Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Hockey Night in Hamilton



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Just north of Cincinnati in the city of Hamilton there used to be an old school ice rink. Open air with an aircraft hangar like roof, the facility embodied "old time hockey." Today it's a parking lot adjacent to a satellite campus of Miami University, but at one time the place made it to the silver screen - when Hollywood considered Cincinnati a "hockey town."

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- The "aircraft hangar" structure of the Hamilton Sports Complex's former ice rink.

My friend Ben has been with me since the beginning, crawling into abandoned buildings and looking for adventure. He's been there ever since I started getting into Urban Exploration. Yesterday he called and invited me to be a guest speaker in his art class at Miami University's Hamilton campus. The class was being taught by a teacher we both had in high school, Laura Metz, who has always been awesome and supportive of my work in photography. I accepted the invitation and made the drive up north to Hamilton, calling Ben to ask: "Where the hell do I park?" "By the ice rink," he replied.

The ice rink was gone though and had been for several years. However, I knew what he meant. In that moment, just as Ben inspired the name for this website, his parking instructions inadvertently reminded me of these photographs from January 2007 - and thus inspired this post.

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- What remained of the ice rink in 2007.

The Hamilton Sports Complex in Hamilton, Ohio had basketball courts, tennis courts, picnic shelters and areas to play horseshoes, but the centerpiece was the ice rink. What looked like a massive aircraft hangar, was actually an outdoor hockey and skating facility just across the street from the Hamilton branch campus of Miami University. The only true indoor part was the concession and locker area with its fireplace and "Off Road" arcade game. I had been there several times as a kid. Despite taking lessons at Miami University's main campus in Oxford and playing youth hockey at Northlands in Cincinnati, the Hamilton Ice Rink was my dad and I's favorite place to skate. It was just minutes down the road from St. Ann, the Catholic Church my family attended. In the winter, we'd often go for open skating after mass on Saturday night.

The place screamed "old time hockey." With its open air sides, the rink could be incredibly cold in the winter. The concession stand windows were protected by chain link fence, the stands made out of wood, and the locker room reeked of sweat. A large fireplace on the inside provided warmth while you took off your skates, tried to sip scolding hot chocolate and come up with subtle ways to ask your dad if you could play arcade games. The ice rink was indicative of a bygone era, part of a true hockey town - whether or not Cincinnati/Hamilton are "hockey towns" is questionable.

Although, Hollywood seemed to think so.

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- A scene from the motion picture "Airborne (1993)," that was filmed at the Hamilton Sports Complex.

In 1993, a film named Airborne debuted in theaters. Panned by critics, the film starred a relatively unknown cast of future stars like Jack Black and Seth Green of School of Rock and Family Guy fame respectively. The movie is your typical 90's teenager movie with an "us against them" theme, a girl and a guy who's just "trying to fit in." Despite its overall cheesiness, horrible plot and other downfalls, the movie is pretty fun. Even better, it was filmed primarily in Cincinnati.

The movie follows the story of Mitchell Goosen, a California teenager and surfer who's life gets turned upside down when he is forced to go live with extended relatives in Cincinnati, Ohio. While describing surfing to his new classmates, the kids ridicule him and explain that Cincinnati is a "hockey town." The kids at his innercity public school convince him to try playing hockey in a game they have against "the preps." Mitchell ends up costing the game for his team in embarrassing fashion in a scene filmed at the Hamilton ice rink. In an attempt to portray Cincinnati as a brutally cold, Midwestern "hockey town," the Hamilton rink worked perfectly.

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- What remained of the ice rink in January, 2007.

However, is Cincinnati a "hockey town?" While Hollywood considered it one in a 1993 teen drama, the title is arguable. Cincinnati has a proud hockey history, but the fan support for the sport is an up and down love affair at least at the pro level.

Back in 1952, the Cincinnati Mohawks debuted in the International Hockey League at the historic Cincinnati Gardens. Of the six seasons spent in the minor league IHL, five of them were championship seasons. However, the club eventually folded in 1958.

Hockey returned to the Gardens and Queen City 13 years later in the form of the Cincinnati Swords. Playing in the American Hockey League, one step below the premier National Hockey League, they were the farm club to the NHL's newly added Buffalo Sabres. The Swords lasted for three seasons, winning one championship that ended up being played in Buffalo, NY and not Cincinnati. The team folded in 1974 in anticipation of major league hockey coming to the Queen City.

