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Laker Hockey and 'The Pullar' legend

Pullar Stadium in 1939

Oct. 2, 2006

Linda Bouvet, LSSU sports information director
and Liz McAllister, Sault Area High School student intern

With 67 years of history under its belt, Sault Ste. Marie's Pullar Stadium has quite a story to tell.

Many old-time players, coaches and officials remember the place fondly and consider it to be one of the most unique ice facilities in the region. Although Lake Superior State University currently plays at Taffy Abel Arena, it wasn't always the home of Laker Hockey. When LSSU's venue moved to campus in the mid 1970s, the days of "barn hockey," raucous fans and flying pucks into the stands were all but over.

But the Soo Lakers began their hockey days at "The Pullar."

"The Pullar" was built in 1939 after Mrs. Sophia Nolte Pullar endowed the city of Sault Ste. Marie with $70,000 to start either a home for the elderly or a community center. Her board of trustees concluded that a community center that doubled as an ice rink would fit most with what she had in mind. Construction took just under nine months and $181,000 to complete. Two days after its completion, on Dec. 7, 1939, the Soo Indians junior hockey team hosted its tryouts there for the first time. So began the aura of Pullar Stadium.

One of the original Pullar legends is NHL great Clarence "Taffy" Abel, for whom the Norris Center is now named. He spent a majority of his hockey life in and out of Pullar Stadium - some years as a player, others as a coach or manager. He most-notably played for the Chicago Black Hawks and the New York Rangers, winning Lord Stanley's Cup with both teams. The Detroit Red Wings also used the Pullar as a training camp facility.

Playing at the Pullar before the Norris Center opened in 1976 was certainly something different than what college hockey players are accustomed to now. Instead of the glass that now surrounds Taffy Abel Arena or the Pullar, chicken wire and steel bars topped the boards and caused plenty of cuts and bruises for the players. Fans had to pay attention, as there wasn't much protecting them from flying pucks.

Randy McArthur, a member of the first Soo Lakers team in 1966-67, said that it was dangerous to play there, but that it was also "the best ice I ever played on." Players' appreciation for the fast and high-quality ice hasn't changed over the years. In addition to honoring Laker Hockey's 41-year history, the Pullar's renown ice is one of the reasons for LSSU's interest in returning to the Pullar for the first time in three decades. LSSU is playing host to an original Laker rival, Lakehead University, in an exhibition game at 7 p.m. Saturday at Pullar Stadium.

One tradition that will likely come back to life is sprinting to the Bomb Shelter during intermission. In the 1960s, the hotel and bar located just east of Pullar Stadium was called the Hickler House Hotel and Bar. To locals, the below-ground bar was called the Bomb Shelter. Today, the establishment is known as the Harbor House Hotel and Happy Hideaway.

In the old days, the crowd's evolving demeanor during the game created an interesting dynamic among players, officials and fans. If there wasn't a good fight on the ice, one usually broke out in the stands.

Jim Booth, a teammate of McArthur's, remembers when the fans invited the players to share in the festivities. Since there wasn't any glass surrounding the bench (and there still isn't), the fans were much closer to the players.

"As players, the Bomb Shelter was off limits," Booth said. "But after the end of the second period, there was more than one occasion that an adult beverage was offered to us on the bench to help us out in the third period."

Bud Clarke, an off-ice official who has been with the Lakers through all four decades, remembers fans who had already made a few runs to the Bomb Shelter and snuck up to the press box. They occasionally threw drinks on the scorers, ruining more than one of Clarke's suits.

"One time they threw hot chocolate on (then LSSU president) Dr. Shouldice and his wife," Clarke said. "I told him to go up there and kick ...."

Clarke, obviously, couldn't leave his scorer's post.

"The biggest issue at the time was the Soo Indians' drawing more fans than Laker Hockey," McArthur said. "By the time I graduated (in 1970), the Lakers had bigger crowds. It was a fun place to play. The Soo really supported us then. Ron Mason built it up. He is the winningest coach in college hockey, and he started the program."

Jim Duquette, another long-time off-ice official, remembers when the legendary Mason, who began his coaching career with the Soo Lakers, stormed onto the ice and handed referee Bob Gilray a rulebook, indicating Gilray wasn't doing his job correctly. Gilray threw the book on the ice in anger. Prior to the start of the next period, Bud Cooper, athletics director at that time, had to go into the locker room and talk Gilray into doing the next period.

Bill Selman, former St. Louis University and Lake Superior State coach, recalled being on the visitor's bench, where the water hose draped behind him.

"It ruined most of my sports coats, with me banging around into that thing and coming home with marks all over my back," he said. "But, we had a lot of fun up there."

Selman noted that trips from St. Louis to the Sault were an adventure in itself (one time his team went through five buses to get up and back), and the Pullar added to the memories.

"I do remember that the ice was pretty good," he said. "And the smallness of the building made the ice appear to be much smaller. Coaching there reminded me a lot of my days at North Dakota (he coached there for two seasons in the `60s) when we played in a tin quonset hut."

Playing in the confines of the Pullar was a big change for the St. Louis University team, which had the fortune of playing its home games in the St. Louis Blues' NHL facility.

The fun at the Pullar didn't stop after the final whistle. The dressing rooms were small by today's standards and didn't include a shower room. After the games, players had to walk down the hall, most of the time with just a towel in hand, to the shower area. This routine was no secret to the female students.

Booth stated that "the best cheers were saved for the players as they dashed down the hall (and) the girls were checking out their butts."

The time at the Pullar was a good one. Suits were ruined, tempers flared and a lot of great hockey was played - the Pullar legend had formed.

So remember the not so distant past as you enjoy the Lakers' season opener against Lakehead. Watch out for flying pucks and try not to miss a minute of the action, even if you zip over to the Bomb Shelter for a quick round.

Lake Superior State Men's Ice Hockey
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