Friday, September 02, 2005

Arenas, Continued

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

I want to begin by thanking the many readers who have e-mailed their memories, in response to my first in a series of columns on National Hockey League arenas, past and present. As promised, I will incorporate many of your recollections in a future column, so keep them coming to howard.berger@rci.rogers.com. The first submission on this topic dealt with my top ten former arenas. Today, I look back at numbers 11 through 20 of defunct NHL buildings:

11. LE COLISEE: The home of the Quebec Nordiques from 1972 to 1995 was among the liveliest arenas in both the WHA (’72-’79) and the NHL. Like so many of the older buildings, this one had superb sightlines, as the seats rose on a very steep incline. The seating bowl had the same color scheme as in the Montreal Forum, with red seats closest to the ice, blue chairs further up, and white ones near the top. Now known as the Pepsi Colisee, it is still very much a functional building – home ice for the QMJHL Quebec Ramparts. I saw only two NHL games in the building – both in 1981 – as the Nordiques hosted St. Louis and Montreal. And it’s doubtful there has ever been an NHL rivalry comparable to that of the Nordiques and Canadiens. Fans in both cities were among the most emotional in hockey, and the Colisee rocked with tension and excitement the night I saw Montreal play there. My most recent visit was this past April, for an exhibition game between Canada and the United States that preceded the 2005 IIHF World Hockey Championships in Austria. The rink was less than half-full (about 7,500 of the 16,000 seats) but the noise still reached ear-splitting levels when Canada scored its goals. Unfortunately, the night will long be remembered, rather perversely, for the French-Canadian anthem singer who suffered stage-fright. After twice forgetting the words to “O Canada” – and twice apologizing to the audience – she left her spot on the ice between the team benches and hurried out again with the written words. But, when she stepped back on a carpet covering the ice, it slid out from beneath her and she toppled on to her backside. I couldn’t quite believe what I was watching and initially thought it was some kind of pre-rehearsed comedy routine. But, there was nothing phony about it, and the poor singer ran back up the alley, sobbing, and leaving the game anthem-less. If you’re an avid hockey fan anywhere in North America, chances are you’ve seen a videotape of the incident on a bloopers show. But, the Colisee was (and still is) known for hockey. While in Innsbruck covering the World tournament, two weeks after the singer’s pratfall, I ran into Peter Stastny, the great former Nordiques player, who was pacing outside the arena after the team he managed (Czech Republic) had lost a sudden-death playoff to Canada. Stastny is one of the true gentlemen in the game, and he seemed to brighten up considerably when I mentioned I had recently been to his former NHL home. He shook his head wistfully and told me that there has never been as dedicated and noisy a group of hockey supporters as those who filled the Colisee every night the Nordiques played.

12. METROPOLITAN SPORTS CENTER: Or, as it was better known, the Met Center in suburban Bloomington MN – home of the Minnesota North Stars from 1967 to 1993, when the franchise upped and re-located in Dallas. Built for the North Stars’ arrival in the first big expansion, this arena probably had the shortest lifespan of any professional sporting venue, as it was demolished in 1995, just 28 years after it opened. The Met Center’s most noticeable feature was the checkered color scheme of the seats, which were upholstered in the North Stars’ colors of green, gold and white. People used to call it the “Chicklets” arena, because the empty seating area looked like the front of the multi-colored chewing-gum box. Unlike the old, cavernous NHL buildings in Toronto, Chicago and St. Louis, the Met Center had a low, flat ceiling, and there was nowhere for noise to escape. I saw only one game there – a Minnesota-Toronto match in October, 1983, when the North Stars had powerful teams led by Bobby Smith, Steve Payne, Al MacAdam, Craig Hartsburg and Brad Maxwell. The building was sold out, and when the North Stars scored (as they did often that night), it was the loudest of any arena I’ve been in. The fans weren’t necessarily as wild as in Chicago or Boston, but the low ceiling trapped the noise and sent it reverberating through the arena. Adjacent to the Met Center was old Metropolitan Stadium – former home of the baseball Twins and football Vikings. It stood vacant and neglected for almost four years after the two teams moved into the Metrodome in Minneapolis (in 1982). On that lone trip to Bloomington in ’83, I walked over to Met Stadium and will always remember how decrepit it looked. Almost all the glass sockets in the huge light towers were broken, and the grass – which hadn’t been cut in more than two years – was more than six feet high. It was like peering through a jungle from field level behind the old scoreboard. I stood there and visualized all the NFL playoff games I’d watched on TV from the stadium in the 1970s, when the Vikings were a powerhouse and would play a home post-season game in sub-zero temperatures practically every year. Both the arena and stadium were demolished in 1985 to make room for the giant Mall of America, which currently occupies the site.

