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Treasured Quebec arena dodges wrecking ball

Yanick Chevrier-Bedard helps son Robin, 2, out for his first skate at the Eric Sharp Arena in Saint-Lambert, Que., on Dec. 14, 2013.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/The Globe and Mail

From the outside, the low red-brick hockey rink doesn't look like a heritage building worth fighting to save, let alone one that would lead to a mayor's defeat.

Another story lies inside, where curved laminated wooden beams support a rich cedar-plank ceiling that became a cause to some Saint-Lambertois who grew tired of being told by their civic leadership to stop asking questions if they wanted a spiffy new arena.

People rose up, signed petitions, lobbied the province to cut off funding, and in November they voted massively to oust mayor Philippe Brunet, who was bent on demolition of the arena built in 1966.

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Instead of facing the wrecking ball, the Eric Sharp Arena will now undergo a total renovation that will preserve the ceiling and warm atmosphere that national brands such as Maxwell House and Nike have used as the quintessential Canadian scene for their television ads.

"I'm glad to hear it," said P.K. Subban, the hockey superstar who has skated in the rink to film some of those ads. "Those types of arenas, they have character. Everyone's trying to keep up, and sometimes change is good, but it's also great to still be able to play in those type of arenas."

A committee, including architects and hockey and figure skating parents who were once adversaries in the arena debate, met with city council the week before Christmas to present their consensus three options to rebuild the arena, all of which will preserve the ceiling. New Mayor Alain Dépatie and city council are expected to release the information publicly in January and make a selection soon afterward.

The city began discussing a new arena in 2007, but a plan rapidly took shape in 2012 that would have seen the rink demolished and a new one in place by now. A loose coalition of city watchdogs, architects, activists and nostalgic people who grew up in Saint-Lambert rallied and eventually persuaded the province to withhold about $4.5-million in funding – nearly half the cost of the rink – unless the ceiling would be preserved.

"The people spoke and the people won," said Jean-François DesBois, a Montrealer who grew up playing on the rink and was part of the push.

François Girard, a member of the committee who is the head of the local youth hockey association in the suburb of 20,000 just across the St. Lawrence River from Montreal, admits he's not all that interested in the architectural qualities of the rink. He just wants dressing rooms that don't smell of mould and ice that freezes properly for kids to play, including his own sons, ages 9 and 11.

"For us whether it's made of wood, cardboard, metal, we don't really care as long as we can play. We want our kids to play," Mr. Girard said. "At the same time, we were angry and disappointed when we got to the committee and saw how the old administration just wanted to skip steps. They didn't do their homework, and they tried to muzzle the hockey and figure skating association."

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Mr. Girard said he hopes a heritage report kept secret by the previous administration along with other documents will now be released. "Hopefully it will all be more transparent now," he said.

Bernard McNamara, a local architect who is on the committee and lobbied to save the arena, said he was shocked to see all of the documents and reports that have been kept secret on the arena file. "The old council said there was only one solution, that it was too old to salvage, and we could see it just wasn't true," he said. "There are other solutions, more respectful of heritage, of the environment."

Mr. McNamara said the preservation of the arena has provided a remarkable lesson in civic engagement. People with contradictory interests came together and found a consensus, he said. "It was done in perfect harmony."

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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