Nova Scotia

Centre 200 celebrates 30 years of bringing top acts to Cape Breton

For years, attracting world-class performers to the Sydney area was just not possible. Centre 200 changed that.

Former Sydney mayor Manning MacDonald proud of centre's achievements

Centre 200 was built in 1987 and is celebrating its 30th anniversary. (George Mortimer/CBC)

Thousands of Cape Bretoners will gather tonight at Centre 200 in Sydney for a concert celebrating the venue's 30th anniversary.

And there's a lot to celebrate, especially for those who remember a time when there was no place in Cape Breton that could host a major act or event.

For years, attracting world-class performers to the area was just not possible. The only venues were old hockey rinks that lacked the size and services needed to stage international stars.

But that changed in 1985, Sydney's bicentennial year, when city council voted to build Centre 200.

"We decided we needed more than a rink," says Manning MacDonald, who was mayor of the city at the time. "We needed something to attract people to Sydney and Cape Breton Island."

Working with architect Charlie Fowler, who had helped design the Halifax Metro Centre and the Dartmouth Sportsplex, the City of Sydney opened the sparkling new facility in 1987.

The original design for Centre 200. (Submitted)

The very first act was international superstar Bryan Adams. But MacDonald knew Centre 200 would not be taken seriously unless it could handle back-to-back events smoothly.

The initial test came when country star Mickey Gilley was to perform on a Monday and Barnum and Bailey Circus was scheduled for the next day. MacDonald remembers breathing a sigh of relief when it was over.

"We switched it around in 24 hours and proved that we could be versatile," he says.

He also recalls being involved in a unique promotion for the circus earlier that day when the promoter asked him, as mayor, to ride a buffalo down a Sydney street towards Centre 200.

MacDonald took up the challenge and went as far as he comfortably could go. "I immediately had to go home and change and shower," he says, since he couldn't shake the awful smell given off by the animal.

Oilers and Elton John

Since then, Centre 200 has hosted such acts as Elton John, the Tragically Hip, Kenny Rogers, Anne Murray, Burton Cummings, Rush, Celine Dion, Celtic Thunder, John Denver, Nickelback, the Rankin Family, Stevie Ray Vaughan and many other star performers.

Patrick Doyle of Sydney Mines recalls how as a teenager it was surreal to see Rod Stewart, one of his idols, in concert in Cape Breton. "My good friend tossed his flowery ball cap on stage and Rod put it on his bass player's head — amazing," Doyle says.

Another vivid memory is being in the building working for MITV as a cameraman when the Cape Breton Oilers won the American Hockey League's Calder Cup in 1993. The excitement was electric, he says.

For MacDonald, who went on to become MLA for the Sydney area, the Oilers were the foundation for Centre 200 during those early years. They were in Sydney from 1988 until 1996, when they moved to Hamilton. The team was hugely popular for many of those years and, as the major tenant at Centre 200, provided the revenue needed for economic stability.

Queen Elizabeth II is presented with a bouquet of flowers at Centre 200 on Aug. 14, 1994. (Nova Scotia Protocol Office/Nova Scotia Archives)

MacDonald remembers with fondness the opening night of the Canada Winter Games in 1987, which the centre hosted. He said he was deeply moved when Raylene Rankin stepped onto the stage to sing Rise Again.

"I had to pinch myself to ensure we were really sitting in a building of this magnitude in the little city of Sydney, and we had Raylene Rankin singing for people right across the country."

Hosting Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip at an ecumenical church service at Centre 200 in 1994 was also a proud moment, he says.

MacDonald will be among those at tonight's concert, which starts at 7:30 p.m. The show features Matt Minglewood, the Barra MacNeils, Port Cities, the Men of the Deeps and many others.