by Craig Harvey
January 22, 2006
The Ice Palace
There was no Jamestown Savings Bank Arena
Heck, Allen Park didn’t even have an indoor ice rink.
With several outdoor skating venues and not a single indoor ice rink in the area, a local man decided to turn a falling-down barn into what many saw as a treasure.
From 1966 until 1975, John Alm would transform his barn into the area’s only covered ice rink for public skating during the winter. With a narrow creek running behind the barn, Alm put one end of a 50-yard fire hose into the running water and the other end into the building. If more water was needed, Alm would fill buckets up in his home sink and throw it onto the ice surface – sometimes upsetting his wife as there was not enough water for a shower.
Today, the barn stands on Route 430 and barely resembles what it once was with roof shingles laying where the ice surface once was. But, anyone who entered the barn in the mid-1960s, remembers exactly what the barn once looked like.
After entering the front door, there was a “main office,” which served as a ticket window, snack bar, skate rental/sharpener and pro shop.
There were old wooden shelves built pretty high to house the rented hockey and figure skates. Though the skates were noticeably well used, they served their purpose for general skating and hockey beginners.
The main office was a poor excuse for a pro shop as Alm had rudimentary equipment such as shin guards, elbow pads, helmets, gloves and sticks for sale – all of which were mostly used.
Tim Smith, who skated at the barn for several years and later became a member of Jamestown’s first youth hockey team, gave his recollection of the pro shop:
“The room itself was pretty cluttered, and back then reminded me somewhat of the kind of basement or garage workshop that seemed to have everything a father or grandfather needed, but only he could find,” he said. “It was dusty and rustic, much as you’d expect inside a barn. But we loved that shop.”
After passing the pro shop, there was a narrow hallway that led to a set of dark, steep stairs leading to the ice rink. The stairs never failed to scare newcomers.
Once the terrifying walk down the stairs was conquered, the artificial rink appeared. Off to the side of the rink, there were four separate rooms for the kids to put their belongings as many of them came to the rink already dressed with a pair of skate guards on. The four rooms were converted storage rooms.
Despite league games being played at the barn, the ice surface was not standard size. With most rinks being 80-feet wide, the barn only stretched across 60.
“A smaller rink means you have to be stronger on the corners,” Alm said. “I heard it said before that Canadians had smaller rinks and it made better skaters than the kids in the big rinks. I think the big thing about it is that every kid that played at the barn became a better skater.”
The boards around the rink varied from concrete cinder block walls to plywood. The inside portion of the rink was surrounded with cinder block walls all the way up. However, where there were stacks of plywood, there was no glass often resulting in losing tons of pucks as shots would go wide of the net and out of play into the creek on the other side of the boards.
“Where the boards ended, it was all open,” Tim Smith recalls. “That was the other killer, if you were a spectator, it was like watching a game in the backyard. You were right there – literally.”
Tim’s father, Don, who served as the manager for the original team, remembers the stories about the barn vividly.
“John had an old record player and he put music on for the skaters,” Don Smith recalled. “The rink stayed somewhat warm with a pot-bellied stove that he would throw wood into. He charged a buck or two for recreational skate.”
After lobbying for a covered ice rink for a hockey program in Jamestown and being denied several times, Alm took matters into his own hands, deciding to make up his own hockey team and playing the home games in the barn.
“We had been trying to get a rink in town, but it wasn’t going to happen,” Alm said. “I had a piece of property with a barn and I figured I would use it. I had six children. What else are you going to do? Ice skating is a way of meeting people. You can stop and talk to people and skate with your daughter or whoever.”
In 1975, the Bantam All-Stars were formed and comprised of 27 young men. Don Smith recalled the conversation he had with Alm the day hockey started in Chautauqua County.
“John called me up one day and said, ‘I want to start a hockey team. I have asked all the kids and they want to do it. All I have to do is sign them up.’”
The members of that team were Andy Alm, Christopher Alm, Peter Anderson, William Anderson, James Cheney, Randy Crist, John Dunderdale, Doug Ecklund, James Elia, Frank Ehmke, Eugene Foley, James Gillian, Greg Grimm, Mark Hiller, Scott Johnson, Terry Jones, Philip Lombardo, Larry Malone, Jeff Martin, Kevin Orchard, Craig Rotsko, Thomas Schmatz, Smith, Dan Sullivan, Charlie Weber, Jeff Wilcox and Kenneth Yergens.
From there, the Chautauqua County Hockey Association was formed which today is known as the Chautauqua County Youth Hockey Association. Today, the CCYHA has programs for children ages 4 to 19, including girls’ hockey, sled hockey and the Keep It In Jamestown program which does not involve driving to Buffalo as all the games are played at the Jamestown Savings Bank Ice Arena.
Several people who started their hockey career at the barn are not afraid to say that Alm is the founder of hockey in Jamestown.
“There wasn’t any hope of getting a rink in Jamestown,” Alm said. “I wanted to build a skating rink in Jamestown to let people skate. If it wasn’t for the ice rink, there would be no hockey.”
With all the praise people give Alm for building the facility, Alm is as humble as anyone.
“It’s pretty hard to say what my favorite memory of the barn is,” Alm said. “Just the fact that the kids learned to skate well. It seemed once a kid got involved, they never left the sport. That’s rewarding.”
Tim Smith now lives in Rochester and has built his own skating surface for his kids. He came to the Jamestown Savings Bank Ice Arena in November and could not believe the advancement of hockey. Not only is he fascinated with the building, but also with the better equipment kids are using today. He remembers the days of using newspapers and magazines for shin guards.
“My kids still don’t believe me,” Smith said. “Young people laugh about this stuff, but that was what we had to deal with. We took a beating. We never had shoulder pads until we were 15. We played without them.”
