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Monday, August 29, 2016

Hara Arena




Just outside of Dayton, Ohio, people had the opportunity to bid their final goodbye to a place of memories and spectacle. Taking in an event at Hara Arena was a collective experience shared among many. As it prepared to close its doors, the the world lost one more classic hockey barn.



I have no real personal connection to Hara Arena, the classic hockey and entertainment venue on the outskirts of Dayton in Trotwood, Ohio. I can’t recall a vast selection of memories like the ones I heard about from the others who were touring the building with me: hockey, legendary concerts, boxing, wrestling, as well as the beer, drugs, and debauchery in the parking lot that goes hand in hand with 70’S nostalgia. I only attended a few games here to see the second incarnation of the Dayton Gems circa 2009/10. I loved the place though, even if I wasn’t from the area, didn’t grow up going there, and only visited a handful of times. 

I had written about it (as well as the Cincinnati Gardens and Fort Wayne Coliseum) in an editorial entitled “How Minor League Hockey Should Be.” In that article I made the case for how the lower league games go hand in hand with classic arenas and are better served by smaller venues rather than small teams masquerading as major league in more modern facilities. That’s not to knock the Cincinnati Cyclones, I enjoy their games (and $1 beer nights) from time to time, but there was just something about hockey at a place like Hara.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Slapshot, Hara looks like it could’ve easily been the set of the film. It’s a great, funny movie featuring the classic Maxine Nightingale song “Right Back Where We Started From” throughout. The 1977 Paul Newman comedy captured what it was like to play minor league hockey in a small town back in the day as his character’s Charlestown Chiefs struggled in the Federal League (coincidentally Hara’s last hockey team played in a real version of the Federal League) and the locals rallied around them. Even on its last day of being open to the public, Hara still felt like a classic hockey barn. It’s closure had been announced suddenly, coincidentally as the Cincinnati Gardens announced it was closing up shop (a final story on the beloved Gardens is coming soon once some more information is know). The owners of Hara were kind enough to open its doors one last time, allowing any well wishers to come and say goodbye for a few hours. I decided to stop by. 

- Dayton Gems hockey at Hara Arena in 2009.
My friend Bill likes to joke that “Hara Arena was built out of spare parts from the [Cincinnati] Gardens.” Although Hara debuted much later than the Queen City’s aforementioned hockey barn, the two arenas both shared unmistakable nostalgic similarities.

The complex dated back to 1956, when the  Wampler Ballarena was built as a dance hall on the grounds of a fruit orchard. The Ballarena complex would eventually be expanded to include convention halls and conference centers as well as a 5500 seat arena in 1964. The arena was named after the facility’s founding brother’s HArold and RAlph Wampler. Privately built, owned, and maintained, the complex was the Dayton area’s largest and primary arena for years. Throughout its time, it brought in top tier music acts such as the Rolling Stones, Elton John, and the Grateful Dead just to name a few. Many people in Dayton can tell you (and many also wear the t-shirt): “I saw it at Hara!” The facility also hosted political rallies, professional wrestling, trade conventions, traveling family shows, circuses, and so much more. One of the yearly traditions was the Dayton Amateur Radio Association's "Hamvention," which brought together amateur ham radio operators from around the world. The event brought in upwards of 30,000 people across three days.


As a hockey venue, Hara was perfectly suited for the minor leagues. It wasn’t too cavernous or too small, the sight lines were fantastic, and even from ten rows back you could hear players curse at each other during fights as I did. 

Hockey began there in 1964, as the Dayton Gems (named for the city’s nickname of “The Gem City”) began play in the International Hockey League, a feeder organization to the top tier National Hockey League. The Gems enjoyed a great local following and even had exhibitions against the US Olympic team and won several championships, but they eventually folded amongst the backdrop of regional economic downturn. They finished their final season in 1980. 

- Visitors locker room.

Hara had also seen its share of the top tiers of hockey as well. As the upstart World Hockey Association challenged the elder NHL as a top tier league, the WHA’s nearby Cincinnati Stingers would play the occasional pre-season matchup on Hara’s ice. In a 1978 meeting between the Stingers and Indianapolis Racers, the Racers debuted a young and then unknown player by the name of Wayne Gretzky. “The Greatest of All Time” made his professional debut in Trotwood, Ohio. 

