Celebrating one of the country's oldest arenas

The building had fallen into disrepair. The community leaders had a choice to make: let it disintegrate and eventually disappear or approve a significant budget for massive renovations. They chose to renovate.

The Galt Arena Gardens opened in January 1922 and is still going strong

A modern day picture of the historic Galt Arena ((Courtesy Paul Gains))

According to the locals, Galt Arena Gardens is the ‘world’s oldest operating arena’. It opened in January 1922 and has served the Cambridge, Ont., community without interruption ever since. Records show that Reid "Speedy" Oliver scored the first goal to baptize the ice surface leading Galt to an historic 9-5 victory over Preston. 

In those days the communities of Galt, Hespeler and Cambridge were rivals, but since 1973 they were joined into one community, Cambridge.

For decades the Galt arena was home to local games of every sort, but the building had fallen into disrepair. The washrooms weren’t up to standards and the dressing rooms were simply too small. The community leaders had a choice to make: let it disintegrate and eventually disappear or approve a significant budget for massive renovations. They chose to renovate.

The interior was gutted, and the facade over the main entrance on Shade Street was restored using original bricks removed from the rear of the building.

Perhaps the most exciting element of this project though was when workers uncovered a false ceiling and discovered B.C. fir beneath it. Rather than covering the wood again the decision was made to preserve it to enhance the building’s interior. It’s still a talking point among visitors.

Howe, Hull and Sawchuk all played at the arena

One of the interior murals in the Galt arena. ((Courtesy Paul Gains))

The arena serves as home for the Cambridge Minor Hockey Association, an organization of 1,500 players. Thousands upon thousands of area kids have played hockey here over the years, harbouring the same dream of joining three of the game’s biggest legends who all played out of the Galt Gardens. Gordie Howe played for the Galt Junior Red Wings in 1944-45, Terry Sawchuk was there in 1946-47, and a few years later Bobby Hull played for the Galt Jr. Blackhawks.

Howe practiced regularly with the team in that 1944-45 season, but only dressed for one game.  He sat on the bench, not because he didn’t have the skills, but because Galt had already used up its import quota. Records of that one game have gone missing.  The next year Howe was called up by the Detroit Red Wings farm team in Omaha.

Along the west end wall of the arena hangs a 24-foot high painting which depicts one of the great teams that called this arena home. The painting is of the Senior A Galt Hornets winning the Allan Cup. They won in both 1969 and 1971. If one looks closely it’s possible to pick out Howe wearing a Hornets shirt among the spectators. Call it artistic license - Howe never played for the Hornets. On either side of the mural there are portraits of Howe and Cambridge native, Kirk Maltby, a three time Stanley Cup winner with the Detroit Red Wings.

"For hockey it has probably the best atmosphere for a hockey player or for a fan," says Tony Puim, President of the Cambridge Minor Hockey Association. "With the historical side of the building, kids love to play there. It’s one of the most popular rinks to play at and teams coming in from other towns, parents from other centres, are always raving about Galt Arena."

Puim himself grew up in Cambridge and played minor hockey at the arena. His two sons, now both college students, also came through the CMHA program where they spent their fair share of time inside the hallowed temple of hockey.

"I remember playing back there as a kid. At that time it was with Galt Minor Hockey, I am 46 and I remember playing there when I was ten years old.

"I remember in the old arena, before the renovations, when you walked out of the dressing room you had to bend down almost ninety degrees to get into the corridor. Players sometimes had to change in the corridor. And there was always an old lady who sold fries there. The place smelled of fries. We used to go down there and she was there day in and day out. We called her Granny. She was there forever."

It was a different era

Local journalist and historian, Dave Menary, himself a frequent visitor to the arena, also remembers "Granny" fondly.  He agrees she cooked the best french fries but adds there were other entrepreneurs who were also part of the early years. In fact, during the 1940’s spectators used to wander across the street to buy hot dogs and fries from a vendor who would dispense food from her kitchen window.

Menary had the honour of accompanying Howe on a rare visit to Galt Arena just prior to the renovation. The building was as Howe remembered it. 

Arriving in a limousine he stopped to sign autographs, pull kids' ears and pose for pictures with those lucky enough to attend. They walked into the dressing rooms and down a corridor, stopping at one point  to examine a cork board which contained signatures of Galt players who had gone on to play in either the OHA or NHL.

"He looked at one and it was Lee Fogolin (Sr.)," Menary recalls. "He laughed and said he and Fogolin got into so many fights during practice. They were on the same team. He seemed to soak up the place again."

Howe had enrolled in Galt Collegiate Institute, the oldest secondary school in Ontario, and planned to take classes there while practicing with the Red Wings. Menary remembers Howe telling him how he was too nervous to walk into the school on the first day of classes.

"He said he walked up to the front door and couldn’t bring himself to go in," Menary says. "He stopped at a tree and gave his books to someone else, then went off down the train tracks. He went straight into Galt Metal and asked for a job instead."

Aside from the paintings adorning the west wall and the trophy cabinets in the lobby area, the upper level of the arena adds more to the historical significance of the building.

Long before the invention of the Zamboni, barrels filled with water were used to flood the ice, pulled across the surface by workers. The original flooding barrels from the 1940’s are still on display.

Eighty-six years and counting, the Galt Arena Gardens is still providing a venue for minor hockey players to develop, and in style.