Donated time, machinery, materials make arena dream a reality
Every single nail that has been pounded into the Central Gatineau Arena has been hammered by a local volunteer. Every rivet drilled into the tin, every piece of glass installed into the arena boards, every rafter raised, every line on the ice painted by the hands of a Hills resident.
This Saturday, the arena celebrates its 30th anniversary – a culmination of the last three decades of blood, sweat and tears that volunteers have poured into every inch of the Low arena. From the many hands that helped erect it in 1994 to the scores of locals who keep the lights on today, everyone will be celebrated on Jan. 20.
“There’s gonna be some stuff for kids like sleigh rides and face painting and stuff like that,” said longtime volunteer Scott Mahoney about the anniversary party. He’s flipping through old photos of volunteers who put their lives and farm chores on hold to help build the arena. He pauses at one of a crew of locals posing on scaffolding as they install siding in 1993 – Wayne Brennan and Guy Monette, along with some of the other main builders of the arena. Both have since died but they left a legacy in the form of an arena that has become a social hub for the municipality.
Mahoney has been sending these vintage images to family members over the last few days and shared a text message from Monette’s son Jamie:
“That was quite the crew,” wrote Jamie, who agreed to publish the message. “When I left for school that September, I couldn’t believe the progress they had made by Thanksgiving. I remember getting home, and every bale of hay was still in our fields. That crew made massive sacrifices to get that place built.”
The push for an indoor arena in Low began in the 1950s, when the former Gatineau Power Company offered land and money to build an arena, and there was interest from groups from Chelsea to Gracefield.
All those pitches failed, including one group of municipal representatives that was one vote shy of kick-starting the arena build. The idea wasn’t reignited until 1991, when the Low Rec Association had plans to buy land and build an arena.
“There was no arena between Hull and Maniwaki,” said Morris O’Connor, former Low mayor, who also became chair of the Central Gatineau Arena Association (CGAA).
He was instrumental in securing funding for the arena. After meeting with local politicians, he secured $215,000 in funding for the project.
One thing organizers did not want to have to rely on was municipal funding.
Past pitches died on what volunteers called a “decades-long roadblock,” as many feared that tax hikes would kill the project. It became a volunteer-driven project with fundraising as the primary source of revenue. In April 1993, the Low & District Lions Club came on board and chipped in another $100,000 for the project.
“It wasn’t easy at first,” said O’Connor, referring to how he convinced many to donate their money, time and equipment.
He told the Low Down that “a lot of naysayers” told him that the project would fail like it did in the past.
But as the project progressed, more volunteers began showing up, and things started happening. He said he remembers volunteers saying,“Give me something to do.”
“And then, as the thing started getting built, people started saying, ‘Oh, I think it’s looking like it’s going to happen,’” added O’Connor.
“And then, just like that, we had 45 to 50 volunteers showing up at the same time.”
The amount of time, equipment and materials donated for the project is impressive. Over 2,800 hours were donated through various organizations, including the Low Rec Club, The Lions Club, the Low Youth Club, the Brennan’s Hill Sports Association and Senior Citizens groups in Low. Nine companies, including Aime Fleury Trucking, Wally Brownrigg and Ronald O’Connor Construction, donated more than 4,000 cubic yards of gravel.
Over 100 volunteers showed up in May of 1993 to help prepare the site for the build, which took 10 full eight-hour days. More than 20 companies donated machinery to help prep the site.
Low resident Cecil Crites managed to convince 13 steel workers from Local 711 to volunteer their services to install steel beams, while electrician Aurele Normand, along with 15 fellow wire workers from Bourassa Electric, volunteered to oversee the electrical. Even the bleachers that fans sit on were donated by the town of Lac-SteMarie, and were originally part of the Jarry Park Stadium where the Montreal Expos home games were first played during the Jackie Robinson era.
Following nearly a full year of construction, the rink boards went up in early December of 1993, and a Zamboni was donated by Rene Mayer, a local, saving the arena another $50,000.
On Jan. 24, 1994, Brennan’s Hill resident and volunteer Yvon Fleury was the first to strap on skates and take a lap on the fresh, gleaming ice. O’Connor and volunteer builder McCambley later joined him – as did a roster of other helpers for an evening skate, which is rumoured to have lasted into the wee hours.
The following day, on Jan. 25, the Central Gatineau Arena opened to the public, where more than 250 skaters showed up. The Central Gatineau Arena has become the gem of the municipality, where local schools get free ice time, and kids get free hockey practices on Saturdays. It’s become a social hub where close to 600 hockey fans pack in every week to see their Paugan Falls Rapids take on their weekly foe; the place where seniors can stay active while getting their curl on; and where families are dazzled by their kids’ spins and twirls during the Gatineau Valley Skating Club’s year-end figure skating show.
“It’s a really important place for sports in the Gatineau,” added O’Connor. “And for the rest, it’s a social place for people to be – it’s great for the kids.”
The arena still operates without municipal funding today, and every person you see selling beer, cooking food or selling 50/50 tickets is not getting paid.
Saturday’s festivities will include a women’s hockey game, curling demonstrations and a food menu cooked by, you guessed it, volunteers. The celebration kicks off at 1 p.m.