Interestingly enough, the Dayton market had at one point been considered to carry a team in the rival major hockey league. Had the WHA allowed the Aeros to play at Hara, the franchise would’ve been Dayton’s first (and so far only) foray into major league sports. The WHA didn’t believe the arena was suitable for their organization and after no one came forward to build a new one, the Aeros went to Houston. 


Despite not being considered for major league membership and eventually losing its storied minor league franchise, Hara still thrived as an arena and convention hall, bringing in countless musical and traveling acts. Even as Wright State University opened a more modern arena (the ~10,000 seat Erwin J. Nutter. Center) across town in 1990, Hara kept on. Hockey was revived at the old barn in Trotwood in 1991 as the Dayton Bombers joined the East Coast Hockey League. The Bombers followed in the footsteps of the Gems, becoming a popular attraction with a passionate fan base. However, they would eventually move to the newer Nutter Center in 1996. Even though the newer arena had whisked away the primary tenants, Hara still pulled in its fair share of traveling acts and conventions. 

- Arena entrance.

Like so many American indoor stadia, the building hosted more than its fair share of indoor football, independent basketball, roller derby, and indoor soccer teams with none of them lasting more than a few seasons. When the Bombers organization closed up shop at the Nutter Center in 2009, Hara had an opportunity to become the go-to spot for hockey again. Along with a new International Hockey League, the Dayton Gems name was revived. 

I went to a few of the new Gems games. They were a great time, and part of the inspiration for that aforementioned editorial, “How Minor League Hockey Should Be.” They had all the hokey intermission entertainment and contests, but there was just something about seeing hockey in that old arena. It truly was just like the film "Slapshot." Everyone there seemed more concerned about the hockey than the between period entertainment. The beer was cheap, the building old, and the players journeymen.

- Private party area.

The new Gems puttered on for a bit, but were never as popular as their historical namesake and eventually folded. Even if they weren’t embraced by the locals on a wide scale, hockey at Hara was an experience to behold, one indicative of the Cincinnati Gardens. 

Following the Gems demise, Hara hosted the Dayton Demonz of the Federal Hockey League. The FHL embodies the league of the same name in “Slapshot” particularly well in that it tows the line between professional and beer league. One of the league’s more notable incidents in its young existence happened at Hara:
“In the final game of the regular season between Danville and Dayton, two friends and former teammates decided to stage a fight in the 3rd period. With a 4-0 lead and less than 10 minutes to go, Jesse Felten and Matt Puntureri squared off at center ice, and as punches would have been thrown, both players hugged it out instead. Next, Puntureri pulled a can of beer from his pads, opened it, and in each other's embrace, the two skated around center ice toasting the crowd to mixed reactions” 
- From the "Staged Fight Incident."

The FHL’s Dayton Demonz never captured the enthusiasm or attention as the Gems and Bombers of old. When the team folded, a new FHL team known as the Dayton Demolition were fielded, but eventually were just simply branded as the “Dayton Professional Hockey” team. They made no plans to return for another season, and soon after, Hara Arena announced it closure.

Apparently after founder Ralph Wampler died (the RA in HARA), his half of the facility’s ownership was tied up in his estate and an internal legal battle had been going on since . All the news articles concerning Hara’s closure don’t elaborate much more than that. The news came somewhat suddenly and online newspaper comment sections were lined with surprised people. Despite the apparent internal legal struggle, the building’s management opened up the facility to the public one last time to “take a picture, sit in ‘your’ seat, or share a memory.”

So on Saturday, August 27th, 2016, I made my way up I-75 to Hara Arena.


The day was bright and sunny, the parking lot split in two. Half the cars were parked outside of the arena, the other half outside the exhibition hall. While the arena was open to visitors, there was also a comic and toy convention happening at the same time. I paid the $3, believing you had to purchase an admission to the show in order to visit the arena.


The wooden floors seemed more fitting for a basketball court, while the water stained drop ceiling and its chandeliers echoed the 70’S. The convention itself was as stereotypical as you might expect a comic book convention to be. Conversations were overheard about what Star Trek III was supposed to be and attendees posed with folks dressed as Princess Leia, Wonder Woman, and the Green Power Ranger. After a few laps around the room, I realized attending the event wasn't actually necessary. Nevertheless, the $3 admission got me a commemorative “last even at Hara” card. 


