When I was an Arts student at Notre Dame College in Wilcox, Saskatchewan, we would often make the half-mile walk, sometimes through blizzard-like conditions, from our dorms to the Athol Murray Centre to watch the Varsity and Midget AA hockey games. One of the Grade 12 boys, Rudy Tetreau, manned the door, selling entry tickets just inside the door. I think it was Mrs. McGarry who ran the small canteen there. It gave any of us with change in our pockets a welcome relief to the mess hall cooking served up by Geno Fahlman, our chief cook. You could order hockey pucks (hamburgers), hot dogs, coffee and hot chocolate, amongst other things, and we often did.

No Wind Chill

The greatest thing about the rink, which was run by Walter Smith, Smitty’s (Neil Smith) dad, was although you could still hear that wind howling outside, inside there was absolutely no wind at all. And, on the other side of the rink, there was a bonus awaiting the spectators: seating with heaters above the bleachers.

red hot stuff

Bleacher heater at an ice rink

Anyone coming to the rink to watch a game would try to get a spot beneath those bleacher heaters. They didn’t just keep you warm(ish) — at least from the shoulders up. But if you were tall enough, like Greg Heibein was, you could reach up and use one of those red-hot elements to light your smoke if you’d happen to have left your Bic lighter in the dorm. (This was at the far end of the 1970s and smoking was pretty much a right back then. Even the school”s founder, Father Athol Murray, was rarely seen without puffing on a cigarette before he died in 1975.)

Times Have Changed, Indeed

Times have certainly changed: no one is allowed to smoke practically anywhere, anymore — and certainly not in public facilities or around athletes or children. Surprisingly as it may be, although arenas are strangled by ever-increasing energy costs, it’s rather odd that heaters above the bleachers are still featured at many ice arenas.

And many of those run full time!!!

In addition to sucking energy, they’re a personnel issue too. I can’t tell you how many ads I’ve seen for arena jobs that have bleacher heaters specified as part of their responsibilities. Here’s one I recently cut out:

George Bell Arena’s Solution

George Bell

George Bell’s coin-operated bleacher heaters

About 10 years ago, the George Bell Arena in Toronto was about to be renovated. The George Bell is one of a handful of hybrid arenas in that city — owned by the City of Toronto itself but run by a non-profit board. Larry Woodley, the arena’s general manager, insisted on one major change: the way the bleacher heaters operated. At that time, the bleacher heaters would get turned on first thing in the morning, and run all day. Sometimes his crew would forget to shut them off and they would run all night. Woodley didn’t want that happening anymore.

He wanted the bleacher heaters put on coin-operated timers.

Even then, Woodley saw bleacher heating as a big drain on the arena’s budget. By his reckoning, forcing spectators to pay something to turn the bleacher heaters on meant effort would be required. They would need to have a Loony (the Canadian $1.00 coin, so called because of the loon on it) to make it work. And since the timers wouldn’t accept smaller change, like quarters, dimes and nickels, some people would be too lazy to go to the canteen to get the change they need. Others would be too cheap to waste a dollar. But others would feed it as they watched the play, and that would be a small contribution to the expense.

Larry got his way. At the George Bell, a buck still gets you a game’s worth of bleacher heat. But, as you can see from the picture, there are rules. It’s gotta be cold to get Larry to turn them on in the first place.

“Installing bleacher heaters was one of the City of Toronto’s worst ideas ever for its arenas,” he tells me.

What can you do?

If you think ice sports can do without bleacher heaters and you work in an arena, plant the bug in your boss’s ear. If you know your user groups and their fans well enough to know that that removing mid season might cause a riot, wait to the start of the next season to take them out. Or consider Larry Woodley’s solution and put them on coin-operated timers.

And think about upping the ante. Consider charging a Twooney or two ($2.00) for a period of play. That might make patrons do a double take before turning the bleacher heaters on.

What do you think? Have you removed the bleacher heaters from your arena? What kind of dough has that saved you? Tell us! We want to know.