By Glen Watson
"Hockey is the Canadian metaphor, the rink a symbol of this country's vast stretches of water and wilderness, its extremes of climate, the player a symbol of our struggle to civilize such a land... Unsure as we are about who we are, we know at least this about ourselves: we are hockey players, and we are hockey fans, and once we could say we were the best."
from The Death of Hockey by Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane.
One of the most over-used sayings in sports goes "build it and they will come." This saying, however, applies to most of the success Whistler, as a ski resort and municipality, has enjoyed.
In the case of Whistler's arena, this saying is as inaccurate as it is accurate. It took an existing and willing community, led by practical visionaries, to build the facility.
Their dream included the possibility that the National Hockey League, the bastion which every young hockey player hopes to become a part of, would come and play in Whistler's arena. With the arrival of the Vancouver Canucks this week, and Dallas Stars earlier this year, Whistler can exclaim: "We built it, and they DID come."
This is how the game unfolded.
"Hockey, after all, is people and places."
from Home Game - Hockey and Life in Canada, by Ken Dryden and Roy MacGregor.
Whistler has never had a shortage of ice. While the glaciers on mountain peaks high above are a testament to how long the process of water solidification has existed here, the many lakes in the valley gave early settlers here a place to play.
Skating, slipping and sliding were popular past-times on Alta Lake. The odd game of hockey was played. Families taught sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, to skate and play Canada's game on the lakes. Even then, the dreams of some day becoming a figure skater or making it to the NHL were part of Whistler's evening slumber.
Like any Canadian town, the kids wore the hockey sweaters of their favourite team and listened to Foster Hewitt's voice broadcasting the games over the radio. Eventually they began to watch the games on television, as the sport's popularity began to increase.
In the 1970s, one group of kids wore their own hockey sweaters. The Adanacs, a name derived from spelling Canada backward, were local kids who spent countless hours over the years playing the game.
"Hockey had become part of the Canadian imagination, an instinct, a need, an expectation, passed from generation to generation, an obligation of one to the next," wrote Dryden and MacGregor.
In a good winter season, one could skate for miles in many directions. Some seasons, the amount of snow reduced the area one could skate in and as many hours had to be spent shovelling snow as were spent skating.
"Someday," the shovellers muttered, "someday we will have our own indoor place to skate. An arena of our own."
"Arenas are homes, most of the time, for hockey and ice skating." The Canadian Encyclopedia.
As more people began to move to Whistler, more voices expressed the idea of making the dream of an arena a reality.
A dedicated group of Whistler hockey players would drive to Squamish to play in the arena there. For 12 years the Whistler Winterhawks were a road-weary, group of men who drove through blinding snowstorms and icy road conditions to play the game.
For eight of those years they were the champions. After two consecutive Whistler vs Whistler finals, the teams were kicked out of the Squamish league.
"They're even better now," say Bill Barratt, former Winterhawk and director of Whistler's Parks and Recreation Department since 1980.
The players kept asking Barratt when Whistler would have an arena of its own.
"By the time we're 40 we'll have a rink," he promised.
He recalls going to Vancouver to have his knee treated by Dr. Ross Davidson, who is also the Canucks' team doctor, years before the arena was built. When Davidson found out Barratt was from Whistler and that there was interest in building an arena, he put him in touch with assistant coach Stan Smyl and trainer Larry Ashley. This relationship would become one of the keys for the way the arena was built and getting the Canucks and the NHL interested in Whistler's arena.
But first, the arena had to become a reality.
"Politicians were talking for 10 years about an arena. Every candidate spoke about building it," says Whistler Mayor Ted Nebbeling. One of the reasons it wasn't built was money.
The politicians were at polar opposites when it came to plans for an arena.
Some members of council were pushing for a commercial facility right in the village, a large-scale project with a projected debt-load of roughly $15 million for an arena and pool facility.
Nebbeling, on the other hand, wanted to create a community facility in the Alpine Meadows subdivision, well outside the village.
"I was convinced we could build the facility there much cheaper," he says. He campaigned on that promise, with the belief Whistler needed a community facility, not a commercial facility.
Although moving the arena outside the village was contrary to the philosophy of locating facilities where visitors and locals would mix, Nebbeling maintained that with a bus system in place visitors could still use the arena. From a financial perspective, building the arena outside the village would benefit the community by not increasing the debt load.
What these politicians in 1991 also had to deal with was the fact an arena had already been built in the village in the early 1980s. Due to a recession, it never did become an arena. Instead, it was turned into the Whistler Conference Centre, in the belief that a conference facility would generate more visitors and revenue year-round. Eventually, it became financially unfeasible to consider returning it to an arena.
The 1991 election was won by Nebbeling by a margin of only 32 votes. If 16 people, basically one hockey team, had not voted for him the arena might not have been built in Alpine, and might still be only in the planning stages.
"Hockey is part of life in Canada. Thousands play it, millions follow it, and millions more surely try their best to ignore it altogether."