I walked back outside and to the main doors. In the main lobby it was noticeable how hot the inside of the building was. Once known for its frigid temperatures during hockey season, Hara’s last day was going to be on a scorching summer weekend. If anyone was shedding tears as they made their final rounds, you probably wouldn’t have noticed past their sweat.


I held the door for a man who would set the tone of everyone I met that day. As soon as he walked past me, he engaged me in a casual conversation. It wasn’t like he had known me for years, but he spoke to me as if I were a friend. Even though we had never met before, we shared a similarity: we both had memories of Hara Arena. Everyone in the building that day had the same friendly disposition, they knew they all shared a common bond and might have once passed each other in the halls at some hockey game or concert. There was a feeling of sadness, but at the same time, a feeling of community. 


There was a shared experience had here, and really in all arenas. Although they may not always be the prettiest or most architecturally significant, there’s a lot of history in the walls of these types of places. They’re gathering spots, where people went to get away for awhile. They’re tied into local history and connected communities to international pop culture. Arenas are buildings that people connect with, spaces where they create memories and mark the passing of time. While it may not ever be found in any world history textbooks, Hara (and so many stadia around the world) was in its own way a local variant of the Roman Coliseum. A symbol of Dayton rather than Rome. 


Kids posed with their parents in front of the lowered scoreboard on the arena floor as I made my way down to the other end. A man walking with me into a backstage area said: “Man, ain’t this cool? You never got to see these back areas when this place was open!” He was right, outside of the main event floor, the vast majority of the public had probably never been into the storage areas that held the ice rink Zamboni…


…or the line of washing machines used for taking care of the hockey player’s uniforms:


The back areas had been picked over. An auction was taking place elsewhere, almost anything of value was being sold. There were still plenty of remnants lying around though: a stock room filled with hot dog wrappers, condiment packets, and yellowing styrofoam cups was at the back. On an upper floor, crickets chirped in a room with replacement parts for the concession boards and extra popcorn makers. An old Christmas tree sat stuffed in a box while instruction manuals laid strewn on a desk.



After exploring two floors of storage areas, I made my way back out to the main arena and its concourses. I was shooting with a tripod and taking long exposures. While the camera would sit there making its image, I had a lot of time to just look around and take the arena in, look at its fading yellow paint, and appreciate the details of its design. 

- Interior and exterior of concession booths.

Walking by the concession stands, I was reminded of one of the few unique Hara memories I have: the Pizza. No one could ever tell me where it came from or who came up with the recipe, but Hara Arena had some of the best pizza I ever had:

- Hara Arena Pizza circa 2009.

When my friend Ryan and I made it up for the occasional Gems game, we'd always spring for Pizza multiple times. I don't know exactly why, it was just amazing pizza. If anyone knows what brand it was or where it came from, please let us know. 


The arena still featured its center hung American flag. As was tradition in hockey, the Canadian flag adorned the walls elsewhere. It was accompanied by a flag for each branch of the military, the state of Ohio, the nation of Finalnd, and a Pow/Mia flag. 

- Arena men's restroom.

As closing time grew closer, more and more people filled in. They engaged in spontaneous conversation with one another, again, all connected by their experiences within the same building. A few muttered “what a shame” and “sad to see it go,” almost as if at a visitation. With no announced or speculative future on the horizon, it indeed might as well have been a funeral wake.


The final crowd mainly spent it's time on the arena floor. Every now and then I'd find myself shooting in a quiet corner where nothing could be heard. Unused popcorn buckets in boxes, seats stacked up against the wall - the place felt as abandoned as so many of the other places I've photographed before. 

Then you'd catch back up with the crowd, listen in on people’s memories, and realize the arena was still alive for one last event. As I rounded the corner, I overheard a man tell a local news camera:

“Oh, my favorite event I saw here? Well, uh, a little band you might have heard of called VAN HALEN!”


No one in attendance seemed overly emotional, but many were clearly sad to see it go. Arena staff hugged their regular customers, one man walked by wearing an “nWo” shirt. Once an incredibly popular professional wrestling brand at the height of the genre’s mid 90s popularity, Hara had been the site of “NWO: Souled Out,” the pay-per-view event headlined by the evil side of the American hero Hulk Hogan. As the man walked by, I remembered how excited seven year old me used to get for pro wrestling and how I would've dreamed of being here twenty years ago in 1996.

