Rich history surrounds Calumet Colosseum

CALUMET – Hockey was a different game in January 1914 and Calumet was a different community, but Calumet Colosseum is a hub connecting those eras and a hub around which the entire north end of the Copper Country revolves.

The old barn, believed to be the oldest indoor ice rink in continuous use in the world, hosted a grand gala Monday as the Calumet Wolverines senior hockey team hosted the Portage Lake Pioneers in a reprise of the matchup that officially opened the venerable rink 100 years ago to the day.

“It’s almost like a member of your family if an inanimate object can be such a thing,” local hockey historian Bob Erkkila said.

Erkkila is part of a long line of people for whom the Colosseum (or as it was known from the 1940s to 2005, the Calumet Armory) is a community fixture – from the days in which he’d try to find a player’s bags to carry into the building for free admission, to the heated on-ice matchups of his youth, to the stands to watch his children and grandchildren play and everywhere in between.

The visiting Pioneers won Monday’s game 4-0 against an unlucky Calumet squad. They won the opening game in 1914 by a 4-2 score.

Erkkila said his first memories of the Colosseum include home games of the C-L-K Radars, a predecessor of the Wolverines and rival of the Portage Lake Pioneers (or Flyers). Back in those days, enough snow was plowed up against the side of the building that kids could sneak their friends in through the windows, he said.

Erkkila later more than made up for it by working on the arena crew, scraping, sweeping and flooding the ice.

“When you were a teenager, some times you didn’t get home until close to midnight after those Radar games,” he said.

A series of festivities honoring the building have already taken place, including games for junior players of all ages, the Calumet High School varsity, and even alumni spanning multiple decades. It’s been a busy weekend, but not much busier than most winter weekends at the facility on Red Jacket Road.

“There’s times during the winter that you could have two high school games and a senior game, we could have 5,000 people going through this building, but in the summer, we’ve got our events like the gun shows, and stuff like that, too. We try to keep the building busy,” said Paul Lehto, a pillar of the Calumet Hockey Association and the Calumet Township supervisor for more than four decades.

The Colosseum doesn’t just host hockey – it’s been the venue for countless spaghetti dinners, pancake breakfasts, wedding receptions, exhibitions and community events for residents who’ve never strapped on skates in their lives.

Over the years, the building’s development has been a responsibility the community has taken on.

One of the most celebrated investments made took place in 1968, when artificial ice was installed for the first time. Striking Calumet and Hecla copper miners did the work for little more than a cup of coffee in the morning and a sandwich at noon. Pipefitters, welders, refrigeration specialists, millwrights and other volunteers provided the labor, and the company allowed them to fetch the necessary tools from the otherwise locked-up C&H facilities to get the job done.

“We had some of the most talented craftsmen – everything you could possibly need to put an ice rink in and we had them, free,” Erkkila said.

The work of those many hands over the past century has handed down a building unlike many others in the country, from the soaring ceilings to the room for a thousand or more spectators to the building’s newest addition, the dedicated locker room for the Copper Kings varsity completed just a few years ago.

The CHS varsity, wearing throwback uniforms in recognition of the centennial, drew one of its best crowds of the season Saturday for its annual game against Brighton.

The series, which began in 2002, features two teams far apart geographically but relatively close genealogically thanks to the descendants of Finnish miners in both communities. But that isn’t the only team that can fetch a good gate on a weekend night at the Colosseum, where hockey remains a primary source of entertainment for young and old.

“We play a lot of weekend games, and I think a lot of people like to come out on the weekends and watch. We’ve always had good crowds,” said CHS assistant principal and athletic director Sean Jacques, an alum like Lehto and Erkkila.

In addition to the competition, the building’s historic nature has drawn teams from all over the state to a rink unlike many they’ll experience in the Detroit suburbs or anywhere else below the Mackinac Bridge.

“They’ve never played in rinks like that … you just can’t replace a building like the Colosseum or the Dee (Stadium, in Houghton) because they’re unique,” Erkkila said.

The walls are full of memorabilia from years gone by, but keeping the building a living and working facility takes sweat and investment.

Lehto estimated that, through fundraising and grants, the township has invested about a million dollars into the building just since it took over the facility from the state of Michigan in 2005.

“Sometimes I just sit there and I look around, like outside… if you’ve been hanging around this building, if you’re on the hockey association, you realize that everything out there that you look at, the sideboards, the glass, the sound system, the clock, everything is a project,” Lehto said. “We’ve always had a project to work on. It’s always volunteers and we’ve always raised the money ourselves. Everything you see out here was a project, done by volunteers.”