- Dryden and MacGregor
Nebbeling had promised to build an arena, in Alpine and without increasing the community's debt load. Now he had to act.
Perhaps one of the greatest assets he possessed was the fact he did not grow up in Canada. He did not have the heart-pounding Canadian pride about hockey to cloud his vision. He had financial responsibility in mind.
"I was able to look purely at what financially would work," he remembers.
In order to raise the money necessary, Whistler council decided to cut back on creating new trails, beaches and other recreational projects.
By slowing this down and going into maintenance-only mode, the municipality was able to dedicate money received from developmental cost surcharges to the arena.
The municipality did not create new money, it just channelled the money it already received from developers and hotel taxes to the arena fund. A few years later, the facility was built in an area many feel is the right one.
"The community is very comfortable with the location. The kids don't have to go to the village," Nebbeling says. There's plenty of room to park, too.
While Whistler's mayor and council were working hard to get the funds needed for an arena, Barratt was working hard to make sure what was built was right, not just for the community but also for the NHL.
With about $5 million to build the facility, his contacts with the Canucks were going to come in handy. He went to Vancouver and measured the dressing rooms in the Pacific Coliseum, the Canucks' home before GM Place.
He asked what facilities were absolutely necessary and got a surprising answer. A laundry facility was one of the vital pieces. An NHL-size dressing room and trainers' room were also required.
An added bonus was the fact Stan Smyl, who was running summer hockey schools in Vancouver, was willing to relocate to Whistler, if the right facility was built.
Clearly, a facility which exceeded available funding had to be created. Fortunately, strange things happen when it comes to Canada's game. Call it a lucky bounce, but the refrigeration unit which was originally bought to go in the conference centre location was still in mothballs.
When originally purchased in the 1980s, it was second only to the one used at the Pacific Coliseum. With three compressors, it could handle more than one sheet of ice.
This single stroke of luck explains why there is one wall, the one across from the bleachers, with no seating and large windows. Should another sheet of ice be required, and it likely will, it can be done by taking the windows out.
In order to save costs, the municipality decided to act as developer, along with Eric Martin and Bosa.
"We got a really good deal with Eric Martin and Bosa. I can't say enough about his community involvement," Barratt says.
"Martin is a good price negotiator," Nebbeling says. This, it turns out, really helped in the end.
Barratt believes this allowed Whistler to obtain an arena worth $6.5-$7 million for around $5 million. With the later construction of the fitness centre and pool, the total cost was about $10.5 million.
A few days before the arena was scheduled to open on Dec. 19, 1992 a dedicated group of volunteers helped put the ice in and added some finishing touches.
"The guys who came out were the ones who drove a lot (to Squamish)," Barratt says. They enjoyed a game of hockey before the official opening. Smiling security guards were watching them from up in the stands — because the doors did not even have locks yet.
"Everyone had a perma-grin," Barratt remembers. His 40th birthday party was held in the arena.
"'There's no fish in there,' the voice boomed all around the two fishers huddled over the opening in the ice. 'There's no fish in there,' it roared again. The two looked at each other, puzzled at where the voice was coming from and wondering what it meant.
'There's no fish in there,' the arena manager said again over the loudspeaker.'"
– A popular Canadian joke.
Since it opened, the arena has been considered a huge success. While few arenas actually generate enough revenue to cover operational costs, the Whistler arena does perform well in this area.
This year, it is expected to cover about 70 per cent of its costs. Last season this was about 68 per cent and in its first season it was 63 per cent. The provincial average is between 50 and 54 per cent.
A lot of this has to do with the popularity of hockey and the ever-growing interest in figure skating.
"We're maxed out right now," Barratt says. Last season was an exceptional year. That means the arena was busy until after midnight some nights.
"I thought we'd be playing prime time for five years," he says with a grin.
"With the amount of development going on, I think there's the possibility of having another rink," Barratt adds.
Last season saw 10 teams in the recreational leagues, seven in Oldtimers, six in A Division and six in women's. The Whistler Minor Hockey Association recently held its registration and will likely have 15 teams and seven divisions this season.
Add to this drop-in hockey, public skating, figure skating, and private ice rentals and time becomes a factor.
The ice is out for only a few weeks per year in the summer. During this time, in-line skating and skateboarding take over. Whistler also hosts a major international hockey tournament in the summer, which draws 30 teams. B.C. figure skating seminars and hockey schools are also held in summer.
The story of the overall effect of the arena and entire Meadow Park Sports Centre on the community is still being written. Perhaps Barratt sums it up best when he says there was a community prior to the arena and a whole new community after.
Post game interviews
"The hassle, pain, the fights all became worth it. That's when I learned how important hockey is to the Canadian person."
Mayor Ted Nebbeling on the arena's grand opening.
"I'm happy. I smile every time I go in there."
Bill Barratt, Director
Whistler Parks and Recreation Department
"It's a great facility, second to none. A great place for training camp."
Canucks head coach Rick Ley.
"The whole facility helps a lot and has a lot to offer."
Canucks assistant coach and hockey school organizer.