A New Heart for Old Hazelton: Upper Skeena Recreation Centre, Hazelton, British Columbia

Hazelton’s ice rink uses a clear-span-and-bracket timber structural system. The rink became part of a BC Wood research paper by Hemsworth Architecture, detailing how similar timber-framed ice rinks could replace aging arenas throughout the province.

ARCHITECT Hemsworth Architecture Ltd.

TEXT Sean Ruthen

PHOTOS Ema Peter

Comparisons between architecture and medicine are frequent: we talk of sick buildings, the heart of a community, and healing the city. But seldom is there opportunity to write of a direct link.

Earlier this year, the new Upper Skeena Recreation Centre—a project championed by a national and local leader in rural medicine—opened to great fanfare, serving three townships and eight First Nations communities near the confluence of the Skeena and Bulkley Rivers in Central BC. “Our whole diverse community has come together in an unprecedented and determined way to offer new hope—in the creation of the Upper Skeena Recreation Centre—to our children and young people,” said Dr. Peter Newbery, a rallying force behind the project. “In this Hemsworth-designed recreation centre we have a spectacular resource to contribute to the health and well-being of our community.”

Newbery is a respected figure throughout Central BC, where he has served as a family physician and helped to recruit and support healthcare professionals for decades—work that garnered him the Order of Canada.

A stair leads up to the viewing concourse, fitness centre and a community room.

A few years ago, Newbery and Vancouver architect John Hemsworth met by chance. Hemsworth was engaged in research for BC Wood on wood arena prototypes, and chose to visit Hazelton for its average BC snow loads—only to discover on arrival that the community’s well-loved ice rink was reaching the end of its life cycle.

Hemsworth’s long work in promoting wood use and Passive House design was recognized by a 2016 Governor General’s award, bestowed for a Passive House-standard factory for manufacturing mass timber panels. In Hazelton, Hemsworth set to work with structural engineers Equilibrium and contractors Yellowridge, demonstrating that a new rec center could be built in wood for roughly the same cost as a fabricated steel structure.

Hemsworth discussed other advantages of using wood with Newbery, the elected and traditional hereditary chiefs representing both the Gitxsan and Wet’suwet’en nations, and the representatives of the municipalities. The wood would be a renewable resource, harvested from BC forests, and construction could be completed by local trades.

The centre serves three townships and eight First Nations communities in the region. Hockey is especially important as a healthy means of socializing for the region’s youth.

The town of Old Hazelton, established pre-Confederation in 1866, is located near the site of an 8,000-year-old Gitxsan village, and sits in the shadow of the kilometre-high Stegyawden Mountain. In the 1860s, the Omineca Gold Rush brought prospectors by sternwheeler; later, the Grand Trunk railroad brought even more people. Eventually, two more towns were established nearby: New Hazelton and South Hazelton.

The area’s townships and Indigenous villages have comprised Newbery’s catchment for some 42 years, and he is well known by the 7,000 people that call the region home. With the support of local representatives, he rallied official and informal resources together behind this important project. Funding for the building came from federal and provincial governments, who provided $8 million and $4 million respectively for the project. The doctor and his team were also able to secure private donations, including an anonymous $3-million gift.

As is the case with any project, the course did not always run smooth. What were thought to be the foundations of an old hospital next to the existing ice rink turned out to be extensive bedrock. The increased cost of blasting for the new foundations was offset by eliminating a planned kitchen. Despite this, the basketball courts and fitness centre were saved, such that the 5,000-square-metre facility can host hockey and basketball events at the same time. It can also be open year-round—a significant benefit, as the original program had only called for a seasonal facility.

Private fundraising, led by a prominent regional doctor, allowed for the centre to be constructed as a year-round facility including a basketball court, rather than the seasonal arena originally planned. The previous ice rink was refurbished for outdoor use, providing additional recreation space on the site.

As part of his research for BC Wood, Hemsworth priced out three different options for constructing a standard ice rink from timber: using truss, arch, and clear-span-and-bracket systems. In the version chosen for Hazelton, the clear-span-and-bracket, two cantilevered beams splice into a third to complete an almost 40-metre span. The bracket beams greatly reduce the bending moment, resulting in an efficient and cost-effective structure. The roof is set at a gentle five percent slope, and glulam beams and columns are exposed throughout the facility.

The fitness centre overlooks the clerestory-lit basketball court.

Opposite the bleachers, a mural by Gitxsan artist Michelle Stoney pays tribute to the local hockey teams, figure skating organizations, and athletes that have used Old Hazelton’s arena over the past 40 years. A traditional cedar pole—donated by Symoget Niisnoolh and Ray Jones and enhanced by Symoget Delgamuk and Earl Muldoe of Gitsegukla Nation—will soon be raised at the recreation centre’s entrance.

Hemsworth recalls how the original arena had to be evacuated for fear of structural collapse. When visiting the existing A-frame structure with structural engineer Robert Malczyk, the two discovered that the 42-year-old building—then open and filled with people—was unsafe. “I’m philosophical, and in some other world we didn’t show up that day and there was a disaster,” says Hemsworth. “But that didn’t happen—and instead, we have this wonderful new arena.”

The community was initially devastated by the closing of the rink. To respond, they decided to use $250,000 of the new building’s budget to demolish the unsafe structure and refurbish the existing rink for outdoor use during the new building’s construction.

A pared-down palette of warm cedar cladding, standing seam metal and concrete block gives the centre a clean, modern appearance.

Newbery says that the new building is much beloved, and was well used for five-and-a-half months prior to the onset of COVID-19. The eight villages in his catchment are now under strict lockdown measures. Old, New, and South Hazleton used to host visitors who would travel to see the 8,000-year-old Gitxsan village at the fork of the two rivers; they have all but seen their tourism industry disappear this past summer.

Nonetheless, the recreation centre endures as a symbol of widespread support and future hope for the communities. During the fundraising efforts for the centre, the Vancouver Canucks sent three NHL heavyweights—Dave Babych, Kirk McLean, and Jyrki Lumme—to skate on the newly restored outdoor ice. As a facility shared across multiple communities, Old Hazleton’s new recreation centre brings together Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth, adults, and Elders, supporting inter-generational inclusion and diversity.

The locker rooms are wrapped in wood and outfitted with simple benches.

The importance of the facility, in particular for the youth in these remote communities, cannot be over-stated. In BC and across Canada, such buildings keep youth healthy and engaged, working together through sport in ways that few other places in their communities can offer.

Hopefully, the centre is only the first of its kind. In tandem with the centre’s completion, Hemsworth released his white paper on behalf of BC Wood detailing how similar wood structures could replace other arenas. According to Hemsworth, close to 200 arenas in the province are nearing the end of their life cycles. New wood versions—especially if they are as handsome as the Upper Skeena Recreation Centre—will surely be embraced as the hearts of their respective communities.

Sean Ruthen, FRAIC, is a Metro Vancouver-based architect and the current RAIC regional director for BC and Yukon.

CLIENT Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine | ARCHITECT TEAM John Hemsworth (RAIC), Dean Shwedyk, Alvin Martin, Stephanie Matkuluk | STRUCTURAL Equilibrium Consulting | MECHANICAL MCW Consultants | ELECTRICAL NRS Engineering | CONTRACTOR Yellowridge Construction | REFRIGERATION JS Refrigeration Engineering | AREA 5,100 M2 | BUDGET Withheld | COMPLETION September 2019