The Border Cities Arena

Past to Present

The arena known simply as “The Barn” has loomed over the city of Windsor’s downtown core for nine decades. It has opened its doors to events such as NHL hockey games, professional boxing tickets, championship lacrosse battles, big wrestling shows, the travelling circus, and several musical performances, but not much about the barn changed over the years. Only four different owners, five different tenants, and one name change, but to the people who knew it, it was always just “the barn”. The barn may not be glamorous or beautiful, but it has attracted world class sporting events and entertainment, as well as supported Windsor’s local talent and the surrounding communities, and like a magnet the building has attracted people to the city for countless events. The building is a big part of the city’s history, and for decades the barn has been Windsor’s most definitive landmark.

Photo courtesy of the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/slideshow/2012/02/15/sports/15windsor_ss.html?action=click&contentCollection=Hockey&module=RelatedCoverage&region=Marginalia&pgtype=article

Although it resembles a building you might find on a farm, when it was built in 1924, the oversized in-door arena was considered state of the art, and today the barn is one of the oldest of its kind in North America. Built by the Canadian Bridge Corporation and owned by the Border Cities Arena Company, the arena was originally named the Border Cities Arena. The official opening of the rink was on November 26, 1925, when the Stanley cup champion Victoria Cougars faced the New York Americans in front of a crowd of over seven-thousand fans. However, prior to the official opening of the barn, Charles S. King, Chairman of the arena, secured sanctions for a professional boxing match, and on October 12, 1925, the lightweight, Sammy Mandell of Rockport Illinois battled Phil McGraw of Detroit, at the grand opening of the Border Cities Arena. Whether it was hockey or boxing, the people of Windsor-Detroit were hooked right from the start.

The Barn instantly became home to the Windsor Minor Hockey Association, although their records only date back to the 1950s. Regardless, children living in the core of the city began to make their way to the in-door rink hoping to get a chance to see or play hockey. Lucky for them, in 1926, the city of Detroit was granted an NHL franchise, however the Detroit Olympia Stadium would not be built until the following year, so the Detroit Cougars became the first official tenant of the arena, playing the 1926-27 season in Windsor. A couple years later, the arena would briefly play host to another NHL team. When the Chicago Black Hawks were evicted by the owner of the Chicago Coliseum, they were forced to play their final games out of town. And so, on March 2, 1929, the Chicago Black Hawks used the Border Cities Arena as their home ice against the Montreal Maroons. The barn was host to thousands of hockey games over the years, big and small, giving Windsor a competitive edge in hockey, and a border connection that brought many of the greats to this side of the river to play on Windsor ice.

The arena was sold to the Butcher Brothers in 1946 and renamed the Windsor Arena Ltd, however, the arena continued to house a type of in-your-face-hockey that always made the audience feel like part of the game, and many talented hockey players came through the barn over the years. For example, in 1947 Marcel Pronovost joined the Windsor Spitfires. Also, Earl Reibel and Don Cherry played for the Spits before being drafted to the NHL. In 1975, Windsor Spitfires were granted entrance into the OHL, and a new team was drawn up which included Joe Quenneville, who played alongside Wayne Gretzky in the 1978 OHL all-star game at the Windsor Arena. In 1981, Spitfire Ernie Godden set an OHL record, scoring 87 goals, and in 1985 Adam Graves joined the Spitfires before being drafted to the Detroit Red Wings. In 1994, Windsor’s own Ed Jovanovski skated for the Spitfires before joining the Florida Panthers later that year. Jovanovski was a Windsor boy, skating for a Windsor team, and when he was drafted to the NHL, everyone in the city was proud of him.

In 1961 the arena was sold to a group of local businessmen, who continued to operate the arena under the name The Windsor Arena. This group of seven men included Lou Bendo (local real estate agent and the captain of the Windsor Bulldogs), Bill Baski, John Partyka, Bruno and Ed Rossini, and Detroiters Sam Fox and Jack Marx. This group of owners made several renovations to the arena including expanding the rink, adding concession stands, and installing plexiglass around the rink replacing the chain link fence. When the Detroit Olympia closed in 1979, the sound system, front doors, and over 1,000 seats were added to the barn. Despite these renovations, the arena remained the intimate space it always had been.

The Barn always had a way of drawing people to it, even when the hockey season ended. In the 1950s and 60s wrestling entertainment was raw, bloody, and over the top, yet it had a way of drawing a crowd. Names like Killer Kowalski, Abdullah the Butcher, The Sheik, and Bobo Brazil rocked the ring and stunned the imagination of little boys all over the city. In the 1970s the Windsor Clippers and the Windsor Warlocks lacrosse teams battled and won the President’s Cup in front of hundreds of sweaty, cheering fans inside the barn. The Shrine Circus made its first appearance in 1985 and continued to entertain at the barn for twenty-three consecutive years. Also, in 1987 the barn hosted the World’s Biggest Shoe Sale, when over 140,000 pairs of shoes were shipped from the Maher Shoe Store in Toronto for the people of Windsor to enjoy. The barn played host to a wide range of events drawing crowds from all over the city and beyond. Maybe you were there, or perhaps you attended an event since forgotten.

In 1990 The Barn was purchased by the Corporation of the City of Windsor after twenty-nine years of ownership under the Bendo group of businessmen. The municipality added stucco to the exterior of the building, and in 2002 seats from the defunct London Gardens were also added. The city failed to rejuvenate the landmark, however, in the years before the arena permanently closed its doors, The Barn hosted musical guest including Chuck Berry, Kenny Rogers, and The Tea Party. In 1998 and in 2000, Our Lady Peace performed for over 5,000 teenagers, parents, and guardians, as one final generation of children had their chance to experience the intensity of the barn. In 2008 the Windsor Spitfires concluded their thirty-three-year run as tenants of the arena and moved into their new home at the WFCU Centre, and the University of Windsor Lancer’s became the last tenant to occupy the arena, playing their final hockey game in March of 2012.

In The Barn’s glory days, you could stand out front of the arena entrance and watch as people from all corners of the downtown core gathered together to experience hockey in an intimate atmosphere. This charged up atmosphere defined the hockey experience in Windsor and enforced a tough, in-your-face attitude that spread through the arena like fire. The barn had an energy that flowed through the entertainers, athletes, and spectators like lightning, and for decades children from all over the city were spellbound by the things they saw there. Although the City of Windsor permanently closed the barn, the cement and steel structure remains the most definitive landmark in the city, and the spirit of the barn lives on in the world class athletes and events it supported during its eighty-eight years of service.

Tenants

  • 1924-2013 Windsor Minor Hockey Association (WMHA)
  • 1926-1927 Detroit Cougars (NHL)
  • 1953-1965 Windsor Bulldogs (OHL Senior A/IHL)
  • 1975-2008 Windsor Spitfires (OHL)
  • 2008-2013 Windsor Lancers (OUA)

Owners

  • The Border Cities Arena Company                                  1924-1946
  • The Butcher Brothers of Butcher Engineering Ltd.      1946-1961
  • The group of seven headed by Lou Bendo                    1961-1991
  • The Corporation of the City of Windsor                   1991-Present