The confines may not be as cozy as their normal home and the temperature in the dressing room may be a few degrees colder that what they’re used to but it will be worth if for the Vernon Vipers as they say goodbye to the franchise’s ancestral home.
The Vipers are playing at Civic Arena one final time to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the first game ever played there, January 6, 1938, an exhibition contest between the Vancouver Lions and the Spokane Clippers. On Saturday night, it’s the Prince George Spruce Kings providing the opposition for the Vipers.
It will be the last time the Vernon BCHL franchise skates competitively at ‘the Civic’. They moved permanently to the multiplex (later named the Wesbild Centre and now Kal Tire Place) in 2001.
Probably the best-known event to take place at Civic Arena is the 1990 Centennial Cup national Junior A championship game between the hometown Vernon Lakers and the New Westminster Royals. TSN broadcast the game live nationally with Vic Rauter on the call and the legendary Howie Meeker providing colour. Trailing 5-2 after 40 minutes, the Lakers staged a furious comeback in the third, evening the score and setting the stage for Cam Sylven’s dramatic overtime winner in a 6-5 final.
“I remember when it had the 50th anniversary in 1988; there’s been some big games there,” said Vipers owner and governor Duncan Wray, recalling the 1990 Centennial Cup which was played in front of about 2,500 spectators. “But if you talk to people around town, there must have been 7,000 there. Everyone says they were at that game.”
Other BCHL events have been held at the Civic in more recent years, including the 2005 Fred Page Cup BCHL Finals against the Surrey Eagles and the 2009 Doyle Cup against the Alberta Junior Hockey League’s Grande Prairie Storm. On both occasions, the Civic was needed because of a logging sports event at the multiplex. Of the 2009 series against Grande Prairie, Wray remembers folks jammed into the rink pushing it to standing room-only capacity. Vernon won both games which then sent the series back to Alberta.
“Both those nights, it was packed to the rafters,” Wray remembered. “The photographer from the newspaper had to stand on the Zamboni to get pictures.”
The venue has proved popular again for this game as the Vipers sold out the 2,200 tickets available only two days after they went on sale.
“I’ve been fielding phone calls from people that want tickets and I just don’t have any left,” said Wray. “There’s been lots of buzz around town.”
When it opened, the Civic was billed as ‘the only structure of its kind between Vancouver and the Kootenays that is equipped with artificial ice.’ The ice surface is somewhere in the 180-by-80-foot range (regulation ice sheets are 200 by 85) and that may actually suit the visiting Spruce Kings on Saturday as their home ice at Rolling Mix Concrete Arena is smaller than average as well.
The Vipers players will use wood sticks for the warmup and will be sporting cream-and-maroon uniforms, a tribute to the Vancouver Lions from that first game in 1938. Prior to puck drop, local hockey heroes Eddie Johnstone, Aaron Volpatti, Brent Gilchrist and current Vipers assistant coach Jerred Smithson will be honoured. Rumour has it head coach Mark Ferner will don a 1930’s style suit and a fedora. The game will also be a fundraiser for the North Okanagan Youth and Family Services Society.
Since the Vipers moved to the now Kal Tire Place, Civic Arena has been the home of Vernon minor hockey and minor lacrosse. The Vernon Canadians won the 1956 Allan Cup senior men’s title there and it has been used as a concert venue as well.
The building is slated for demolition sometime in 2018 as a new arena is being built beside the Vipers’ current home.