The First Game at the Pembroke Memorial Centre-70 Years Ago!

It was time to play a game at Pembroke’s new hockey arena.  On Saturday, October 27, 1951 as last-minute construction continued on the Pembroke Memorial Centre, the Pembroke Senior Lumber Kings hosted the Smiths Falls Rideaus in a game that would produce 14 goals and be settled in overtime.

The more than 2,200 fans who packed the rink to watch history be made didn’t all have a seat. There were 1,612 seats in the arena in that first season.  More would be added the following year, but on opening night the buzz in the arena was about this grand new building and its modern amenities, especially the artificial ice.

From 1905 to the spring of 1951 the Mackay Street Arena had been home to the Pembroke Senior and Junior Lumber Kings, but the old barn had plenty of limitations.  The season started late and ended early because of the need for cold weather to make natural ice, so when Pembroke’s hockey teams extended their season in pursuit of a Memorial or Allen Cup, the teams had to play their home games at the Ottawa Auditorium.

(The Mackay Street Arena operated in Pembroke from 1905 to the spring of 1951.  The old barn had natural ice and was torn down shortly after the Pembroke Memorial Centre closed on orders from the Ontario Fire Marshall’s Office.)

By the early 1950’s the MacKay Street Arena was a tired old barn. The town knew it needed to be replaced and with the Second World War over and the economy thriving, Pembroke had put a plan in place to memorialize its war dead from the two World Wars through the building of a new arena. Part of the impetus for a new rink was the inclusion of artificial ice, so its hockey teams would no longer have to play playoff games out of town.

A few days before opening night, the new rink’s Director of Maintenance, Bert Barr, was the busiest man in town.  He was doing everything he could to have the arena ready, but he needed help.  He enlisted the assistance of Ken Campbell, who played with the Senior Lumber Kings and a young rink rat, Bill Higginson, to help him make the ice.  Campbell and Higginson worked late at night and were actually the first two people to skate in the new rink, a 2 a.m. game of one-on-one shinny.

(The Pembroke Memorial Centre hasn’t changed much since it opened in the Fall of 1951. The original wooden seats remain in the rink which has been well maintained by the city of Pembroke over the years and continues to be a community hub.)

Higginson was a pretty good goalie and would eventually earn a spot on the Senior Lumber Kings roster as a back-up netminder.  He’d also coach Pembroke’s junior hockey team before settling into being the powerful publisher and editor of the Pembroke Observer where over his long newspaper career he frequently wrote about Pembroke’s rich hockey history.

The first game at the Memorial Centre was a feisty affair.  Seventeen penalties were handed out, including a major for high sticking to Pembroke’s Johnny Inglis.  Late in the third period with the Rideaus leading 6-4, Smiths Falls was penalized, prompting Lumber Kings playing coach Cully Simon to roll the dice and pull goaltender Fred Murphy for an extra attacker.

The strategy paid off as Joe Fitzpatrick scored twice in the final three minutes of the third period to send the match to overtime.  In the extra ten-minute period, Ken Campbell and Lionel Barber scored to lift the Lumber Kings to an 8-6 victory. The Ottawa Journal wrote that “It was as thrilling a finish fans are likely to see all season.

(20 year old Lionel Barber came to Pembroke after helping the Barrie Flyers win a Memorial Cup championship. He was the youngest player on the 1951-52 Pembroke Senior Lumber Kings who opened the Pembroke Memorial Centre)

The Pembroke Memorial Centre had made a good first impression. Before it would celebrate its official opening with a Remembrance Day service and an exhibition game against the Montreal Canadiens on November 14, the building would see a few more senior and junior games.  In between games, work crews would continue painting and installing equipment and trying to work out bugs like the frequent power failures that plagued the building in its early days.

(The front page of the Pembroke Standard Observer in anticipation of the official opening of the Pembroke Memorial Centre which would take place on November 14, 1951 with an exhibition game between the Senior Lumber Kings and Montreal Canadiens.)

It had been more than two years since Pembroke Mayor Charlie Campbell had turned sod to build the Memorial Centre.  The rink had fallen short of its ambitious vision to be a much larger community centre that would include a larger seating capacity, a swimming pool, conference centre and tennis courts, but now it was operating. Pembroke was proud. That pride would be on display when Maurice “the Rocket” Richard and his Montreal teammates came to town to christen Pembroke’s new hockey mecca.

(Feature photo from a 1953 exhibition game between the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks when the Hawks held their training camp at the Pembroke Memorial Centre.)