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

1:05 | NHL
NHL's Most Iconic Moments, No. 16: Last Game in Montreal
Thursday February 9th, 2017

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:

"ARENA NOT LIKELY TO RISE FROM ASHES"

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.

The grand opening was held on New Years’ Eve 1898, in the well-to-do Montreal suburb of Westmount, at the corner of St. Catherine Street and Wood Avenue. It was a light and festive affair, particularly compared to the biggest world news of the day: across the ocean in Paris, the French Jack the Ripper was guillotined. A 30-piece band played, food was served by buffet, and rental rugs were available for 10 cents. Reserved seats were advertised at 50 or 35 cents, depending on the view. General admission cost a quarter, while six-person boxes went for a hefty five bucks a pop.

The Toronto Star described the setup of the newest attraction in town: “The building itself was unremarkable in appearance. A two-story brick-faced block of wood construction with steel trusses arching over the ice surface enclosed the pitch-roofed auditorium. The principal facade featured three sets of round-arched entrances with the word ‘Arena’ over the central doors. A simple pediment with crests at the corners and centre comprised the building’s sole ornament. The interior consisted of a continuous graded amphitheater rising in an uninterrupted span from the ground to the second-floor level.”

Less than a decade later, all that came crashing down.

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In hindsight, it’s safe to say that the Montreal-based inspectors at the Fire Underwriters’ Association could’ve done a more thorough job during their visit in late 1917. Judged up to code, the Arena saw the Wanderers open the first-ever NHL season with a 10-9 win over the newly established Toronto Arenas on Dec. 19; three days later, the Canadiens made their home debut with an 11-2 romp over their fellow tenants. Two more losses to the Ottawa Senators, 6-3 at the Arena and 9-2 on the road, sent the Wanderers spiraling into the New Year at 1-3-0, last in the league.

Indeed, owner Sam Lichtenhein’s club, a once-proud franchise that won four Stanley Cups between 1906 and 1910, was on life support. “Players were drained from the team’s ranks for a number of reasons,” John Gales wrote in the 2010 Hockey Research Journal, “the war in Europe, injuries and no-shows/holdouts. Possible trades seemed to be blocked on contingencies and interference.” It got so bad that manager Art Ross suited up on defense until more bodies arrived.

A doctoral student in fire safety engineering when he penned the article, Gales makes the case that the Wanderers were already headed out the door before their home began belching smoke. But the most famous fire in hockey history certainly hastened the process.

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McKeene, the superintendent, lost everything inside his apartment except for a music cabinet and bed, according to the Gazette; a Buick that he was storing in the annex was also torched. The Wanderers and Canadiens lost their uniforms and sticks, as did teams playing in the local city league. All told, the damage was estimated at $150,000; insurance purchased by Ed Sheppard, president of the Montreal Arena Company, only covered one-third of that.

Firefighters would eventually leave the scene around 4 a.m., without consensus as to where the blaze originated. A boiler explosion was an early culprit, but fingers soon began pointing at a defective electrical wire in the interstitial space. It spread rapidly, caving the south wall a few minutes after help arrived. Within 20 minutes, the remaining boilers burst and thousands of dollars worth of steel began melting.

“It is the biggest fire that the firemen of Westmount have been called upon to handle,” the brigade chief later said, and pretty soon his charges had altogether given up on trying to save the actual arena, turning their attention instead to several houses along Wood Avenue. They did, however, manage to preserve most of the expensive ice-producing plant on the east side of the rink, which endured smoke and water damage but was considered repairable, just about the only thing that was.

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The minutes were recorded by hand, preserved to this day in a messy cursive: “The President explained that the meeting had been called at short notice following the destruction by fire of the Montreal Arena.”

It was Jan. 3, 1918, the day after the fire. Team owners had gathered at the Windsor Hotel in Montreal, the same place where they had famously formed the NHL the previous November. The session was “lengthy and stormy,” read the Gazette account, beneath the headline, “Wanderers Hand In Resignation.”

In front of his colleagues Lichtenhein laid bare his cards, demanding help in acquiring new talent for the Wanderers. When the other owners declined, he forked over the franchise’s pink slip. The owners balked, insisting that he take 24 hours to reconsider, but Lichtenhein was already out the door. The official record shows the Wanderers forfeiting their Jan. 2 meeting with the Canadiens and a Jan. 5 visit to Toronto, both by 1-0 scores. The NHL audibled on the fly, adjusting to a three-team schedule. The Wanderers, meanwhile, ceased to exist then and there.

One month later, the owners convened again for another special session. Atop the agenda was the Wanderers’ failure to show against Toronto on Jan. 5, and an accompanying $500 fine levied on the organization. The league also established a revenue sharing plan through gate receipts in the upcoming playoffs, as a way to help balance the books for the three remaining teams. 

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.

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