The Oval on Halifax Common has become one of the city’s most beloved winter destinations but the city has a long history of outdoor skating. In the 1800s, the Northwest Arm would frequently freeze (before global warming and shoreline development), providing a popular natural rink.
According to contemporary reports, the skaters provided a popular spectacle for bystanders. For them, it was delightful to gaze at the graceful lady skaters wearing long flowing gowns who seemed to “float by” and watch men and young boys playing “rickets,” a forerunner of modern ice hockey.
In January 1863, the first covered indoor rink in British North America, built by the British military, opened at the Horticultural Gardens (which later became the Public Gardens). The Earl of Mulgrave did the formal duties, then the band of the 17th Regiment played while 60 women in costume inaugurated indoor skating in Canada.
But that rink had problems. It would flood late in the season and the ice was often pitted and bumpy. By 1889, workers demolished it and skaters moved to the Skating Rink at the Exhibition building on Tower Road. It hosted skating carnivals, drawing upwards of 3,000 spectators to watch the hundreds of skaters attired in colourful costumes. Newspaper accounts describe the masquerades, with clowns, sailors, pirates, cowboys and even a Red Riding Hood gliding past.
Even as skating was still a novelty, Halifax had earlier embraced curling. Records describe the sport in the city as early as 1825, popular with navy and army officers and “loyal sons of Scotland.” The Marquis of Lorne, (Governor General from 1873 to 1883 and married to Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise), was an enthusiastic and skilful curler whose visit to the Halifax Curling Club in 1880 made headlines and attracted hundreds of spectators.
Hockey came next. By 1895, the city had dozens of teams but it wasn’t yet a large spectator sport. Over the next couple of winters, the sport would grow bigger. When the Halifax Wanderers beat a visiting Montreal team 4-3 in 1897, 1,200 fans cheered them on. The Halifax Crescents became the hometown heroes, though. In 1900, they became the first Atlantic Canadian team to compete for the Stanley Cup. Defending champions Montreal soundly beat them, but the Crescents still made history—they’re the only Halifax team to ever play for hockey’s biggest prize.