In Winnipeg’s quiet north end industrial area lies a building in which thumping bass permeates the entire block. Aside from a small sign there is no indication of what purpose the building serves. It’s only from traversing to the side of the warehouse furthest away from the street does the building’s true nature reveal itself.
It’s a roller rink.
Not even the 15 or so cars in the parking lot are convincing that the place is really open. A hand made construction paper sign is taped to a set of unwelcoming steel doors.
Entering the lobby of the rink is surprisingly familiar as I am greeted by a counter with concessions I remember from my youth. The only thing that is different is the style of clothes the kids are wearing. A crowd fills the rink and seating area, more than you would imagine.
At a table located close to the entrance to the skating area sits a group of people who don’t quite fit in with the other skaters. They’re about ten or so people in their 40s and 50s congregating around a booth. At first they seem out of place, yet this group of retired bus drivers, army technicians, and truck drivers love this place more than anyone. And they have been skating a lot longer than most people.
Winnipeg’s Rich Roller Skating History
At 10 years old, Ron Corrin began roller-skating for the first time when friends at a school group urged him to give it a try. The year was 1966.
“My dad used to be a roller-skater from the 30s, 40s, and 50s” says Corrin, a retired Winnipeg Transit driver.
Steve Lockhart was a weapons specialist in the military until a severe car accident broke both of his knees, which put his roller skating days on hiatus and eventually ended his military career.
Out of everyone I met, Corrin is the only one along with his wife (whom he met roller skating), who have never stopped skating. Most of the others went as long as 15 years between lacing up their skates, for various reasons.
But down through the decades, they never stopped thinking about roller skating.
“I would spend every day at the old rink.” says Albert Boyd. “Every day but Sunday.”
Boyd began skating in Port Alberni, British Columbia in the early 1970s, originally playing roller hockey before moving over to general skating.
“I never met any girls playing hockey.”, Boyd quips.
A Way To Meet Girls
Nearly everyone I spoke to mentioned that roller skating was, in one way or another, a way to meet girls.
One skater, John Sam, even went so far as to strip for female patrons at bars for a period during the 1980s. The most difficult part of stripping on roller skates he says, was coming up with a routine to perform on very small dance floors. Sam was considered by nearly everyone to be the best.
Sam was also the only skater I spoke to who neared a professional level of roller skating. He joined up with a group of professional skateboarders, and as the only roller skater toured western Canada and the United States, going as far as Venice Beach, California. Now a city garbage collector as well as a part time bouncer, Sam has 24-year-old twins who are skaters of a different kind.
“They are in the roller derby.” says Sam. “They keep trying to get me to go out there and do a show, but I haven’t had the time to plan it out. Maybe next year.”
Memories Run Deep
“We were like brothers and sisters” says Beriault.
Aside from the fond memories, there are also the photographs.
“It was the girls who took all the pictures,” says Lockhart. “Us guys weren’t really into that, but what I wouldn’t give to see those pictures now.”
Many of the photographs ended up on the walls of the Winnipeg Roller Rink, which was demolished in 2007 to make way for the University of Winnipeg Richardson College for the Environment and Science Complex.
The original building was built in 1890 as a storage facility and served various purposes until 1933 when the ice rink was converted into a roller skating space. Though no official records exist, it was believed to have been the largest roller skating facility in Canada.
When the rink was torn down, skaters both young and old alike went to see it off on the final night. Out of the hundreds of pairs of skates, Corrin saw one pair that immediately jogged his memory.
“So I said ‘Steve (Lockhart), how are you?” remembers Corrin. “And he looked like his best friend had just died or something, tears all over his face.”
These days the only hint left of the old rink is a mural commissioned and paid for by Winnipeg’s West End BIZ organization. It was installed on the West End BIZ building at Langside and Portage, across from where the roller rink used to be.
Staying In Touch
Some of the old gang still gets together as often as life permits to re-connect with old friends, meet new ones, and most importantly roller skate. While they still skate and love every minute of it, their bodies have a harder time recovering now than when they did in their youth. After a few laps, most of them (save for John Sam, who by all accounts has always looked exactly the same) will take a breather for 10 or 15 minutes before they go out for another round.
However, time spent recovering from a few laps affords the skaters an opportunity to talk about times and skaters from the past, many of whom have since passed away. It seemed to me that the biggest concern for most of the skaters I talked to was finding skaters from their youth.
“There were thousands of us back then, and I just want to find them so we can get together and skate” says Corrin.
Corrin has taken to the internet in an attempt to re-connect with skaters from the 1960s all the way to the 1980s. Though it isn’t as many people as he hopes to one day connect with, there is a Facebook group set up for Winnipeg rollers skaters from their youth. Here they organize sessions, reminisce about the old days, and help re-connect with other skaters they have lost touch with. Corrin also regularly posts on Kijji in the hope that the ad will be seen by someone who remembers Winnipeg’s glory days of roller skating.
While talking to Lockhart, modern pop music blaring overhead, I ask him what he thought of the music of today. His answer spoke to the youthful nature of the group and how they never lost the enthusiasm for the rush they got from skating.
“It’s all good, I love it. As long as it has a good beat and you can skate to it, I love it.”.