Debuting in the World Hockey Association in 1975, the Cincinnati Stingers took the ice at the then brand new Riverfront Coliseum (now US Bank Arena). The Stingers were the brain child of investors Brian Deekhan and Bill DeWitt Jr who had initially tried to pursue an NHL team for Cincinnati. When the NHL denied them an expansion franchise, they went with the rival WHA in hopes that eventually the two leagues would merge. The Stingers attendance was modest at best and when a merger with the NHL finally came, the owners elected to take a buyout in exchange for not being admitted to the now sole remaining major league. The team existed in the minor Central Hockey League the next year, but disbanded half way through the season.

The Cincinnati Tigers, another CHL team, took the ice at Riverfront for one season in 1981-82, but then disbanded.

Cincinnati went without pro hockey until 1990 when the Cyclones of the ECHL debuted at the Cincinnati Gardens. The team eventually moved to the IHL, one step below the NHL and then relocated downtown to the Riverfront Coliseum.

The late 90's were the golden age for hockey in the Queen City. As soon as the Cyclones left for downtown in 1997, the Gardens got another team called the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks. The Ducks played in the AHL. Starting in 1997, Cincinnati had two pro teams in rival leagues playing one level below the NHL.

The Cyclones struggled with the new uptown competition and folded in 2001. They returned in time for the next season in the lower level ECHL, but folded again in 2004. The uptown Ducks were now the sole name in Cincinnati pro hockey. However, the Ducks lost their affiliation agreement with the Anaheim, CA NHL club of the same name and folded in 2005. An eight year hockey war between two teams ended with no teams at all.

In 2006 the Gardens planned to debut a new AHL team, the Cincinnati RailRaiders, but the franchise never secured an affiliation with an NHL team and never took the ice.

The Cyclones returned for a third incarnation and exist to this day. The team plays in the minor league ECHL, a "AA" league two tiers below the NHL. These days, attendance seems to be driven mainly off of cheap beer specials and marketed as a "family fun value," but a group of hardcore Cincinnati hockey fans still cheer on the team from their traditional perch at US Bank Arena known as "Section 60."

All in all, pro hockey in Cincinnati can be considered a far cry from what it once was.

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- The open air sides of the Hamilton rink.

When the crosstown "hockey war" was dying in Cincinnati, so too was the Hamilton ice rink. I don't know exactly when it closed, information on the internet seems to be nonexistent. Hell, I'm just assuming the name of the facility was the "Hamilton Sports Complex" since that's what I named the image files when I took these photographs back in 2007. I stopped skating there and playing youth hockey when I entered high school in 2003.

*If you know any more historical information on the facility, why it closed or when it closed, feel free to email me.*

I started photographing abandoned structures in 2006 when my friend Jon and I snuck into the former Surf Cincinnati waterpark. We grew up in Fairfield and having not yet really ventured into Cincinnati, we figured the "rust belt" city of Hamilton would be a good place to start looking for more abandoned places. After school at Badin High School one afternoon, we came across the reamins of the Hamilton Sports Complex.

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When we arrived, the ice rink was completely gone and the facility had been gutted. The wooden roof was falling apart, the hockey boards had been removed, the concession and arcade area had been boarded up, trash was strewn about the floor and a tattered American flag hung suspended from the ceiling - blowing in the cold winter breeze.

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- Support structure for the building's roof. Stands for spectators once stood here.


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- Where the bleachers once stood.


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- The American flag still hanging from the rafters.

Paint adorned the walls in the form of hockey murals and spent paintball gun ammunition. The facility's scoreboard still hung on the brick without power.

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- One of the faciliti's murals covered in paintball splats.

Looking back, had we thought to salvage the scoreboard, it would've made an excellent decoration for a basement or barroom wall. It probably wouldn't have fit inside my car though.

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The facility seemed to be in the process of demolition. The most peculiar bits of trash lying on the floor were two streetlights.

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Looking inside the dark, boarded up concession stand, I could still make out the skate rental booth and the "Off Road" arcade game.

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Jon and I took our photographs and left. Some time after that, the building was completely demolished and replaced with a parking lot for the nearby campus. I had forgotten about these photographs until Ben had invited me to come speak at Miami Hamilton yesterday. Today, nothing remains of the former ice rink except when it's viewed from above. The faint outline of a hockey rink can still be seen in the parking lot - the remaining sign of a bygone era in local hockey history.

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- The remains of the rink as seen on Google Earth. Note that the outline of the hockey rink can still be seen.

Special thanks to Ben and Laura for inviting me to speak last night...

