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How ice cream helped ice hockey: Fire destroys former dairy factory with ties to the birth of Toledo hockey

Babcock Dairy shared cooling equipment for Toledo's first ice rink and a name for Toledo's first hockey team. Now, that dairy's reduced to rubble.

TOLEDO, Ohio — When the old Babcock Dairy facility on Berdan Avenue was damaged in a large fire this week, it raised questions about its history in the city of Toledo.

Driving by, it's hard to miss the large smokestack with the Babcock name in bold black bricks. It's also hard to miss the rubble left behind after a fire tore through the former dairy factory. 

Another west Toledo landmark, gone up in smoke.

"Sometimes we overlook some of the great things that happened in our past," Dan Saevig, who describes himself as a Toledo hockey historian, said. "I think it's important that we do share those stories when the opportunities present themselves."

Credit: WTOL 11

The same Babcock name on that smokestack graced more than just dairy products in Toledo.

That's where Saevig's expertise comes in.

Not too far from Babcock Dairy was the home of Toledo's first ice rink.

Named The Ice House, the rink was built in 1939 with the goal of bringing ice hockey to the Glass City. It was a project started by Emery Gilbert and Virgil Gladieux, who would go on to become the founding fathers of pro hockey in Toledo.

"If Emery Gilbert and Virgil Gladieux had not been successful with the Berdan Avenue Ice House," Saevig said, "they would have never built the Sports Arena."

Credit: Dan Saevig's personal collection

Gilbert brought with him a few years of experience in amateur hockey in Cleveland, where artificial ice surfaces kept frozen by refrigeration systems, were more common at the time.

Chillers and refrigeration equipment were costly to acquire and the project was ambitious. The machines that helped in the dairy industry for things like ice cream would also be able to keep an ice surface in proper skating condition.

Gilbert chose the location of the Ice House near Babcock Dairy on Berdan Avenue because the proximity allowed the two to share cooling systems, Saevig said.

And the hockey team shared the name, too.

Gladieux and Gilbert brought hockey to Toledo for the first time in 1940.

Over 80 years later, in a basement surrounded by Toledo hockey memorabilia, Saevig opens a scrapbook. 

An opportunity to share stories has presented itself.

Credit: Diane Woodring/WTOL 11
WTOL 11 reporter Chase Bachman (left) and former University of Toledo hockey player Tom Schuster (right) listen as Toledo hockey historian Dan Saevig (center) shares memories.

Saevig's scrapbook is one of several stacked near a massive highway exit sign that takes up most of one of the basement walls. The brown sign with big white letters once guided drivers to Exit 199 and a place many hockey fans could find with their eyes closed: the Toledo Sports Arena.

But the first indoor hockey game in Toledo wasn't played at the Toledo Sports Arena, because the Toledo Sports Arena hadn't existed yet. 

There was no Toledo Storm, Goaldiggers, Hornets, Blades, Buckeyes or even Mercurys.

Toledo's first hockey team was the Babcocks.

Credit: Dan Saevig's personal collection

The Babcocks were a senior amateur team and played in the Michigan-Ontario Hockey League.

The team played at the Ice House at 935 Berdan Avenue, wearing uniforms proudly displaying milk bottles. The rink could seat around 3,500 hockey fans and the teams in Toledo's league played around 30 games a season in the United States and Canada.

Many of those teams went on to form the league that Toledo's first professional hockey team would join, Saevig said. Gladieux and Gilbert took things a step further from the Ice House, building the Toledo Sports Arena in 1947. It was there that the Toledo Mercurys brought pro hockey to Toledo.

Outside of hockey, the Ice House was used for ice shows by performance troupes and figure skaters, public skating and other recreation teams.

Credit: Dan Saevig's personal collection

In the late 50s, Toledo's high school hockey teams used the rink for practices and played their games at the Toledo Sports Arena.

Tom Schuster went to Waite High School before playing hockey at the University of Toledo and remembers his days skating in the old Ice House rink during practice.

It wasn't glamorous but it was an improvement from what Toledo hockey players were used to, which was skating on ice in areas like Port Clinton, Schuster said, and it had locker rooms and the necessities.

The Toledo Sports Arena was the big time with cheering crowds. It's what people think of when they think "old-time Toledo hockey."

But the Ice House on Berdan Avenue is what players like Shuster think of, too.

"Some great feelings and friendships from high school. Some of us played against each other, and then later on at UT we played together," Schuster said. "It was the friendships that were developed there, just great feelings, brings back good memories."

Gladieux and Gilbert had created a legacy that went beyond pro and amateur hockey, right down to future generations.

Credit: Dan Saevig's personal collection

Eventually, the building's time as an ice rink ended, and it became a roller rink in later years, before being demolished to make way for I-75. The Toledo Sports Arena became the home of later hockey teams and the Toledo Babcocks became newspaper clippings and old photographs in scrapbooks cherished and documented by folks like Saevig.

Schuster says the rink was a place of memories that, like many things, has slowly been lost to time.

"Sad. But that's the way things happen around here," Schuster said. "The old goes away, even us."


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