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The past, present and future of the Whitney Forum: What makes “the Zoo” so wild?

It’s one of Canada’s most intimidating rinks. No fewer than 40 championship banners hang from the rafters. Some nights, it’s loud enough to make ears ring and the ground shake. The Whitney Forum is “the Zoo”, Flin Flon’s cathedral of hockey - but what makes it so special for fans?

It’s one of Canada’s most intimidating rinks. No fewer than 40 championship banners hang from the rafters. Some nights, it’s loud enough to make ears ring and the ground shake.

The Whitney Forum is “the Zoo”, Flin Flon’s cathedral of hockey - but what makes it so special for fans?

 

The past

The Forum’s history is well-documented. Construction on the Forum itself started in the late 1950s, right next to the main mine compound in the city. It seats about 2,000 people on benches - not seats - and there is standing room for at least 500 people along the rink’s walking track. The ice surface is smaller than regulation size - about 13 feet shorter than most regulation rinks and about five feet thinner.

Dozens of banners stand watch from the roof, including six numbers retired in honour of seven players - number 4 is set aside to honour Gerry Hart, while Mel Pearson’s 7 will stay untouched. Reggie Leach’s number 9, Ted Hampson’s 10 and the number 11 sweater - worn by both homegrown star Bobby Clarke and player-turned-coach Paddy Ginnell - also hang up in the rafters. Off to the side, the Bombers hang another number up - number 12 - in honour of former Bomber Dale Fox, who spent a season with the Bombers before dying in 1982, aged just 18.

These are the basics. Answering the initial question is more complicated than just the facts.

Ron Burwash has been coming to games at the Forum for more than six decades, dating back to minor hockey and his days as a “rink rat” - one of several locals who would resurface the ice with water and scrapers before Zambonis became common - on to his days as a Bomber player in the late ‘60s, playing with Clarke, Leach and others as part of his hometown club.

Burwash now comes to the rink and to his team’s games as a fan. The club and the crowd keep bringing him back.

“You can’t help but get energised. It’s exciting,” he said, particularly the atmosphere in big games against top opponents and playoff games.

“You see a lot of people out. It brings a lot of people out and brings the passion of the game in, more so than in the regular games or when it’s a team that’s not too high in the standings.”

Every Bomber fan can recall when they think the arena was the loudest they’ve ever heard it. For Burwash, it was when he played for the Bombers in the 1960s. Flin Flon Mayor Cal Huntley says it was loud during the 2001 RBC Cup, where Flin Flon hosted a national title tournament - and even louder in 2000, when the rink hosted a Flin Flon homecoming event with so many attendees that fitting everyone inside the building was a tough task. Tayler Kittle recalls it being loudest in 2016 when the Bombers, on a Cinderella run through the playoffs, made it within one game of winning a league title on home ice.

 

The present

Today, a home game at the Forum brings with it a wall of noise and a series of familiar faces and experiences.

There are the figures who make the games special, like Krazy Krazz, the Bombers’ famed drummer, who appears at games with his face painted in Bomber maroon and white and with team gear, beating a drum during stoppages. There’s Jonathan “Jonny Doogs” Dougall, the often flamboyantly dressed superfan who, despite having moved cross-country with his family, still makes occasional appearances at the rink. There are several fans with booming voices who are always quick to have a snide remark or six for visiting players, each in different spots of the rink. There’s the kids, who often are supplied free tickets through corporate and community sponsors, who come for fun and stay for the game. There are the fans with taxidermied moose legs hidden in their coats in the stands, ready to throw them on the ice - a tradition similar to the Detroit Red Wings’ octopus that dates back, according to established lore, to the team's 1993 league championship run.

There are the traditions unique to the rink that come up at every big game - the loud horns, the wave, the chants from the crowd. Each playoff game brings with it a cacophony meant to make that night as difficult as possible for opponents to find a footing.

Huntley thinks it’s a combination of the history behind the Bombers, the history of the rink itself and the fans’ demeanor that makes the rink a challenge for visitors.

“I think most of the Forum’s reputation is based around hockey and the people that played there,” said Huntley.

“It's an iconic building. When you walk into it, you get a sense of the long, long illustrious history of the Forum with the banners that are flying, the retired numbers. It's a tough place - the moose leg, the nickname of ‘the Zoo.’”

Huntley, who was in Cancun earlier this year, said while there, he encountered a former SJHL player - when the player found out he was the mayor of Flin Flon, he said that he hated playing in the Forum, but held a healthy respect for the rink and the club.

“He said that with great respect though, because it's almost unique to junior hockey to have so much history, such a reputation. Any players that play for the Bombers are immediately indoctrinated into the history and the sort of psyche there. The legacy is something else,” he said.

Some younger Bomber fans seem to concur. Take Kittle, who was born and raised in Flin Flon and who has moved back home after university. Kittle, who has viewed sporting events in both North America and in Europe, says the atmosphere within the arena during big games is unlike most other hockey rinks - he says it’s more like the feeling of a European soccer stadium, with devoted fans and even a few especially passionate “ultras”.

“It feels like German soccer because that is the one league where you can actually stand during the game, so it definitely does have that element of ultras - but it's cool because like the whole rink is filled with ultras,” Kittle said.

“There are all these amazing words and emotions that you can feel and some you can't even describe - and then, playoff hockey is the next layer of the cake. It's just amazing and to experience it, is just… it's an event that people should be excited about, whether you're from here or not. You don’t get junior A crowds like that. You don’t get fast-paced hockey like that - I’d rather watch a Bomber game over the WHL or NHL any day.”

 

The future

The ol’ barn isn’t getting any younger and with Hudbay slated to shut down much of its operations nearby later this year, there is a legitimate fear that the crowds will go away, along with funds to fix up any problems with the building itself. There are some ways where the rink shows its age. The Bomber Hall of Fame, for example, has not been updated in decades - the sign above it, which features the logos of NHL teams, still shows the Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques, which both went away in the mid-1990s. A pair of plaques next to the Hall of Fame wall showing players who had received NCAA scholarships also haven't been updated in years.

The City of Flin Flon, which maintains the rink, plans to make accessibility improvements around the arena in coming years and also hopes to rebuild the memorabilia and trophy cases inside the rink.

“The golden age has been wonderful. We've had some great events there, but the key going forward is we have a wonderful facility and we're going to make a whole bunch more memories there,” Huntley said.

Kittle recently bought a Bomber jersey, which he has worn to recent playoff games. He says there are multiple reasons for the buy - to show his support for his team and for his city, but also as a future heirloom, something for him to share with future generations and with people wherever he may go to represent what makes his home special.

“I was thinking about this - it’s our team,” he said.

“This is one of the most historical teams, not only in Canada, but in truly in the hockey world. I’ve been to other places and they know about the Flin Flon Bombers. The other thing is that you don’t know what the future holds for junior hockey in the town either, but even if there is a future at the end of the day, I'm going to have his piece of history. I can be like, ‘Yeah. I’m from here.’”