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The most famous fire in hockey history: The day the Montreal Arena burned down

The Montreal Arena—known simply as the Arena—housed 7,000 hockey fans as the home of the NHL's Canadiens and Wanderers in the league's inaugural season, before a midday blaze sent it all up in smoke.

The fire began out of sight, invisible in the space above the locker room, below the office of the secretary-treasurer. Fortunately enough, the entire west end at Westmount Arena was empty of patrons around midday on Jan. 2, 1918. The only actual injury happened when a spectator slipped on the sidewalk and broke his leg; had the blaze started a few hours later, the damage might have claimed real lives.  That night, the Montreal Canadiens and the Montreal Wanderers were scheduled to meet, a fledging crosstown rivalry between two of the four active members in a newly formed athletic outfit: the National Hockey League.

As it was, the only souls inside the building at the time were its superintendent, a longtime employee of the Montreal Arena Company named James McKeene, and members of his family. They had been eating in their apartment, which was located on the north side. Upon learning about the blaze, According to the Montreal Gazette, McKeene quickly evacuated his family and then rushed to help the scores of firemen flocking to the scene. It would be no use. The next morning’s headline was grim:


In local parlance it was simply called the Arena, the first of its kind. Investors envisioned a multi-purpose building, capable of hosting the occasional horse show, auto show or concerts, among other events. But never before had Canada raised an indoor rink foremost for ice hockey. Officially, it sat upwards of 4,000, but often more than 7,000 would pack into the place to watch the sport.

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This time, the meeting was held at the Canadiens’ new home located on the east end of the city, in the French-speaking section of town. For this season, Lichtenhein had balked at moving his Wanderers, who identified more with English-speaking fans. The new building was a smaller site than the Arena anyway, called Jubilee Rink. The Habs skated there for the rest of the season. The following April, it too burned down.