The Pembroke Peach had waited four years to receive his Hall of Fame scroll. The Hall had called Frank Nighbor’s name in 1947, more than 15 years after he had hung up his skates after an illustrious career that included five Stanley Cup championships, but Nighbor was unable to attend the ceremony and now he would be honoured on November 14, 1951 at the grand opening of the Pembroke Memorial Centre.
After his final season in the National Hockey League in 1929-30, Nighbor had spent some time coaching in the minor leagues before settling back into his hometown of Pembroke where he would live his final years. It was fitting that he be part of a grand opening for an arena that would be christened by some of the biggest stars in the NHL.
(Frank Nighbor, third from left receives his Hockey Hall of Fame Scroll during a pre-game ceremony on opening night at the Pembroke Memorial Centre on November 14, 1951)
The Montreal Canadiens were in town to face the Pembroke Senior Lumber Kings in the most anticipated game in Lumber Kings history. The former Mackay Street Arena could not have hosted an NHL team, but the new PMC was a modern facility with artificial ice and so when Dave Behan who was chairing the committee that had planned a week’s worth of activities for the opening of the rink, made the pitch to Frank Selke, the General Manager of the Canadiens, Selke agreed to allow his team to interrupt their regular season to travel to Pembroke.
NHL President Clarence Campbell came too, dropping the ceremonial puck drop between Ken Mosdell of the Canadiens and Jack Carthy of the Senior Lumber Kings. There was much pomp and circumstance as the more than 4,000 fans who had purchased tickets for the game soaked it all in and marvelled at the magnificent new Memorial Centre which had been officially opened three days earlier by Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor Ray Lawson with a special Remembrance Day service.
The Canadiens had arrived in Pembroke with six future Hall of Fame players in their line-up including Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, Bernie “Boom Boom” Geoffrion, Elmer Lach and Doug Harvey, but in the early going the Lumber Kings proved they could compete with the mighty Habs. Jim Maxwell and Roy Giesebrecht, who was playing his last season with the Senior Lumber Kings, scored early to give the home team a 2-0 lead.
(NHL President Clarence Campbell drops a ceremonial puck between Ken Mosdell of the Montreal Canadiens and Jack Carthy of the Pembroke Senior Lumber Kings as part of the pre-game ceremony at the brand new Pembroke Memorial Centre in 1951)
The early deficit and perhaps a power failure in the rink that agitated the Habs served as a wake-up call as the Canadiens came to life and took control of the game. The comeback started with a prime-time performance by the top player on the team, Maurice Richard.
A very young Lionel Barber had drawn the assignment of watching Richard. Richard was coming into his own as one of the most prolific goal scorers in NHL history. He had blazing speed and a wicked shot and the 20-year old Barber who had just arrived in Pembroke after helping Barrie win a Memorial Cup Junior title was about to learn first hand how fast ‘the Rocket’ was.
With the Canadiens in the offensive zone, Richard suddenly started skating out to centre ice. Barber was told by his coach Cully Simon to stick with Richard wherever he travelled on the ice. He did and paid the price. Barber could only watch as Richard turned quickly and accelerated back into the Pembroke end where he took a pass from Elmer Lach and beat Kings netminder Fred Murphy with a quick shot to get the Habs going. Richard would score once more as Montreal defeated Pembroke 6-3.
In the lead up to the game there was much debate about how much tickets would cost to see the Canadiens and Senior Lumber Kings face each other. CHOV Radio personality and Lumber Kings play-by-play voice Bill Kutschke hosted an open line program to let fans have their say. In the end the most expensive seat sold for $1.50 and placed fans in the lower four rows of the arena. Those who sat in the top three rows paid $1.25 for a ticket. The end zone seats cost one dollar and children’s tickets sold for 50 cents.
(The front page of the Pembroke Standard Observer had a picture of the Montreal Canadiens and promoted their game with the Senior Lumber Kings on opening night at the Pembroke Memorial Centre.)
Following the game, the Canadiens were treated to a great meal at the Pembroke Hotel. They would come back again a few years later as would the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings when the Hawks held their training camp at the PMC in the fall of 1953.
The early days of the Pembroke Memorial Centre were special. It was the golden era of senior hockey in Pembroke. Seven decades later the same wooden seats that were sat on by fans watching that historic game between the Montreal Canadiens and Senior Lumber Kings remain, a reminder of just how rich the building’s history is.
Built as a memorial to Pembroke’s war dead from the First and Second World Wars, the PMC continues to fulfill its mission as a community hub with hockey as its primary tenant. Frank Nighbor would be pleased that 70 years after he helped open the building and more than 55 years after he passed away, the Memorial Centre is still going strong.