The Corral has always fascinated me. I’ve only been in the building a few times in my life, most notably for my high school graduation ceremony, but I’ve always wanted to watch a hockey game in that old barn.
Despite the great history behind the Corral, which opened in 1950, the building may not be around much longer. In 2016, the Stampede announced plans to expand the BMO Centre. The project was approved in December 2018. Once the rest of the funding comes through, construction will begin and the Corral will be torn down.
History behind the building
Victoria Arena preceded the Corral. The building had become a fire hazard by the 1940s and the city began looking to replace it. After the Calgary Stampeders hockey team won the 1947 Western Hockey Championship, Art McGuire, general manager of the Canada Cement Company, announced he would get all the concrete needed to build a new arena.
The next day, McGuire couldn’t believe what he’d done. “‘My god,’ he cried, ‘If I have to do that, I can only do it by stealing the cement allotments for two churches and a cathedral!’”
The actual construction began in 1949 and was completed in December 1950 for $1,350,000 — nearly $15 million in today’s dollars. It was the biggest construction project of the decade for Calgary.
At the time of its opening, the building was the largest arena west of Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto and had the best ice making machine you could get. It could make a full sheet of ice in 24 hours.
Two weeks after the Hitmen game, I returned to the Corral to learn more about, what used to be, one of the most advanced arenas in Canada. I spoke with Christine Leppard, a historical specialist with the Stampede, who detailed the opening night of the Corral.
Leppard said the first event held in the building was on Dec. 26, 1950. It was a hockey game between the Calgary Stampeders and Edmonton Flyers. It was a sold-out crowd and Calgary won the game 5-0, which Leppard said, “the city sure enjoyed.”
Some of the teams that have called the Corral home include the WCHL (now WHL) Calgary Centennials from 1966 to 1977, the Calgary Cowboys of the World Hockey Association from 1975 to 1977, the WHL’s Calgary Wranglers from 1977 to 1987, and, of course, it served as the original home of the Calgary Flames from 1980 to 1983.
The Corral has had many other uses over the years. It was the home of the Hart Family’s Stampede Wrestling, as well as many concerts. The building was also used as a venue for the 1988 Winter Olympics.
When I was at the game, I noticed that the player benches were on opposite sides of the ice, rather than being right next to each other like they are normally. I could just tell this place had barely changed since it opened. It was as if we had entered into a time machine.
Mike Rogers, a born-and-raised Calgarian, played his junior hockey career in the Corral with the Calgary Centennials. Rogers was one of the Centennials’ stars, putting up 67 goals and 140 points in his final season with the team in 1974. He had a successful pro career, having three consecutive 100-point seasons in the NHL during the early ‘80s. Rogers has extremely fond memories of the Corral.
“Other than seeing the Maple Leaf Gardens or Montreal Forum on TV, the Corral was the Taj Mahal of hockey rinks as far as I saw it. To be able to play there was a huge thrill,” Rogers told me on the phone.
Rogers mentioned that in his time with the Centennials, the building could be a tough place to be during games.
“A common occurrence at every game was a bench-emptying brawl, sometimes more than one. There [were] times where we went into the stands it got so crazy,” he says.
“I remember once in the Corral they shut the lights off because the brawl got so bad, they just had to find some way to stop it.”
An odd quirk of the Corral is the location of the dressing rooms. During my visit with Leppard, we went into one, which is one of the smallest I’ve ever seen. The only way to get to the ice from the dressing room is to walk through the crowd.
Rogers fondly remembers having to make that walk in his junior days. “The fans were great, they’d be piled over when we were walking out, yelling, cheering and clapping. As the home team, it really made you motivated and made you excited to go out to play.”
Rogers would return to play in the Corral many times during his pro career. Both in the WHA with the Edmonton Oilers and New England Whalers and in the NHL with the renamed Hartford Whalers and New York Rangers. He recalls his games against the Flames to be the toughest he had to play in.
“It’s amazing as a Calgary native how much pressure I put on myself going in, playing in the Corral.” he said.
“I was just so nervous because I wanted to play so well when we played against the Flames, and I had the toughest time against them more than any other team.”
Rogers said that playing in such a small building made it very difficult as an opponent.
“Being in the Corral, you heard everything, you saw everything. Nowadays in the rinks, you can almost black things out, but not in the Corral because there were just people right over you. In such a small rink, you definitely knew what was going on.”
My uncle Rob Reed saw the Centennials, Cowboys, Wranglers and Flames play in the Corral and always told great stories about the place.
He remembers seeing the Flames play against the Hartford Whalers and having hockey legend Dave Keon walk right past him. He also remembers seeing a game against the powerhouse New York Islanders, where Bryan Trottier (who wasn’t playing that night) was casually sitting a few rows behind him. He said that there was “a different approach to the athletes back then.”
The extensive photo collection which lines the concourse is one of the most interesting aspects of the Corral. The photos are a mishmash including hockey teams and rodeo stars.
When I met with Leppard, I learned the photos were the personal collection of Lloyd Turner, a Hockey Hall of Famer who managed the Corral from its opening until his retirement in 1964. Leppard explained that the original photos had been taken down to be preserved and have been replaced with replicas of those original photos.
My uncle has always enjoyed looking at them.
“Those photos were a huge ongoing memory for me, because I’ve spent hours looking at them,” he said.
“You get to know them very well and then you’re like ‘Oh, I don’t think I’ve seen this one before,’ even though I’ve seen every picture in here 500 times.”
But all these memories will be left in the past, as the Corral may not be around for much longer.
A bleak future
Jennifer Booth, the Stampede’s public relations manager, said, “The building … face[s] several challenges. It has code issues. The ice-making plant is at the end of its lifespan and it’s just not really fiscally viable to rehabilitate the Corral.”
The Corral is scheduled to be demolished for the proposed expansion to the BMO Centre.
Rogers is strongly against the demolition of the building. “It was such a big part of my life and to see it come down, it’s just not right. I know that the city’s growing …and there [are] certain things to do … I’m just one voice and I wish I could say a lot more but it will be tough.”
My uncle, while disappointed, understands the reasoning behind the decision. “Personally, I hate to see it go for many reasons. I’d much rather watch any game in [the Corral] just because there’s not a bad seat, but it’s gotta make economic sense.”
When looking at the legacy the building will leave behind, Leppard says it created a world-class gathering space for the city. “Hockey was on the rise, but having a brand new state of the art facility in the 1950s was important to that story.”
My friend and I watched the last few minutes of the game between the Hitmen and Raiders, sitting in the original wood seats with chipped paint. As I watched the game, I felt like I could picture Lanny McDonald and Kent Nilsson skating down the ice with a young Wayne Gretzky chasing after them. As time ticked away in the third period, I held onto the old wooden seats. I held on because I wanted to make one last connection with this grand old building. I’m not the only one who feels that way.
“I think there’s gonna be a lot of tears shed when that Corral does come down because it meant so much to so many people,” Rogers said.
Editor: Sam Nar |firstname.lastname@example.org