Before 1926, the Varsity Blues and all other U of T hockey programmes had no real, permanent home. The Blues used a natural rink near Back Campus, as well as the Victoria Rink on Huron Street, and finally the covered rink (later the Arena Gardens) on Mutual Street. The commute to and from the rink met with many complaints from players and instructors alike. Intramural hockey was usually played outside on natural rinks. Every year, fields would be flooded to create an ice surface. Sometimes Varsity Stadium's field was used for this purpose. This, too, was unacceptable, as the ice was at the mercy of the elements.
There began to be talk of a new arena for the University in 1921. A 7,000 seat facility was proposed at a cost of $400,000. Investment certificates were sold at $150, $125, and $100 which would give the purchaser special rights to all tickets at the Arena in the place of interest.
In 1926, Varsity Arena was built at a total cost of $275,770.40 to the immediate east of Varsity Stadium. The building was designed by Professor T. R. Loudon, who not only coached the rowing team, but also had a hand in designing both Varsity Stadium and Maple Leaf Stadium, along with architects Messers. Darling & Pearson. The exterior design of the building was Georgian, meant to blend nicely with the ROM building on the opposite side of Philosopher's Walk. The ice surface was based on that in the Arena Gardens, being 196' by 80'. When opened, it seated 4,800 spectators in double wooden chairs, in an interior volume of 1,822,084 cubic feet.
The Arena was officially opened on December 17, 1926, with a demonstration by the Toronto Skating Club, and a hockey game. The game placed the Varsity Blues, coached by Conn Smythe, against the Varsity Grads, coached by (Senator) Joseph Sullivan. The Grads won 2-0 in a forty minute game, not surprising when looking back, given that they would go on to win the 1928 Olympic gold medal. Tickets to this game cost 95 cents for reserved seats, and 70 cents for general admission. Due to bitterly cold weather, it was not a sell out.
Varsity was among the first arenae to have no support pillars blocking the view of the ice surface. This has now become standard, but only two years earlier, the Montreal Forum had been built with numerous support pillars behind the red sections. Thus, Varsity Arena had perhaps the best sightlines in the country at the time, and it could be argued that this is still true today.
A few improvements were made to the arena in the following decades. The floor underneath the ice surface was originally sand covering iron pipes. The pipes were partially replaced in 1933, but it was not until 1957 that the Arena received a concrete floor. A new roof was installed in 1950 at a cost of $7,200.
Varsity Arena is far from a single purpose facility. The Centennial Ceremonies of U of T were held here in 1927, and the Toronto Symphony took advantage of the Arena's superb acoustics beginning in the 1930s by playing about twenty shows a year to crowds of 7,000. The Arena has also been put to political use. In 1961, the Ontario Progressive Conservative party held their leadership convention there, selecting John Robarts as their leader. John Diefenbaker held his final rally in Toronto here in the last days of the 1965 federal election campaign.
In 1973/74, the Toronto Toros of the World Hockey Association chose Varsity Arena as their new Toronto home. The team met with enough success that they were able to justify moving to Maple Leaf Gardens the next season.
In 1977, Varsity Arena failed a fire inspection, and the City of Toronto ordered that all events except Blues games and examinations be cancelled until the arena could be brought up to code. The building was still structurally sound, but was deemed to be a fire hazard. In 1981, there was talk of tearing the arena down and starting over again. Instead of this drastic option, the University launched a campaign to raise money towards the nearly $3,000,000 required to renovate the building. About $12,000 was made available by student groups, and the Varsity Arena Fund Advisory Committee surpassed its goal of $250,000, and raised $400,000 for the renovation. Then, the Ministry of Tourism and Recreation made a generous grant of $1,450,000 through Lottario towards the campaign.
The renovations started in 1985, and included, among other things, widening the ice surface to 196' by 85', enlarging the entrance and Arena office, building the Blue and White Lounge on the south, construction a new ice plant, and improvements to the concession areas. The building was found to be very solid, and some demolition work to enlarge the ice surface proved far more difficult than anticipated. The Arena was officially reopened on February 19, 1986, just before its sixtieth anniversary.
During the NHL lockout of 1994, a local radio station organised, along with the NHL Player's Association, a charity exhibition game of NHL players for December 16, 1994. About 3,000 people attended this game, which was one of a few NHLPA exhibition games held during the labour dispute.
Today, Varsity Arena is one of the more versatile University facilities. It has been used for writing exams, book and clothing sales, as well as the extensive University Intramural hockey programme. The building is still very solid and stable, mostly owing to the incredible engineering of T. R. Loudon seventy years ago.
As an interesting note, I found out why the Arena is so strong even 75 years after construction....the concrete contains asbestos to prevent cracking. When they say they don't build them like they used to, they don't kid around...they won't let you build them like they used to anymore.