Joe Iannarelli, Esquimalt’s legend on ice

Veteran arena manager rubbed shoulders with Howe and Sawchuk and built recreation programs in the township

Joe Iannarelli

Joe Iannarelli has been around nearly as long as the town where he made a name for himself.

But the former Esquimalt Sports Centre manager looks and acts two decades younger than his 90 years, gingerly walking alongside his second home, now known as the Archie Browning Sports Centre.

“There’s a lot of memories here,” he said.

Iannarelli will be inducted into the Victoria Sports Hall of Fame on Oct. 27, an honour that recognizes his contributions as a community organizer for Esquimalt and Vancouver Island.

The Timmins, Ont., native fell in love with the West Coast after playing a half-season with the old Vancouver Canucks in 1949, part of a four-season stint in minor pro hockey.

But it wasn’t until 1961 that Iannarelli found his way back through a job posting in the Toronto Star sports section.

“There was an ad for an arena manager job in Esquimalt, B.C. So I said to my brother, ‘I don’t know where the hell it is, but if it’s not near a big city, I’m not going.’”

Iannarelli became the first manager of the sports centre – the first multi-purpose facility of its kind on Vancouver Island – and spent 20 years at the helm. His commitment spawned hugely successful hockey, lacrosse and curling leagues, as well as a summer hockey school that grew to 600 annual participants from across Canada.

To take advantage of the empty hockey rink during the summer months, Iannarelli created a roller skating night that attracted upwards of 700 patrons each week.

“Joe built it into the probably the best community arena in Canada,” said long-time friend and physician Dan Buie.

“I’m a hockey guy and I love hockey,” Iannarelli said, recalling the glory days when the sports centre sold out Friday night double-headers featuring teams from the Canadian army, navy, University of Victoria and one commercial franchise.

“You couldn’t get a person in or out on a Friday night with Vaseline,” Buie said. “Joe started a commercial hockey league that was the rival of any league in Canada.”

During the Second World War, Iannarelli worked as a physical training instructor for the Canadian Forces at various bases between Ontario and Nova Scotia.

After the war, he spent four years playing on National Hockey League farm teams, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Detroit Red Wings goalie Terry Sawchuk and others.

“When I attended Detroit training camp in 1946, my bunkmate was a guy named Gordie Howe – he was 18 years old,” Iannarelli said.

The two lived in the hockey arena in Omaha, Neb., scraping the ice between periods for $5 a day. They remain good friends.

But it’s the many local friendships Iannarelli and wife, Jean, forged over the years that make him most proud.

“One of the reasons why I took the job was I liked the people that were interviewing me. I was impressed with them and the community,” he said.

On Aug. 18, the Esquimalt community threw Iannarelli a 90th birthday party at the sports centre’s curling rink, a small token of appreciation for a “very classy gentleman,” Buie said.

When asked what advice he would impart to his two – soon to be three – great-grandchildren, Iannarelli reflected on the guiding principle of his storied career.

“Do what you love,” he said.

dpalmer@vicnews.com