What is a hockey arena?

Thursday, July 6, 2017
by Cameron Shelley

An enduring theme in design is the relation between form and function.  For example, is there an ideal form that corresponds to a given function?  How do form and function relate and develop over time?

These themes come to the fore in Howard Schubert's volume, "Architecture on ice: A history of the hockey arena." This book presents a thorough review of the development of the architecture of professional hockey arenas from the beginning of the sport to the present day.  It is an excellent source for both lovers of hockey history and architecture.

To simplify, the architecture of hockey arenas has gone through three phases:

  1. Adaptation of existing building types to the requirements of the game (1852–1912).
  2. Design of buildings dedicated to the game (1920–1931).
  3. Design of entertainment complexes in which hockey is one form of entertainment (1960–present).

During these phases, both hockey and arena architecture have responded to each other and to contextual developments.

In the first phase, professional hockey became an indoor sport, played in borrowed spaces such as skating and curling rinks.  The game and spaces affected one another.  For example, boards were put up to protect spectators from flying pucks.  However, they also changed the character of play by confining its space and affording new techniques of play such as bouncing pucks (and players) off the boards.

In the second phase, hockey became a spectacle.  The concept of a "hockey arena" arose to help define the practise of playing and watching the game.  Banks of wooden benches were used for seating to fix "fans" in relation to action on the ice.  The hockey arena was a building whose sole (or main) purpose was to provide for this combined activity.  This was the "Golden Age" of the building type, of which Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto may be the archetype.

In the third phase, hockey become more of an entertainment experience, like other pro sports.  As a result, hockey arenas were renovated or replaced with entertainment complexes that facilitated a variety of spectacles, from various professional sports, music concerts, public events, etc.  Spectators and spectation were replaced by "fansumers" and consumption.  The hockey arena, as such, ceased to exist.

The history of the professional hockey arena is a fascinating example of the interplay between form and function in a particular form of public architecture.  Schubert's treatment of it is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in relationships between form and function in design.

One question that remains in my mind after reading the book is: How inevitable was this development?  The demands of mass media, first radio and then especially television, changed the game and the arena profoundly, even destroying the arena, as such, in the end.  Yet, the 1930s-style baseball park has made comeback in many American cities.  Could the same happen with the hockey arena?  I do not know the answer but the question may be pondered while contemplating the history of the hockey arena in this fine book.

Maple Leaf Gardens architectural drawing

(Maple Leaf Gardens/Wikimedia commons)