Many Manitobans hold fond memories for the old football stadium, which saw its last Bomber game played last Sunday. It was a significant game in itself, since the 19-3 victory over Hamilton means the Bombers are competing for the Grey Cup this Sunday at Vancouver’s BC Place against the home-town Lions.
As a youth, I remember my older brother Ron and I being dropped off at the stadium for home games while my parents went shopping in Polo Park. Just a 50-cent ticket apiece was all it took to obtain seats in the end zone, where we joined hundreds of other kids intent upon cheering “our” Bombers to victory. It was a thrilling experience for a young lad that is extremely difficult to now describe.
After one Western final (the Blue and Gold are now Eastern Division champs), I can remember the crowd spilling onto the field after a Bomber victory, pulling down the then wooden goal posts and anything else that could be dislodged by brute force. When I met my parents in the shopping centre, I proudly carried under my arm a small section of plywood from the stadium. Of course, I was too young and small to have dislodged it, but I picked it up from the litter on the field and toted it away as a cherished souvenir.
“Remember the game when it was a bone-chilling -35°C?” I recently asked my father. Along with a few friends, we held season west-side upper deck tickets at the stadium for years.
“Sure, but there were many games when the thermometer dipped well below freezing,” he replied, “and the toilet pipes (connected to washrooms containing the infamous troughs) always froze, so we’d have to take the long, winding trek downstairs.”
Whatever the memories, Canad Inns (Winnipeg) Stadium has had a long history in our city. Similar to the new stadium at the University of Manitoba campus, it was convinced as a state-of-the-art facility — in the case of Winnipeg Stadium, a term relative to the time period — that would become a proud landmark for the city and province.
Fifty-eight years ago on August 15, “bands, flags, costumes, fireworks, Blue Bombers, Rough Riders, and a Hollywood movie star” were on hand for the official opening of the new $500,000 stadium in Winnipeg.
“Winnipeg scores!” exclaimed Foster Hewitt, the voice of Hockey Night in Canada, who emceed the opening ceremony. To witness the ceremony, more than 12,000 people were in the stands of the 15,000-seat stadium. The prelude to the ceremony was a Shriner’s parade, which started downtown and ended at the new stadium. Convertibles interspersed among the Shriners carried Ottawa Rough Rider and Blue Bomber players, as well as Corinne Calvet, the Hollywood star mentioned in the Free Press article. Her entrance into the stadium was described as brief, but “vivacious.” She was carried into the stadium on a white-and-gold litter borne by four Rough Riders.
“I am very happy and proud that the Shriners and Blue Bombers made me queen of the new stadium,” she gushed. “I am sure that the Blue Bombers are going to win — I just felt their muscles and I KNOW they’re in shape!”
Besides the corny comments by the film star, who few remember today, the more serious speakers included Mayor Garnet Coulter, who described the opening of the stadium as a “dream of yesterday” come true.
In the evening, the Bombers beat the Rough Riders 18-11 in front of 15,600 fans. While the new stadium was touted as the “house that ‘Indian’ Jack Jacobs built,” the quarterback was pulled in the second half in favour of Tommy Thompson, a veteran signal-caller who previously played for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Talk about a new Polo Park facility began when it became evident that the 9,100-seat Osborne Stadium (where Great-West Life Assurance now stands) was inadequate due to site deficiencies and the growing legion of fans attracted to games by the passing prowess of Jacobs.
“The time is ripe now to consider the stadium question,” said Alderman Jack Blumberg on November 9, 1951, telling the city’s finance committee, “There may still be some philanthropists in Winnipeg,” who would share in the cost of a new stadium.
A stadium committee was then formed, and in 1952 a plan for the stadium was approved. W. Culver Riley, the Bomber president, said it was necessary for the land to be donated by the city in order to build the stadium. Riley told the media the stadium was to be organized on a non-profit basis with city council required to back a $500,000 loan (originally the stadium cost was estimated at $400,000) from Great-West Life to the football club for the construction of the stadium, which could later be converted into an over 30,000-seat facility. Riley said the city had the option to take over the stadium, and council would appoint a board to oversee the facility’s operations.
The Bomber executive said the football club had to sign a lease to play their 1952 home games at the privately-owned Osborne Stadium until the new facility was completed. At the same time as Riley made this announcement, reports appeared that the new lease — details of which were still being negotiated — meant plans for the new stadium had to be scrapped. The football club paid $92,000 to lease the stadium in 1951 and 1952.
The main problem facing the construction of the Polo Park stadium was federal government-imposed restrictions on steel. Riley said once the lease was formalized and steel became available, construction on the stadium could begin.
Appearing before a provincial legislature amendment committee, Mayor Coulter said that council was “responding to the demand of the man on the street in endorsing a new stadium.” He said council was convinced the city would never have to pay out on its guarantee of the loan. “The net result,” Coulter said, “will probably be that the city will become owner of the stadium and, meanwhile, will have a voice in its construction and management.” Construction was slated for the spring of 1952, he added. “We are rushing because we know that the public is demanding that we do something.”
It took just two years from conception to open the new stadium in 1953 at Polo Park, and only one year for its actual construction.
Patrons will eventually collect memories of the new $190-million facility in the south end of the city, but the old stadium will always be remembered fondly by football fans who entered its gates. In its heyday, it was typical of Winnipeg at the time — a no-frills facility in a working-class city.