The Dalhousie University Tigers’ announcement of the new Dalhousie Events Centre caught dozens by surprise, especially within Dal’s hockey programs.
One of those caught off guard was men’s hockey assistant coach, Andrew Wigginton.
Tiger’s head coach Chris Donnelly called him the day before the news broke, “and said, ‘it’s happening for sure,’” Wigginton, a former Tigers player, said. He’s spent the entirety of his Dal playing and coaching career at the Halifax Forum –– Dal hockey’s current home, 15 minutes by bus from Studley campus.
“We were still kind of like ‘No, it’s not,” he said. When Donelly told him, “‘I’m not joking, it’s a done deal,’” Wigginton said.
Men’s hockey forward, Derek Gentile, was pleasantly shocked too. He, alongside some teammates, heard of the news about an hour before word hit social media.
“The really exciting part for all of us is that it’s directly on campus,” Gentile said. “It’s not only the great atmosphere the building will have, the students will be nearby and we can draw them [into games]. At the same time, as student-athletes, we’re busy and it’s so much easier for time management being right on campus. You can practice, then walk right to class or to physio.”
Katie Cameron found out in a similar way around the same time. The women’s Tigers defender learned the news when head coach Troy Ryan told everyone through the team group chat.
“I toured Dal in grade 11 and the coach at the time said ‘We’ll get a new rink eventually, so it’s something to look forward to,’” Cameron said. “A lot of the girls and I weren’t really sure ourselves. Now it’s happening, and the thought of having a rink on campus is exciting. The Forum’s great, but for travel and convenience on-campus is so much better.”
Tigers athletic director Tim Maloney revealed the Dalhousie Events Centre in a statement on June 22. The Dalhousie board of governors voted in favour of the rink’s construction that day. It’s slated to be ready by fall 2023.
The arena will be built on the parking lot between Wickwire Field and LeMarchant Place, where the Dalhousie Memorial Arena stood until 2012. It will include flooring to cover the ice for special events, other event spaces and a large space where the Dalhousie Physiotherapy Clinic (currently at Dalplex) will move to.
Since 2012, Dal’s program participation and offerings in ice sports for students has nosedived. According to the Events Centre’s project website, student participation dipped 55 per cent in that timeframe because of distance and lack of ice time availability.
“It’s a really important asset for our campus and community, and it goes well beyond just our men’s and women’s varsity hockey programs,” Maloney said in an interview with the Dalhousie Gazette. Dal Athletics created proposals over the previous school year for review by the appropriate university committees. It submitted the current proposal to the Dal board in spring 2021.
“From intramural participation to ice-related club sports and programming, in addition to community access and the important role we play in the community, an asset like this is critical,” Maloney said. “When we looked at the long-term needs for our athletic facilities and where the gaps are, the arena was at the top of the list.”
The arena will mark a turning point for the varsity hockey programs. In Atlantic University Sport (AUS) men’s hockey, Dal is the only team without an on-campus rink. Dal, Mount Allison University and St. Thomas University are the only teams in AUS women’s hockey who play off campus.
Alongside low attendance, the hockey programs have struggled to compete over the last decade. Dal teams have made the playoffs only five times combined (four of those berths coming from the women’s team) in the eight seasons they’ve been at the Forum. They’ll play two more seasons there, but a change of scenery is on the horizon.
“It’s a thing we’re all looking forward to as a team. To have our own rink is so special,” Cameron said. “Everything for this program is coming together. We got a new coach [in Troy Ryan] last year, hands-down the best coach I’ve ever had. Him leading the program and now getting our own rink will make our program a lot stronger.”
On-campus university rinks are notorious for their atmospheres, and the excitement of one thousand fans packed into the small facility, bolstering the players’ energy at the same time, is great for a team. Gentile hopes the new arena will spark that.
“It builds excitement to see the atmosphere in these rinks. When you have a rink on-campus, students show up in colours and walk there from residences, which creates a buzz. It’s a home-crowd advantage,” he said. Gentile uses the most recent Stanley Cup Final as an example. The Tampa Bay Lightning had a full crowd, due to a complete lack of COVID-19 restrictions in the state of Florida. The Montreal Canadiens, in contrast, did not, due to tighter COVID-19 regulations in Quebec. The Lightning turned out victorious.
“It makes a huge difference to have a community and school behind you,” Gentile said.
Use in south end Halifax
On peninsular Halifax, the only two arenas besides the Forum are the Scotiabank Centre downtown and the Dauphinee Centre, Saint Mary’s University’s rink that opened in 2019.
The Scotiabank Centre is already busy in a typical year. The Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s (QMJHL) Halifax Mooseheads, the National Lacrosse League’s (NLL) Halifax Thunderbirds play there. It’s also the city’s home for large concerts and other events. That leaves southern Halifax residents and organizations to compete for ice time at SMU, or to make longer trips to the Forum or facilities in Bedford or Dartmouth.
Not only will the Events Centre house Dal programs, but, as Maloney said, provide an arena for the community.
“It fits perfectly into our role in the community. When the old rink was torn down in 2012, it left a lot of people in peninsular Halifax without a place to skate or play hockey,” he said.
Those near Dal will have another option to catch a hockey game on the weekend. That adds, said Wigginton, a “whole new dynamic” to the program.
“Being able to say we have a rink on campus and having players able to walk there, with our own dressing room and maybe free ice time, that recruitment tool alone brings more players in,” he said. “The jump to our own rink is going to change things a lot.”
Gentile is one of the younger players on the team, having only joined in fall 2020. But he’s well aware of the significance the Events Centre holds at this point in program history.
“Although I’m part of the group of younger players and will be among the faces of the new rink, it started years ago with the guys who laid the foundation for the culture of the team,” he said. “It’s a really exciting time for this program. This school, program, Chris [Donnelly] and the staff have deserved a winner for a while and they’ve built the culture to do that.”