Back on the arena floor, a man up in the stands banged on the hockey glass and heckled an invisible team.

“One last time,” he said.

The press box and audio booth sat empty. Some kids rolled across the arena floor on wooden scooters they found in the back. As I walked back towards the main lobby, I overheard a conversation about the Cincinnati Gardens.


“You know, the Gardens in Cincinnati is closing too,” a man said. 

That's when it hit me. 

I appreciated Hara for its hockey environment and history. I can appreciate Hara for what it means to other people. To me though, there's not a deeply personal connection. I was simply there to document it. 

The Gardens, my hometown’s classic arena - well, that's a building I do have a strong personal connection with. No matter how I end up saying goodbye to that place, it'll be tough. Hara is just the precursor.

- Audio booth.

I made one last lap around the building’s interior, passing by the scuffed up hockey boards and then the stand where we used to get pizza. I listened in on nostalgic conversations one last time. The pub up front, had what remained of its liquor and beer stash sitting on the bar. The door was locked, but you could see it through the glass. 

- The arena's pub.

“You think they'd let us have one more drink here,” said a man next to me before smiling and walking away. 


I left the building and walked around the outside, stopping by the defunct golf course which also had been part of the entire complex.

- The closed "Hara Greens" golf course.

Hara had been so much more than just an arena, with its campus and facilities sprawled out into a massive parking lot that buts right up to the woods. It'd feel like a rural island of entertainment if it wasn't for Dayton’s Main Street being not too far away.

As I wrapped up, I stopped by the entrance and found my car. A few folks were still milling about and looking for the comic book convention. A band was delivering equipment for one last concert planned that night in the Ballarena.

- Emergency exit doors to the parking lot.

As 3 pm approached and the arena doors were almost closed, the last of the well wishers made a beeline for the doors - hoping to have the last few moments as a chance to take one last picture, say goodbye, or share a memory. 

Above them, almost fittingly, the hot summer day quickly turned ominous and storm clouds rolled in over the building. 


I got in my car to leave. Ironically, Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now (bright sunshiny day)" was playing on 930 AM as I tried to find weather information. I shut it off, opting instead to listen to Maxine Nightingale’s “Right Back where We a Started From” as heard in “Slapshot.”


14 comments:

  1. Frozen pizza crust, canned sauce, cheese, pepperoni, and sausage were from SYSCO.
    You don't mention Hamvention, Hara's biggest annual event that ran from the mid 1960s until this year, attracting up to 35000 visitors for 3 days.

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    1. Thank you! For some reason, I think we wanted to believe really badly that the pizza was from some local pizza shop. Can't believe it was just Sysco this whole time. So good though.

      Apologies for not mentioning the Hamvention, it wasn't intentional. The article has been amended to mention the event.

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  2. Very nice write up. In a very real way for us hockey fans it was sort of dual funeral. Really both the end of Hara, but also minor pro hockey in Dayton. I appreciate all the pictures as well.

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    1. You never know, maybe minor league hockey could return to the Nutter Center? ECHL did just fine for years and that league is growing.

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  3. Nutter wants nothing to do with hockey. They don't allow their own students to play there. Wright State students play at Kettering Rec.

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    1. That's a shame. Saw the Lefty McFadden tournament there once. Not a great venue for hockey, but not bad.

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  4. Great posting! We took our kids to the Sesame Street ice show there in the eighties.

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  5. Nutter stole the Bombers from Hara, simply for the ice. Nutter suckered the owners of the Bombers to pay for the ice installation. The Bombers went bellyup and Nutter won.

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    1. I mean was that really the end game though? The Bombers played for over ten seasons there.

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  6. Another great article, Ronny. My only visit was a Bob and Tom live show there.

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    1. Thanks Mark! That must've been a good show. Did they perform in the arena or convention center? I'd love to hear their thoughts on the place hahaha

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  7. Great send-off to a great place, as they say in Slapshot.... "THIS IS HOCKEY!".

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  8. Spent a decent part of my youth there in the 80s and 90s attending trade shows with my dad. Dayton loved their model train shows and Hara was on the schedule a couple times a year at least. Thanks for documenting the closure. Always a downer when something so big in your formative years dies off.

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