One hockey fan's journey to the arenas of North America
Talbot Gardens - Home of the Simcoe Shamrocks
October 8, 2017 - Simcoe, Ontario
That feeling of stepping back in time and capturing a piece of hockey history at an arena that was once a center of local hockey but has now been cast aside is always a rather melancholy experience. Talbot Gardens in downtown Simcoe, Ontario has stood as a center for area hockey since opening in 1946, and has hosted a variety of junior teams over the years, and even a semi-pro team in the NEHL. The arena, which sits in a gritty neighborhood, has a big arena look about it, with its blue metal roof and brick exterior having the appearance of a big city venue. The main entrance is on the end of the building, and a small brick tower sits just to the side of the main entry door. A digital marquee sign announces upcoming events, and the place seems well kept from the outside. Small accent strips of tan brick offset the red brick of the walls, and the exterior has a classic appeal to it. Junior C hockey has had a home in Simcoe since the late 1950's, and a recent attempt at a Junior A GMHL franchise known as the Norfolk Vikings soured the town on hockey a bit, leaving the county holding the bag on debt left by the prior team owner. Fast forward to spring of 2017 and the Simcoe Storm, a struggling Junior C club who calls Talbot Gardens home, finds out that the aging concrete inner structure of the arena which supports the grandstand is deemed unsafe and half of the arena seating is condemned by the county and deemed off limits. At that point the Storm owner looks to move the club to the town of Hespeler and rename the team the Hespeler Shamrocks in tribute to past teams who have called Hespeler home. Just before the season it is announced that the OHA, Ontario's governing body for junior hockey, disallowed the move to Hespeler, so the team stays put in Simcoe, playing in an arena that is literally condemned, as a franchise that wanted to move but was denied the opportunity by the league. The team website, league schedule, and team social media pages all approach the season with the team listed by the Storm name they have gone by for years. Word is that as the team was announced for introductions at the home opener fans were advised the team is now know as the Simcoe Shamrocks, and the team will go by that name for the rest of the season, despite the PJHL website still listing the team as the Storm. Talk about a mess, but the opportunity to see a game in this historic, charming, yet very weathered old barn was a memorable experience for sure. Sunday night is the home game night for most Storm, err Shamrocks games, and a small crowd of hearty fans turns out to watch the team. No one really knows what the future holds for Talbot Gardens as the municipality is in discussions on whether to obtain funding to repair and renovate the arena and fix the grandstand supports, or go the more common route often seen in Ontario and build a new, modern community arena in a different location. We truly felt as though we were watching a game on borrowed time as we watched this Sunday night game against the Grimsby Peach Kings, and feel glad to have been able to see a game here at all. Simcoe's Talbot Gardens is a great example of post-war hockey venues which were once so common across North America, but are quickly being replaced by more modern, although often cookie-cutter, new community arenas.
Once inside the main entrance of Talbot Gardens on game day you find a small lobby and info desk along with a tiled floor with the Talbot Gardens name embossed in the floor. Fans are directed upstairs to the upper lobby, where a Shamrocks ticket is set up. Tickets for the game were a reasonable $7, although no programs or rosters were available, even to purchase. The upper lobby also features a merchandise, chuck-a-puck, and 50/50 table on game nights. Several trophy cases sit in the upper lobby paying tribute to local hockey as well as box lacrosse teams. A large Rob Blake banner sits in the upper lobby as well, as he is a Norfolk County native. Fans access the seating area via a ramp which leads down from the upper lobby. The seating bowl is quite a sight. Colorful, ancient wooden 2-person bench seats circle the ice surface 5 rows high. A high peaked ceiling is held up by large white metal rafters, and a older 8-bulb scoreclock hangs above center ice. The interior is a throwback to the 1940's and 50's, and is the kind of place you just don't see anymore, especially in a small town. The entire north half of the seating is closed due to the crumbling concrete under the seats, and those sections were chained off, although some fans did ignore the signage. The cinder block walls are painted tan with gaudy green and red stripes, and look like they have been that way for decades. Seating capacity is listed at 1,000, although with half of the seating area closed the actual capacity is now much less, although the arena has ample seating for the couple hundred or so fans who show up each Sunday night. A small window in an upper level wall above the lobby serves as the perch for the PA announcer. Despite the inconvenience of half of the seating being closed just absorbing the atmosphere and history at Talbot Gardens is an enjoyable experience, and is the type of experience that keeps us on the hockey trail looking for different, historic, and obscure arenas to enjoy hockey in. We can only imagine how awesome this place was in the 1950's or 1970's, and the venue, despite having some minor renovations completed in the 1990's, provides a pure and historic hockey experience which fans are hard-pressed to find in the modern era.
The game day presentation at Talbot Gardens for a Simcoe Shamrocks game is basic and bare bones. The experience of attending a game here though is more about the vibe that the arena itself gives off than of the presentation put forth by the team. PA announcements echo through the old building, and nearly every structure, from the lighting, to the scoreclock to the fantastic wooden seats dates back at least half a century, and provides fans with a nostalgic experience. For this Thanksgiving weekend game we found that the food concession was closed for the holiday (something we experienced earlier in the day at Port Dover Arena for a PJHL game as well). The arena, although never hosting a "big time" team, has an amazing sense of tradition. Banners hang from the rafters honoring natives sons including Nelson Emerson, Red Kelly, and Rob Blake. The Storm, and now the Shamrocks have had a few rough years, with seasons ending in single digit win totals, but the hearty locals fans come out to support the hardworking players. The fans are the typical stoic and quiet Ontario fans, as there is not much cheering as the crowd watches rather pensively. The game was a blowout, with Grimsby taking a 6-0 win over the Shamrocks in a game that was a prime example of why the new OHA rule requiring cages for all junior level players is a terrible idea. In the second period a series of wicked hits led to each team trying to outdo each other with more and more violent hits, crosschecks, boarding calls, and slashes resulting in a few injuries. Had they simply been able to drop the gloves the conflict would have been diffused and not escalated to the point it did. Oh well, all in the name of "progress". Sightlines at Talbot Gardens are just OK, although thankfully there is no netting in front of the seats at center ice. With only 5 rows of seats, even standing along the narrow upper concourse provides a very close view of the action. Watching a game here, under the old scoreclock, while sitting in the old wooden seats is a great experience, and was the highlight of this particular trip, which also included a AHL and NHL game. Leaving the arena though we couldn't help but wonder whether junior hockey at this classic little barn is nearly dead, or will find new life and a resolution to the condemned grandstand dilemna. With the team wanting to relocate, and taking the nickname of the town they want to relocate to you couldn't help but think the writing is on the wall, but we hope, somehow, that Talbot Gardens finds a way to continue on, not only as a venue for community hockey players and area skaters, but as a home of a junior hockey team.