Canada

The referee in the sky

David Folster August 11 1980
Canada

The referee in the sky

David Folster August 11 1980

The referee in the sky

Encountering a group of youngsters on a Saint John street back in 1958, Lord Beaverbrook made them a remarkable though characteristic promise: he would build them a fine indoor rink where they could skate. The legendary press baron, who grew up in New Brunswick*, donated the rink to the city in 1960, honoring his pledge to the kids by stipulating that the ice surface was “not to be used for professional hockey.” But did the Beaver really mean to freeze out the pros from his arena for all time? The city of Saint John and a committee that runs the rink went to court two weeks ago to argue that he did not— and that the 20-year-old prohibition should therefore be lifted.

The city and rink group wanted the change to allow an American Hockey

*Bom Max Aitken in Maple, Ont., in 1879, he died in London in 196b.

League franchise, the erstwhile Syracuse, N.Y., Firebirds, to find a new home in Saint John. However, in court, the city stickhandlers ran into Mr. Justice Robert Higgins, a former college net-minder who obviously knew something about protecting a goal. When it became clear that the only lawyers on the case—one for the applicant

and one representing the provincial justice minister—favored the change, Higgins declared that “somebody should speak for the students” and promptly appointed a lawyer to represent them.

The ensuing arguments soon transcended mere hockey and reached into the larger arenas of politics, youth stan-

dards, even intercity rivalries. Saint John Mayor Robert Lockhart, for whom landing a pro team is vital to building the new sports complex he promised in May's civic election, said the Beaverbrook rink’s deficit of $550,000 over the past three years had become excessive—a claim Higgins challenged. Parents worried about loss of youngsters’ ice time but other spokesmen argued that having pros in town would be good for the kids and for civic pride— especially since rival Moncton and Halifax already have AHL teams. Looming over all of this was the cherubic ghost of Lord Beaverbrook—so much so that the city’s lawyer, Neil McKelvey, finally asked: “Is Lord Beaverbrook to run us from the grave?"

In the end, he did. Last week Higgins, declaring Beaverbrook’s trust agreement with Saint John to be “overwhelmingly clear in intent, purpose and responsibility,” dismissed the bid to change it. That left the city without a rink for the Firebirds, and the Beaver’s game plan of 20 years ago was still intact.

David Folster