Saying Goodbye to an OHL Original: Windsor Arena

In 1924, the City of Windsor said hello to the spectacle that became known as The Barn. Soon, Windsor will say one final goodbye to the Windsor Arena.

The City of Windsor announced in late 2016 that a new high school is going to be built on the grounds of the old Windsor Arena. It was once a beacon of light in the city, developing young hockey talents and giving residents a release for a few hours per week. Now, it will develop young minds in a different way in an effort to assist in the revitalization of the downtown core.

The Windsor Arena has stood proudly on the corner of Wyandotte and McDougall in downtown Windsor for 92-years. It started as Border Cities Arena, hosting the Detroit Cougars (now Detroit Red Wings) while The Olympia was being built. It was later renamed the Windsor Arena and became home to Windsor junior hockey teams for decades.

Outside, the lightly-coloured exterior gives it an innocent look. Renovations around the turn of the century provided a rejuvenation to a once-deteriorating palace. If you drive past it now, you would never know its true age or true identity. It doesn’t have the same look as other classic hockey rinks, at least externally. Some would consider this a good thing, though, as the facelift was part of keeping the hometown Windsor Spitfires of the OHL from heading up the 401 to greener pastures.

Inside the arena, though, is a totally different story.

Windsor Arena in Windsor, ON – Jan 2017. Dave Jewell/THW

Hallowed Halls of Hockey

Walking through the main doors into the box office, you step back in time. The renovations created a new set of box offices for fans at the time. However, ticket systems were still older and lines were long. As you made your way through the doors into the arena, modern life took a back seat.

The smell hit you right away – old-time hockey, players in the concourse and fans eating traditional arena foods. Concourses were small, not the wide open spaces you see in newer designs. If you were taller, chances are you went home in a bit of pain from the low ceilings.

Few complained, though. This was part of the experience. Concession stands were created through little cubby holes in the wall, scattered around the concourse. Fans lined up by the dozens to get a quick snack before hockey resumed.

Folks selling 50/50 tickets could be heard bellowing throughout the hallowed halls. Did you have a seat in the south side of the rink? Perfect – you could meet the young Spitfires on your way. Players had to cross the concourse from their dressing rooms to the ice. Sure, it may have been an inconvenience for some but, for the majority, it was cherished. Kids lined up, eyes as wide as saucers, to high-five their favourite players and give them words of pre-battle encouragement.

Fans could hear the action from the concourse but viewing was next to impossible. To get to your seat, one had to walk through a small tunnel. That’s when the glory of the Barn’s nearly impossible angled-stands grabbed you.

Cramped, Intimate and One-of-a-Kind

With newer rinks, you might be above the glass if your seats are eight or 10 rows above the ice. In Windsor, it took a mere five rows, at most.

In the 90s, 4,500 strong packed into the Windsor Arena every game to cheer on their beloved Spitfires. Fans were known for hanging over the glass to yell at players. Some would even yell over the glass behind the benches during a timeout, hoping to distract the opponents just enough to give the Spitfires an edge. More times than not, it worked. Imagine if that happened now? It would be national news. Then, it was just the way of the Barn.

If the grade of the stands didn’t affect you, the narrow aisles sure tried. More than a few people carried nachos (which, should be noted, were the best in the OHL at the time), popcorn and pop, only to trip getting past others passing them in the opposite direction. Once people got to their seats, two things stood out – the views and space. Most seats had minimal leg room and thinking about the discomfort was not recommended. Part of the charm, part of the charm. The views, though, couldn’t be beaten.

On Top of the Action

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Every word was amplified. Every play felt like it was happening all around you. There was no escaping, for both fans and players. In the north end, they built a few rows high above the visiting goaltender, with only a metallic rail and some mesh separating the rowdies from the goaltender. If you had thin skin, you asked to be a healthy scratch.

Not all seats were actual seats, either. If your ticket said Row M and above, or even lesser rows in the corners or ends, you were sitting on a bench of sorts. Not even a real bench but an area that simply didn’t have seats built into them.

While the Windsor faithful loved their hockey and were as loud and boisterous as any fan base in the OHL, it was often an adventure for visitors. Fans from out of town came for the hockey but endured more than their fair share of heckling and taunts. In modern rinks, fans from near and far will talk hockey and share a pint at intermission.

At the arena affectionately known as the Madhouse on McDougall, visiting fans came in expecting the worst. You had to have thick skin to truly enjoy your team’s game. It was part of the experience, though, and people knew that coming in.

It wasn’t only the fans who needed thick skin, though. The Barn became one of the loudest, most intimidating buildings for players too.

If These Stands Could Talk

The arena saw thousands of hockey players come through its old doors. Players like Joel Quenneville, Eddie Mio, Don Cherry, Adam Graves and Marcel Provonost all laced them up for the home side over the years. Ernie Godden set an OHL record with 87 goals in a season for the 1980-81 Spitfires. Hometown boy Ed Jovanovski (pictured, right) played for the Spits from 1993-95 before starting his 19-year NHL career. Graves was part of the 1987-88 Spitfires’ team that dominated the OHL and went undefeated throughout the playoffs. Their only loss was in the Memorial Cup Finals against the Medicine Hat Tigers.

(Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

A few years later, the Spits’ saw Bill Bowler suit up and become the team’s all-time leading scorer with 467 career points.
Windsor wasn’t just about offensive production, though. Players made sure that when opposing teams came into town, they didn’t leave with a smile on their face.

While the fans were as close to the players as they could be, the players used an intimidation factor that became famous. In the 90s, players like Adam Young, D.J. Smith, Dave Geris and Mike Hanson roamed the ice every game to ensure opponents looked over their shoulder at every turn.

Even into the 2000s, guys like Cam Janssen, Richard Greenop, Joey Sewell and Steve Ott played that game, that fans love and opponents refused to take part in. It created an atmosphere that was second-to-none.

Moments That Stand Out

While the arena was famous for its players, those players created the moments that will last a lifetime.

In 2000-01, Ott came into the final four games of the regular season with 40 goals. While 50 goals seemed impossible, it wasn’t out of the question. Ott scored a hat-trick in each of the next three games to hit the 49-goal mark with a game to go. That final game was against Sarnia at the Windsor Arena. On a penalty shot at the 14:23 mark of the third period, with over 3,800 Spits’ fans standing and cheering, Ott scored on Sting goaltender Robert Gherson to give him his 50th.

It will remain engrained in the mind of Spitfires’ fans forever.

Soon after, the Spitfires treated their fans to a lengthy playoff run that went to the Western Conference Finals against the Erie Otters. Fans lined up on McDougall hoping to get a ticket or two.  A sold-out arena was the hottest ticket in town. Windsor lost the series to Erie but it didn’t take away from their season.

Not to be outdone, during the 2004-05 playoffs, the Spitfires battled against the Sault Greyhounds in what has become a point of talk with diehard fans. Windsor fell behind 3-0 in the series but refused to quit. They won Game 4, then Game 5 and gave the hometown fans one last hurrah in Game 6 at the Barn.

On February 18, 2008, Mickey Renaud suddenly collapsed at his family’s home in Tecumseh, Ontario, and he died in hospital not long after. He was only 19 years old. (OHL Images via sarniasting.com)

Game 7 was in Sault Ste Marie. It didn’t start how Windsor fans had hoped but ended in their favour. John Scott Dickson scoring in double overtime sent the city into a frenzy and people were lined up for more playoff tickets the next day.

Never Forget #18

Feb. 2008 marked one of the biggest events in the arena and the team’s history. Before a Family Day skate with the fans, Spitfires’ captain Mickey Renaud, 19,  collapsed at his house, surrounded by teammates and family. Word of the situation quickly spread to the arena. Despite all efforts to save him, he died shortly thereafter of an undetected heart condition. The news shocked the community as Renaud was a healthy, fun-loving person who everyone admired.

The team took some time off and, upon returning, had a jersey retirement ceremony prior to a game against the now-defunct Belleville Bulls. After the game, the Bulls and Spitfires met at center ice for an impromptu handshake and the Spitfires’ raised their sticks to salute the crowd. The salute has become a fixture at Spitfires’ home games to this day. Here is a video of the post-game handshake with Belleville:

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Looking at the Future

While the Windsor Arena was making memories for players and fans, behind the scenes was a different story. The Spits’ owner, Steve Riolo, was trying to keep the team in Windsor. On Apr. 6, 2006, the Spitfires were officially sold to a local ownership group that included Bob Boughner, Warren Rychel and Peter Dobrich. While past ownerships had dealt with issues getting approval for a new rink for over a decade, it didn’t take long for this group to get the City of Windsor’s approval.

WFCU Centre in Windsor, ON. Jan 2017. Dave Jewell/THW

Windsor finally broke ground on Jan. 22, 2007. The Spitfires moved into the 6,500 seat WFCU Centre in Dec. 2008. They pay tribute to Renaud in the new arena with a memorial in the concourse, including his locker as it was on the day he passed, and the number “18” is painted on the ice behind each net.

While the Spitfires changed houses, hockey was still played in the Windsor Arena until February 2012. It was home to the CIS University of Windsor Lancers. There was a “final game” at the arena involving the University of Windsor Lancers and, just like Spits’ games of old, fans lined the streets for one last ticket.

New Era for Downtown Windsor

Now, the arena sits vacant, used as a bit of a storage facility for various city items. The halls sit quiet, remembering the past while awaiting their future. People can still get photos of the exterior but access to the inside is difficult. Perhaps that’s for the best.

With new rinks being built throughout the OHL, the days of the old community rinks are falling by the wayside. Only a couple of classic arenas remain,  in Sudbury and Peterborough. The memories and impressions left by the Windsor Arena will never go away, though.

The demolition date has yet to be set but it’s safe to say it will be soon. It will be an emotional time for the city and Spitfires’ fans alike as saying goodbye is never easy. When a part of your childhood, or even adulthood, is gone, part of you is gone, too. We say farewell to a legend. Farewell to a piece of Windsor history. Farewell to the place we called home. Ladies and gentleman, it’s the last minute of play in the Windsor Arena.