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Bird Arena: OU’s 1st multipurpose center
When Ohio University breaks ground on its planned multipurpose center as early as this summer it won’t be the first time such a facility was planned on campus.
Although it’s known today as a place where skaters fly down the ice and light the lamp for the Bobcats’ club hockey teams, Bird Arena was constructed in 1957 with the intention of being a hotbed of activity for all of Ohio’s collegiate teams.
But it didn’t take long for athletes and administrators alike to realize that the building wasn’t fit for high-flying sports because of a low ceiling and relatively narrow confines. The floor was also uneven asphalt that was anything but optimal for practices.
It was then that a hockey team became a reality at OU. In 1958, the Bobcats froze a portion of the floor for the first time and brought hockey to Athens.
Mike L’Heureux, a former Ohio hockey player who coached the team from 1981-84, remembers team members working the floor with hoses after the end of football season to get the rink ready for a short season in the early winter.
L’Heureux, who attended OU on a partial tennis scholarship, said that the facility was much better suited for ice than it was for courts.
“When we’d play any tennis, we’d black the balls in about five minutes,” he said. “Some of us also played varsity soccer and tennis. When I went to play at (Ohio State) they had French Field House, and when we went to North Carolina we were only ball boys for them, just practically handing the balls back (to them).”
The fact that the Bobcats had their own rink was a commodity in itself. At the time, Ohio was one of two schools in the state to have an indoor ice surface on campus, the other being Ohio State.
“It was fabulous because it’s the reason I went to college, and in those days we were the only college that had their own rink,” said Tom Gosiorowski, an Ohio alum and former hockey player from 1961–65. “When you think about my days, it was really special for a hockey player to find a place to go to school.”
But until its renovation at the turn of the century, Bird still was not a perfect hockey facility. It was not suited for football or baseball, and the glass windows that lined the ceiling were susceptible to breakage because of errant pucks. Until the turn of the century, it wasn’t uncommon to be walking down Oxbow Trail and be greeted with a stray piece of rubber.
“The top two-thirds of the building used to be glass,” said Ohio hockey coach Dan Morris, who won three championships as a player with the Bobcats. “It was still there when I played in the 90s. What they did was paint the glass and then they would just cover it with a 12-by-12 piece of wood. Pucks would fly out of that place in the 90s.”
In many respects, OU’s ice addition was an unforeseen change. Gosiorowski, who is an unofficial team historian, said that former OU first lady, Elizabeth Evans Baker, was charmed by the possibility of ice sports on campus and encouraged her husband to allocate $10,000 in student funds for the erection of the facility.
“It was serendipity,” Gosiorowski said. “She had seen the 1956 Olympics on TV and had seen a lady from Ohio (Carol Heiss) won a gold medal. She is literally watching TV and thinking ‘gee whiz, we have to get more things for women’s athletics.’ Her intent was to get ladies figure skating in there.”
Something so simple blossomed into an ice surface that has been gouged, resurfaced and replenished for 65 years and is still the university’s home for the coolest game on ice.
“Look how innocent its beginnings were, just something like that,” Morris said. “It’s funny if you take it all the way back. It’s the grain of sand that created a cloud.”