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‘It’s a place I call my second home’: Galt Arena Gardens celebrates 100 years of hockey history

CAMBRIDGE — For Bob Scholl, it’s a home away from home.

He’s been a fixture at Galt Arena Gardens for decades, lending his services as a volunteer with the Cambridge Winter Hawks, and now, the RedHawks, or watching the Cambridge Hornets from his season’s ticket seat in Section B, second row from the top.

Never a hockey player himself, he’s nevertheless dedicated a good part of his life to the sport, and to one of its legendary stages, Galt Arena Gardens.

“I love coming to this old arena,” Scholl said Saturday, as the Gardens celebrated its 100th anniversary. It’s said to be the world’s oldest continually operating arena, having never missed a hockey season.

“There’s a lot of history. It’s a place I call my second home.”

The weekend event was a chance to honor the old barn, with its grand two-tone brick façade and arching wooden ceiling and upper windows, uncovered when a false ceiling was removed during renovations in the 1990s.

But it was as much a chance to honor the people who’ve brought the Shade Street venue to life for a century — the players who’ve skated its ice, the coaches pacing behind its benches, the fans cheering from its stands, the workers keeping everything running smoothly behind the scenes.

“The job they’ve done on this rink is unbelievable,” said former NHLer Pete Conacher, who played three seasons of junior hockey here for the Galt Black Hawks, starting in 1949, before being called up to the big show.

“Nine out of 10 times, it would have been torn down,” Conacher said of the Gardens. “They did it right.”

Conacher, who turns 90 next month, played a total of 229 games in the National Hockey League, with Chicago, Toronto and the New York Rangers.

The Gardens have hosted no shortage of greats, including Gordie Howe, Terry Sawchuk and Bobby Hull.

Conacher’s favorite Gardens memories have him on the ice with fellow future pro Kenny Wharram on the forward line.

“I guess my style must have fit his style, and vice versa,” Conacher recalled. “It couldn’t have worked out better for me.”

In his final season in Galt, Conacher racked up 53 goals in 51 games “with Kenny as my centreman.”

But when Conacher turned pro, the younger Wharram remained in junior. Conacher’s output dropped to five goals in 41 games in his first season in Chicago.

“I really relied on him, and missed him,” said Conacher, who’d go on to score 19 goals the next year as he grew accustomed to the NHL.

On Saturday, Conacher beamed as he was reunited with his old Galt Black Hawks sweater for a photo on the arena’s gleaming concrete surface.

The jersey normally resides at Toronto’s Hockey Hall of Fame, which sent a number of artifacts to Cambridge to be displayed at the weekend event. There was also memorabilia on hand from a number of sources, including the Cambridge Sports Hall of Fame and Scholl’s personal collection.

Craig Campbell, manager of the resource center and archives at the Hockey Hall of Fame, received the sweater from Conacher when he donated it several years ago.

“It’s nice to bring it back for this event,” Campbell said. “We’re always looking for artifacts and memorabilia from all levels of hockey.”

Along with displays from local sports groups and teams, the centennial celebration featured self-guided tours of the historic building, live entertainment, food trucks and roller-skating — the arena was a favorite when roller-skating was introduced there as an off-season activity in the 1940s, due to its smooth floor.

“It’s been part of my family for over 60 years,” said Gardens Supervisor Dean Bevan. “Now, I get to be the keeper, the caretaker, of the arena.”

His father and uncle “began rink-ratting here” in 1960; Uncle Bruce went on to become his manager, and later, the city’s director of arenas.

Dean used to get to skate at the Gardens on Christmas Day, as routine checks were made by the adults to ensure things were running properly.

“It’s one of the fondest memories of what Christmas meant to me. I was almost more excited to come skating than open gifts.”

In recent years, he’s been able to share his love of the place with his son, Jack, as his coach.

“If I’m not here working, I’m here watching. If I’m not here watching, I’m here coaching,” Bevan said. “This is the one everybody wants to play in.”

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