Campbellton has always been defined by its environment. The hills, the beautiful forests, the fires and the arrival of the rail have all contributed to what the town is today. The same can be said for its' love of hockey. It was there at the beginning and no matter what's happened in town, the rink has always been there to bring people together.
Public skating first took hold in Campbellton in about 1880, after the first community rink was erected by locals Peter and Alex McLean. Known simply as the "round rink," residents enjoyed speed skating and what they called "fancy skating". In approximately 1900, the rink was deemed unsafe and torn down.
The first hockey rink, known simply as the "Dufferin St. rink," was built in 1906 by locals by A. H. Ingram and A. Miller (this rink was one of the many buildings that became a casualty of Campbellton's great fire of 1910, but it was subsequently rebuilt). Campbellton organized a town team, "the Victorias," that played against neighbouring communities during this era of the seven-man team. The biggest competition came from the "iron men" of Chatham, who invariably won the early games. The "Bathurst Papermakers" also became a formidable opponent by about 1920.
By the early 1920s, the best player in Campbellton was Pete McLean, a defencemen. He started his career playing through high school during WWI with the Victorias, later called the Tigers. It was rumoured he was offered a tryout with a professional team, but turned it down, preferring to play in his home town. Nevertheless, his skills became widely talked about throughout the Maritimes.
A memorable season
The 1925 - 1926 season was a memorable for the Tigers, as they went through to the Maritime finals. They did so by winning the local league (which included the North Shore and Fredericton district), then defeating Moncton, and then Charlottetown, before eventually being defeated by a team from Truro, NS. High school hockey history was made in the 1931 - 1932 season. The Campbellton team went undefeated in regular season play, then won the provincial championship, followed by the Maritime High School Hockey Championship.
Local hockey enthusiasts were given their biggest reason to celebrate yet in 1935, when the coach of that high school team, Bill Miller, captured the biggest prize in the game, the Stanley Cup. However, in a story that illustrates the difference between then and now, the Montreal Maroons defenseman only spent four seasons in the NHL, retiring in 1938. He felt he could not make a living playing hockey instead he went into the lumbering business. As was the case in many Canadian communities, organized hockey pretty much disappeared during WWII. Many of the hockey-playing boys went overseas to fight for their country - in fact, the two World Wars saw higher than average participation and mortality rates from the people of Campbellton. However, a women's league did operate.
Following WWII, the Tigers continued to enjoy a devoted following at the Dufferin St. rink. But that era came to a close by the end of the decade, as in 1949, the building was condemned and torn down. The space was used to create an outdoor rink to fill the void until a new arena could open two years later. At a later date apartment buildings were built on this land, which still stand today.
Residents of Campbellton had to get by without a closed-in rink for about two years, from 1949 to 1951. There were plenty of outdoor rinks, but without an indoor home the Tigers went on hiatus. Some of the players played for the neighbouring town of Dalhousie.
A new era with the Memorial Gardens
January 1951 marked the dawn of a proud new chapter in Campbellton's hockey history. A classic, brick constructed post-WWII facility called Memorial Gardens opened to great fanfare, as the Montreal Canadians came to town to scrimmage. This facility became the lifeblood of the town, and a well-organized minor hockey system kept the Gardens hopping around the clock.
For years, Friday nights were truly "Hockey Night in Campbellton." Tigers' home games against their opponents in the North Shore League, the Dalhousie Rangers, the Bathurst Papermakers or the Amqui Aces, were not to be missed. But it was the lively games against the team geographically closest to Campbellton - Dalhousie - that inevitably drew the rowdiest crowds.
Campbellton boasted a few exceptional teams in the 1970s and 80s. The first of these was the 1972 squad, which captured the first of Campbellton's three Hardy Cups (the Hardy Cup is the 'A' National Senior Championship). The Tigers received some assistance towards this achievement from an unlikely hero: legendary glove-dropper "Machine Gun" Gordie Gallant, who normally suited up for Dalhousie, was called to the Tigers for the playoffs. He helped the team capture the prize on the road in Rosetown, Saskatchewan, to the delight of local fans who followed the games intently on the radio.
Under the leadership of renowned coach Gerry "Red" Ouellette, a native of Grand Falls, NB, who played for the Boston Bruins from 1960-61, and manager Arnold Firlotte, the Tigers went on to win Hardy Cups again in 1977 and 1988. These two Cups were captured at home, with local fans piling into the Gardens to cheer on the team, and celebrating victory into the wee hours of the morning at local bars.
Fire destroys yet another arena
But sadly, glory would not be captured again in Memorial Gardens. Campbellton lost its magnificent home of hockey for four decades in the same way it lost its first unremarkable rink back in 1910 - to a fire - in 1990.
A couple years later, Campbellton unveiled Memorial Civic Centre, on the shores of the Restigouche River at the site of the famous "Battle of the Restigouche" of 1760. This modern recreation and convention centre would later be one of the competition sites of the 2003 Canada Winter Games.
In the early 1990s, the golden hockey era seemed to officially draw to a close as the beloved Tigers folded.
A new tradition began to take shape in 1996, when Campbellton became home to a new tier II junior A team - called, what else, but the Tigers. Hockey fans will have to wait to see if this team can recapture some of the magic of the greats that came before them.