The New Thistle Rink

The Muse Newsletter
Vol. 30 No. 2 – Spring 2020

by Braden Murray


It’s been impossible to avoid news about COVID-19 in recent weeks. Society seems, as my grandpa used to say, “more anxious than a Southern Baptist at Mass.” From cancelling events and closing schools, to postponing NHL and NBA seasons, it is easy to see why people are feeling out of sorts. This isn’t the first time society has faced such a crisis, though it is the first time in a long time. One hundred years ago in 1920, Kenora was just getting past a few similar, though much more serious events – the Spanish Flu and the First World War. One of the major touchstone events that helped bring Kenora into a new era after all the death and destruction of the 1910s was the construction of the new Thistle Rink.

The Stanley Cup winning Kenora Thistles of 1907 played at the Victoria Rink which was on the corner of Park Street and what is now Thistle Drive (formerly First Street South). It was a barn of a building with a rink that was more octagonal than oblong and too small for official Stanley Cup matches. But it was home, and the Thistles made the most of knowing how to play the angles to their advantage. By 1915 those great Thistles teams were a distant memory, made even hazier by the fog of war that had descended on the town. 

On the evening of September 4th, 1915, while their friends and neighbours fought in the trenches, Kenora fireman and business owners fought to save the east end of downtown. It is not known how the fire started, but the end result was the Victoria Rink was burned to the ground. With that, the home of the Thistles was gone, but so too was an important gathering place for local teens and families, for courting couples, and town gossips, for the town band, and for local hockey teams.    

Now there was a war on, of course, so building a community rink was a low priority. Instead a rink was cleared on the lake at the foot of Main Street and once again the townsfolk of Kenora had somewhere to skate, at least on cold, sunny days.

The war hadn’t even ended yet when the Spanish Flu hit Kenora in 1918. The banner headline the day the war ended wasn’t the end of the war but rather the news that the new Kenora Public Library would be converted into a temporary emergency hospital for flu patients. Schools and businesses were shut down. People, if not well, remained in their homes and if they were healthy, they delivered food to the sick that was prepared in special community kitchens. From October to December 1918 the flu ripped through town like it did across much of the world.

By February 1919 things had seemed to level off, and life was getting back to normal. At a meeting on February 7th, 1919, Mayor George Toole floated the idea that it was finally time to build a new community skating rink. The editor of The Miner and News agreed, writing, “For the past three years Kenora has been without a skating rink, and its lack has been a detriment to our boys and girls.”

He went on to say, “Amusement must be provided for our young people or Kenora will soon lose one of its greatest attributes – [as] a desirable place to live… there can be no question that in the summer we can always maintain this feature, but in the winter provision must be made to make the town more attractive for young people.” A familiar refrain even now in 2020.

The plan was launched at a meeting in March of 1919. Led by Mayor Toole, a plan was devised to create a rink company and sell 750 shares at $20 each. That would supply the $15,000 needed to build the rink. At the meeting Mayor Toole referred to “the necessity for a modern rink where the boys and girls and older people might enjoy the pleasures of skating and also revive an interest in hockey.” Subsequent meetings were held in early April, and it was determined they would need closer to $20,000 (about $288,000 in today’s money) for a fully modern rink.

The campaign began in earnest in late April, and in the first week about $4,000 was raised. No small amount, but disappointing for the rink company organizers. The fundraiser went on throughout the summer, but the results were disappointing— a little over $5,000 was raised.  A meeting was called in

September 1919 where Mayor Toole basically read the town the riot act — either they raise this money or the rink project dies. The decision was made to have a short, sharp canvassing campaign — two days with 100+ canvassers. It was now do or die for the the Kenora Rink Company.

The following Monday Kenora was invaded by canvassers. They distributed maps and coordinated so that every door in town would get a visit. And it was effective — $12,000 was raised in the two-day campaign. Not quite reaching the goal, but close enough that they were still in the fight. With $14,000 in cash and subscriptions (some of the previous spring commitments reneged on their pledges) the decision was made in late September to start construction on the new rink.

The rink would be an all-wood frame construction built on the site of the previous Victoria Rink. By mid November the frame had been erected and the rink was taking shape. The ice surface was built to regulation for the Allan Cup tournament – 170 feet long by 70 feet wide (a current NHL regulation rink is 200 feet x 85 feet). There were modern dressing rooms and a seating capacity for 1,500 spectators.  All in all it was predicted to be one of the finest rinks in Canada once complete.

By early January the Kenora Rink Co. was ready to open up the rink to the public. Though there was a section of the roof that wasn’t quite finished (that sounds familiar!) the committee was excited to open the doors. In what seems like a herculean feat the Thistle Rink was built in a little less than three months in the fall of 1919.

The new Kenora rink was officially opened on January 9th, 1920, 100 years ago this winter. The rink wasn’t christened the “Thistle Rink” upon opening, that came later, but when the doors opened the townspeople flocked in to see it.  The recently reformed town band played the tunes as hundreds of skaters came out to enjoy their creation. The Miner and News reported that, “The sight of hundreds of skaters gliding over the splendid sheet of ice was a refreshing incident in the life of the town and took many back to the ‘before the war’ period. Thus old conditions are being revived, and the reconstruction time so far as Kenora is concerned is being successfully bridged.”

In the coming days a Kenora hockey club was formed and less than two weeks later two new Kenora hockey leagues were having their opening nights. For the record, in senior action Keewatin defeated the CPR Railroaders 8-2, and in intermediate action Kenora defeated the CPR 4-2.  The double header was played to a packed house.

The opening of the new Thistle Rink in January 1920 was no doubt an exciting event. And while the music, skating and hockey was lots of fun in the moment, it also represented something much more important to the community— a return normalcy.  The people of Kenora had been through the fire and flames of war and through the misery and terror of pandemic and they had come out on the other side. In the fall of 1919 the people of Kenora weren’t just rebuilding a rink, they were rebuilding their society.

Did you know?

The Sultana Gold Mine was the largest of the mines on the Lake of the Woods, and between 1890 and 1906 produced over $1million dollars in gold.