Alm added, “Newspapers worked pretty good. I used that until I started playing hockey in Canada. The guys up there felt bad for me so they gave me a pair of shin guards. The newspapers were pretty comfortable. Cardboard boxes worked well. There wasn’t much difference between the good pads and the paper. The only difference is that the cardboard and newspaper stayed in place better.”
From 1966-1971, the local kids would play each other with an occasional game against a team from Erie or Bradford.
In 1972, Alm and the Chautauqua Hockey Program, as they were called then, slowly started picking up more exhibition games and scrimmages before joining the Frontier Hockey League in 1975.
For eight years, Jamestown was a laughingstock, losing games by more than 10 goals. Sometimes, teams would score eight points in the first period alone.
But Don Smith knew the future was bright, even though the results didn’t always show it. During one game against a stronger opponent, he looked down to the bench and saw Cheney who yelled: “Don’t worry, Mr. Smith. Next year we are going to murder them.”
However, in Tim Smith’s senior year, the team joined an Erie hockey league.
Despite having the players old enough to play in the varsity division of the Erie League, the board members put the Jamestown squad in the jayvee division due to its inexperience.
There, Jamestown won the division and proved to themselves the days of losing, 16-0, and worse were behind them.
“The transformation of the team is what’s interesting to me,” Tim Smith said. “It was this rag-tag team. We had a group of kids that played so long together. I think we shocked a lot of Erie teams that had been laughing at us. What we had to endure those first few years is fascinating.”
The barn was partially covered with half of the rink under a roof and the other half in the open air.
Another member of Jamestown’s first hockey team was Charlie Weber, who runs Charlie Weber Detailing. Weber remembers the days of playing games on warm days where the outside half of the ice would melt a bit.
“We just skated in it,” Weber said. “It was like slush. Sometimes if it got too bad, we would play on only half the rink. We would go to the other rinks and it was amazing.”
When teams from Bradford and Erie began coming to the area to play, no one could imagine that they were going to actually play at a barn.
“Other teams didn’t know it was actually a barn,” Tim said. “People used to call rinks a barn back in the day as a figure of speech. When we finally got a team from Erie to come over, they thought it had to be machine-groomed ice. They had no idea it was literally a barn.”
In one particular game against Erie, the visitors played only one period before the team walked out because of the structure of the barn.
“I can remember seeing them crying on the bench because they were freezing,” Tim said. “They were sitting in snow and they couldn’t feel their feet.”
After playing games at machine-groomed surfaces and being able to get dressed in locker rooms, the Jamestown players were embarrassed about what they had to skate in when other teams came to town.
“One time Erie came up and they made fun of our ice,” Tim said. “One of the Erie players came in and asked, ‘Where are all the pigs, goats and chickens?’ We all tried to laugh along, but it was embarrassing. I think the storyline there is a bunch of kids who tried to play through it. As the years went by, we stuck together and some incredible friendships formed. And we started playing better.”
A prime example of friendship that started at the barn is that of teammate Scott Johnson and Tim Smith. After being best friends during their childhood, Smith moved to Rochester. Fifteen years later, as fate would have it, Johnson moved to the same town and the two rekindled their friendship. Smith was in Johnson’s wedding last year.
In 1976, Alm and his players were rewarded with what they had long awaited for as Allen Park built an indoor ice rink.
“Once Allen Park opened, we could play anyone,” Alm said.
Tim Smith added, “When Allen Park was built, we thought it was heaven-sent. I can’t imagine myself being involved with the sport if it wasn’t for my upbringing and playing at the barn.”
Alm will forever be linked to hockey in the area, and anyone who ever played at the barn praises Alm for his efforts in getting youth involved with the sport.
“John asked me if I wanted to play hockey,” Weber said. “I used to speed skate at Roseland (Park in Jamestown) and he showed up there and asked if I wanted to play. I had no idea what I was getting into. It was a lot of fun, though.”
Now Weber is an avid fan of the sport, religiously watching Buffalo Sabres games and attending a few every year. And without Alm’s barn, he would only have been a hockey fan without ever saying he was able to play.
Weber’s most vivid memory of Alm was his intense dislike for fighting.
“When John Alm coached, he was dead-set against fighting,” Weber said. “He would chew you out if you got in one. John thought fighting was terrible.”
Alm said, “It took up time. I wanted to see hockey.”
Because of Alm, 27 men can proudly say they were part of history in the Southern Tier.
“If anyone ever claimed that anybody did anything other than him the first eight years, they would be lying,” Tim Smith said about Alm’s efforts. “He was the one that made the thing go. He was it.”
I take great pride in being on the first hockey team in Jamestown,” Weber said. “It’s nice to say I was a part of the first organized hockey team in Jamestown – ever.”
Tim Smith added, “We put Jamestown hockey on the map. (Thirty) years later, look at how it has taken off. Jamestown has won state titles. It’s unbelievable.”
After touching the lives of several hockey players, Alm is not finished as he continues to go to the JSB Ice Arena and help coaches in the younger divisions. After practices, Alm puts on power-skating lessons, teaching kids how to be better skaters.
Several skaters have expressed dismay that Alm has not been recognized as much as he should be for developing youth hockey in the area. Some have suggested naming an ice rink after him while several of the former players and others involved with the barn still try to find ways to thank him.
In 2002, when the Buffalo Sabres alumni came to the Jamestown Savings Bank Ice Arena to play the CCYHA coaches, standing behind the CCYHA coaches’ bench was Alm.
It was a fitting spot for the county’s youth hockey pioneer.
The additional financial assistance of the community is critical to the success of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame. We gratefully acknowledge these individuals and organizations for their generous support.