Deborah Clarke, recreation programmer, and Lisa Hackwell, skating programmer, hold up a photo showing George R. Pearkes dropping the puck for a ceremonial face-off at the arena bearing his name. The arena will hold a free skate Monday as part of celebrations marking the arena’s 50th season. Wolf Depner/News Staff

Family front and centre at Pearkes Arena anniversary celebrations

Saanich offers free skate, cake and prizes Monday to mark 50th anniversary of Pearkes Arena.

For Lisa Hackwell, Saanich’s Pearkes Arena is more than just her place of work as the district’s skating programmer. It is a public repository of personal memories, family photos included.

As a teenager in the 1970s, she figure skated in the arena with her sister, receiving lessons from her mother, who appears in a poster adorning one of the arena walls. Her dad coached the respective hockey teams of her three brothers. Hackwell and her sister would often skate during intermissions of their games.

A public photograph of the historic figure whose name adorns the arena – Victoria Cross recipient and politician Maj.-Gen. George R. Pearkes – also features several members of Hackwell’s family. With Hackwell and her sister watching from the stands, her brother Brent Patterson stands at centre ice as Pearkes drops the puck during a ceremonial face-off featuring the Saanich Braves against their rivals from Esquimalt sometime in the mid-1970s.

And even if she wasn’t skating or watching her brothers play, she would play around the arena with other children.

“I don’t know how I ended up working here, but I ended up working here, and it feels like home to me,” says Hackwell.

While much time has passed since those days, the ties that bind the past with the present remain strong, and Hackwell, along with her colleague Deborah Clarke, hopes to see many familiar faces on Family Day, Monday, when the arena offers free skating, cake and prizes between 2:15 and 4:15 p.m. to help mark its 50th season.

When it officially opened in October 1968, the arena responded to the need for recreation space in the wake of suburban growth, as Victoria’s Memorial Arena – the Barn on Blanshard – had long been bursting at the seams. Once opened, Pearkes quickly became a hockey and figure skating centre.

The list of organizations that now call the arena home is long. It includes Saanich Minor Hockey Association, the Saanich Jr. Braves, Saanich Figure Skating, Saanich Lacrosse and the hockey academy attached to Spectrum Community School. The larger complex to which the arena is attached has also drawn countless trade shows.

Like the neighbourhood around it, the arena has changed, as other public and private buildings have sprung up around it. They include a second rink (1998), as well as the Saanich Centennial branch of the Greater Victoria Library, and Saanich Neighbourhood Place (both 2008). Clarke estimates that the original arena accounts for about a third of the total Pearkes Recreation Centre complex. Private developments around the area include the emergence of the Tillicum shopping centre (which took the place of an outdoor movie theatre), and SilverCity Victoria Cinemas.

Like other arenas of its era, Pearkes has a utilitarian ambiance, and initially lacked features (such as ramps for wheelchairs) that would be standard today. Not surprisingly, it has undergone several renovations, some small, others more significant, over the years to fix leaks, enhance energy efficiency and improve comfort.

“A couple of years ago, we got the seats from the old IMAX, and put them in here,” said Clarke. “We replaced half the seats with comfy IMAX seating. The IMAX was going to turf them to the landfill, and we thought, ‘We’ll take those.’”

And if the design of the arena might not be charming, it has proven itself resilient, as it was the case during the Blizzard of 1996, when heavy snowfall collapsed the adjacent tennis facility. The arena, meanwhile, continued to operate unaffected.

This said, Clarke readily acknowledges the building’s age. “It’s an old building,” she said. “We definitely need some budget, we need some love. It’s a well-used facility all year long, even when there is no ice.”

Questions emerge. If demand for the arena is as high as ever, and if maintenance of a 50-year-old building is becoming increasingly tricky, what is the long-term future of the arena?

That’s perhaps a question for another day, and for now both Clarke and Hackwell cannot wait for Monday’s celebrations, which could end up being a large, extended-family gathering.

“I’m comfortable here,” said Hackwell. “You see a lot of the same people walking through the building, and it is nice to see them after a long time, and they are proud of the building as well,” she said.

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