Thorburn Proud: Ivor MacDonald Memorial Arena celebrates 45th Anniversary

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Thorburn, NS – Forty-five years ago, children in the Pictou East area got something to call their own.

In October 1974, after much planning, fundraising, lobbying of government funding, and volunteerism, the Ivor MacDonald Memorial Arena opened its doors. It became a central gathering place for the residents of Pictou East, in this small rural community of Thorburn.

It was arena born out of necessity because the young people in Pictou East were finding it challenging to form hockey teams or figure skating clubs since there were only three arenas in Pictou County in the early 1970s.

Thorburn Arena Manager Wayne Buttle said he knew the children of Pictou East deserved better, and he approached a few people in the community about building their own arena in Thorburn. In the beginning, plans were to make an open-air arena, but after many community meetings and discussions, it was decided the arena would be an indoor facility. They chose to name the Arena after Ivor MacDonald, a young athlete in the community that had just passed away from cancer.

Buttle remembers the days well when youth would be bused from Pictou East to the newly opened Trenton arena for early Sunday morning ice times.

“We took our kids and paid $200 for a school bus, and the guys (parents in the area) drove the bus from Merigomish to Sutherland’s River, Thorburn, Coalburn & Priestville, and then to Trenton,” he said. “We had five or six hours of ice on Sunday mornings, and they only charged us $50 for the whole ice time. They did it for the kids.”

“We want to give boys and girls in the area a chance to participate equally to those in urban areas,” said Gary Smith, who was chair of District 13 Recreation and Planning Commission, the group that oversaw the arena’s construction and operations.

In 1972, District 13 Recreation and Planning Commission ordered steel for the arena with only $187 in the bank, and the total project cost at $350,000.

The location of the arena was also part of many discussions. Still, in the end, it was decided that besides the elementary school in Thorburn would be the chosen spot so school children could have easy access to it. The land was purchased for $500 from a local businessman, and construction was set to begin.

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The ground broke for the new arena in January 1973, and over time $123,200 was secured in federal and provincial government grants while an additional $210,000 was raised in the community through fundraising events.

The arena was designed to have 600 seats and an ice surface of 80x180, dressing rooms and canteen. A second story was also included that would host dances, meetings, and other community activities.
Buttle said if there could be one change from the original design, it would be to make the ice surface 5 feet wider.

In November 1974, the District 13 Recreation and Planning Commission held the arena’s official opening that included a puck drop by Ivor MacDonald’s mother, Myrtle, and Nova Scotia Premier Gerald Regan. This was followed by a hockey game between the Nova Scotia Legislature and the Thorburn Terrors.

The politician's team included John Buchanan, Gerald Regan, Walter Fitzgerald, Sandy Cameron, Dan Reid, Bill MacEachern, and Bill Gills. Playing for the Thorburn Terrors were, Gary Smith, Charles MacIntosh, Gerry Rogers, Wayne Buttle, Frank Taylor, John Cameron, Slug Turnbull, Brian Johnstone, Gerry MacLellan, Wilfred MacDonald, Bob Murdock, Mel Smith, Bob MacGillivray, Sonny Forsythe, Bill Swallow, Allan MacDougall, Howard Locke, Francis Dewtie, Mike Pettipas and Bob Livingstone.

“The game itself provided much in the way of surprises for the legislature boys came prepared to play,” states an article in The Evening News on Nov. 14, 1974. “And play they did. In fact. They functioned so superbly they were leading 8-1 heading into the final period. At his point, the referee, MacDonald, decided the locals were good guys after all and should be compensated to the end of nine goals. It was only fitting that Premier Gerald Regan scores the tying goal. Guess who set up the tally? None other than John Buchanan, leader of the opposition.”

The arena was in full swing after its opening with minor hockey, figure skating, and ringette, all eventually coming to play on its ice. In 1976, prime time ice rentals were averaging about $31 an hour with the minor hockey rate at $19 and figure skating at $16 an hour.

In 1978, four years after it opened its doors, the District 13 Recreation and Planning Commission invited Myrtle MacDonald back to the arena for a mortgage burning ceremony. It was quite an accomplishment for a small community to be able to pay off the mortgage in full after only 4 years.

For more than 40 years, the Ivor MacDonald Memorial Arena has been under the watchful eye and management of Buttle. He became a manager in 1975 but left in 1978 to start his own business. He returned in 1980 when the arena was facing financial difficulties, and the Planning Commission felt he was the best person to take over operations.

“In 1980, the arena manager resigned and stated the arena couldn’t operate under the current structure,” said Coun. Randy Palmer, during a recent presentation to Buttle in honour of years of service at the arena.

“The planning commission held an emergency meeting and asked Wayne if he would return as manager, and he accepted, and the arena continued to thrive. This year will mark the arena’s 45th Anniversary, and Wayne continues to be the manager for 41 of those years. “

It went through many changes, including replacing wood boards with plastic, solid glass around the arena, added new compressors to the plant room. In 1996, the addition was added to the arena. The 30x100 addition included a new entrance, new male and female washrooms, two large dressing rooms, a furnace room, and a games room. This work was done by Buttle, an arena employee, and summer students.

Also, in 1996, to reduce energy costs, an outdoor wood furnace was donated, and the arena started to burn wood to keep heat in the new addition, as well as the other dressing rooms and the annex. A second outdoor furnace was eventually added to heat the hot water for cleaning the ice as well as the Zamboni and figure skating rooms.

“The arena burns approximately 50 to 60 cords of wood a winter and Wayne handles most of the wood himself. Burning wood is one of the reasons why the arena runs in the black,” said Coun. Palmer.

From 2002 to 2009, the arena had approximately one million dollars’ worth of renovations, including the replacing of the roof, new inside ceiling, Zamboni, major ice plant equipment, and new viewing area from the annex. In 2015, Wayne saw the need for more dressing rooms to accommodate the many girls playing minor hockey, so converted the games room into two female dressing rooms.

In 2016, an electrical fire forced the Ivor MacDonald Memorial Arena to close its doors for repairs for a few months, and soon, the arena’s freon plant will need to be replaced, but overall it the building is in good shape.

As for Buttle and his role as arena manager, he is taking it one day at a time, usually at the arena, making sure it continues to open its doors for the community.

“I really don’t know. My life is the same as it always was. I take one day at a time. If I was to say to you, I was going to retire, then I would be lying because I really don’t know myself. As time goes on, who knows, but the rink is doing well, and I like doing the wood.”


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