond that, of course Phase 4 I hope what we save (by completing the other phases) will do the glass and boards.”
The arena’s electric bill for six months has run about $35,000. The work done so far is expected to save almost 50 per cent. The spray-on insulation is more than an inch thick and makes it easier to keep it cold in warm weather.”
Steve hopes to do a lot of cosmetic work as well, like painting inside and out, better signage.
“We’ve got to do something with our dressing rooms, we’ve got to do something with our washrooms,” he said. “It is what it is. Step by step. But we’ve come a long ways.”
He gives a lot of credit to Annapolis County’s Recreation Director Deb Ryan.
Steve doesn’t do it all alone. He’s got a list of 12 names and phone numbers on the wall in the kitchen. They’re among the other many volunteers who keep the place going.
“We need to take care of our facilities,” he said. “The pool, the rink, the ball fields, recreation. The new school? All in all people are coming back and numbers are increasing. It’s not as good as it was 15 years ago but it’s getting better.”
Mark and Steve walk to the front, turn the lights out, and lock the door.
Steve Clayton is with the Bridgetown Community Recreation Association and you can visit the BCRA at https://www.facebook.com/pg/bridgetownrec/about/?ref=page_internal