...and to my Dad for taking me to skate here so many times.

24 comments:

  1. This is why I check your site every few days. Loved it.

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  2. What about the AHL Cincinnati Mohawks from 1949-1952? I saw the very first game. My father, Morris Zaidins, was the Assistant General Manager of the Cincinnati Gardens and Alex Sinclair was the General Manager. Emile Francis was the goalie and an aging Paul Bibault the back-up goalie was also working somewhere in the management. One time he had to quickly suit up when the goalie was injured. An "enforcer" defenseman was "Ivan the Terrible" (I've forgotten his last name). I believe Billy Gould was the team captain.

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    1. I mentioned the Mohawks in there.

      I would've loved to have seen the Gardens and Mohwaks back then, must've been an awesome experience, thanks for sharing!

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  3. Great post man - loved reading about the rink that froze my toes off when I played for the hawks

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    1. Thanks! The place was great, it's a shame that it's gone.

      And when you say hawks, are you referring to the team that plays against the Mighty Ducks in the first movie?

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  4. I knew I recognized that structure from Airborne before seeing the picture from the movie. Great read. That would have been a killer place to see when it still had the boards and what not.

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  5. The painting of #12 looks like Guy LaFleur.

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  6. The painting of #12 is Yvan Cournoyer, who played for the Montreal Canadiens from, if memory serves, from 1964-1979 and had four seasons in which he scored more than 40 goals. He wasn't very big, about 5-foot-7, but he could really skate and was nicknamed "The Roadrunner" because of his speed. Guy Lafleur wore #10 for the Canadiens.

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    1. I said that it looked like Guy and I'm sticking to it. It definitely doesn't look like Yvan.

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  7. Thanks for this! I played hockey there as a kid and wondered what happened to the place.

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  8. Unreal! Wish this could have been saved ,cleaned up and let some youth hockey program call it home for a while.Just a shame that these unique places get rolled up like an old carpet and tossed to the curb.

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  9. I used to play adult hockey there on Tuesday and Sunday evenings. We had two teams the "Good Guys" and the "Bad Guys." We (I) mostly sucked but it was a hell of a lot of fun, especially when there were minor snow drifts behind the north goal!

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  10. #5 looks like Nick Futio. There is a place in Westchester Co. NY, right off the NYS Thruway near Tuckahoe Road that is very similar to this rink. It is still in use and I have probably driven past it hundreds of times since I was a kid.

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  11. i miss that place with all my heart. i played there in highschool. it was called hamilton sports arena. i think its final year of being open was 03/04.

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  12. Cool post! I had read about the rink in a book called "The Hockey Dad Chronicles" but never knew where it was. The book didn't portray it in a good light but that was the perspective of a freezing cold parent. There's just something about playing hockey outside.

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  13. Great read. I played there as a kid. Intresting that my home ice (Dixie Ice Gardens) was demo'd too.

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  14. There was an instructor at Miami named Ivan Madar, who had been a chech olympian and I believe he coached a hockey team for the university. The arena was used for a lot of things. One year a friend and I had a table at a craft fair that was at the rink. The fireplace was massive. Hamilton seems to tear down all the good places. They recently tore down all the schools and built ugly modern things.

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  15. I skated for the Jr Cyclones as a youngster and frequently made the trip up to Hamilton to play here. At the time, it wasn't a rink I often looked forward to skate on. I can recall watery-ice on warm game days, and fog dense enough to enshroud the other end of the ice on another.

    However, I now think of those grievances as "character" and those trips make for some great memories retrospectively. I recall the drive up with my father talking strategy for the coming day's game. And I can picture him, hands wrapped around a steaming cup of joe, giving me the thumbs up through the chain-link fence of the boards as I hit the ice.

    Thank you for the stroll down memory lane!

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  16. Replies
    1. Great story! It brought back lots of memories. Our hockey group, Ohio Valley Hockey Assn, played there from the mid 1970s until it closed. We played two hours with a Zambonie ice cut at half time. (Yes, 2 periods not 3) Dan Thomas did a great job taking over the rink's management from the City of Hamilton in the later years. The locker-room shower, inside wood-burning fire and fog on raining nights were legendary. We have since moved to Cincinnati Gardens on Sunday nights.

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  17. I learned to skate there, my mom Carol worked there for a long time.

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  18. Thanks for this! I played hockey there as a kid and wondered what happened to the place.

    Ice hockey kit & Roller blades

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  19. Wow what memories. I used to hang out and sneak in there when i was younger.

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