13. MIAMI ARENA: Located in the ominous section of downtown Miami known as Overtown, this nondescript arena served as home to the Florida Panthers from 1993 to 1998, before the club moved to its current digs in the city of Sunrise, west of Fort Lauderdale. It was small, tight building – devoid of frills – but I liked it. The press box was in the center-ice seating area of the balcony, up behind the penalty benches, and the sightlines were terrific. The media work-tables, however, were almost at chin level, because our butts would sink into the soft, upholstered seats. It was like sitting in a high chair. The arena’s hockey affiliation will always center on the plastic mice that were thrown onto the ice during the Panthers’ astounding charge to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final. Colorado won the ’96 Cup at Miami Arena on a triple-overtime goal by defenseman Uwe Krupp that finished off a four-game sweep of the Panthers. Cab drivers routinely stood clear of Overtown, so getting back to the hotel after a game was never a certainty. To this day, I owe part of my life to NHL referee Dave Jackson, who rescued me and several of my media pals after a Leafs-Panthers tilt in 1997. He had a rental car and he drove us back to the Biscayne Bay Marriott.

14. WINNIPEG ARENA: Another of the pre-expansion facilities that had a balcony extending from goal line to goal line, this arena was a terrific place to watch the Winnipeg Jets play in both the WHA and NHL. Built in 1955 with a capacity of 10,100, it was renovated to hold 15,500 in time for the merger of 1979, when the Jets joined the NHL along with fellow WHA teams Hartford, Edmonton and Quebec. What I remember most about Winnipeg Arena is the press box that hung low to the ice, and extended directly over the boards. In fact, to see a player in the penalty bench down below, one had to stand up and lean over the front of the box. It was a perfect location for the Jets’ long-time general manager John Ferguson Sr. to vent his wrath. I can still see Fergy (a couple of booths to my right) leaning out of his private box and wildly bellowing at the referee. If the arena was quiet at the time, thousands of fans seated below us would instinctively turn around and look upwards at the agitated GM. Yes, it was a small, tight building. The best hockey memories I have from Winnipeg Arena are covering games in the 1985 playoffs, when the Jets faced the great Edmonton team of Gretzky, Coffey, Messier, Fuhr, etc. Winnipeg had its best NHL club at the time, led by players such as Dale Hawerchuk, Paul MacLean, Thomas Steen, Dave Ellett and Laurie Boschman. The Jets put up a valiant struggle against the Oilers, but weren’t powerful enough to knock off the defending champions – Edmonton going on to win its second Stanley Cup that spring. Winnipeg Arena was demolished in late-2004 upon the opening of the city’s brand new facility, the MTS Centre. Many people believe the NHL will return to Winnipeg somewhere down the line.

15. HARTFORD CIVIC CENTER: Home of the Whalers during most of their NHL tenure, before the franchise re-located in North Carolina for the 1997-98 season. The most unique feature of this arena was its location… inside a shopping mall. That’s right; fans had to walk into a retail shopping area, then through another set of doors into the Civic Center. The arena itself was absolutely terrific for sightlines, with sections of seats hanging off the corner walls of the building. And, the team had a very catchy fight song that was played when the players skated onto the ice. It was a newer version of the original Civic Center, which collapsed under the weight of a snowstorm in early-1978, seven months before the Whalers joined the NHL in the merger of WHA teams. The club played its first season at an AHL rink in Springfield, Mass. My favorite Hartford memories include one of the few times I filled in for Bill Watters to do color commentary on a Maple Leafs radio broadcast. I worked with Joe Bowen during a Toronto-Hartford game at the Civic Center in February, 1990, and I’ll always remember turning on the TV after getting back to the hotel and seeing that Mike Tyson had lost his World Heavyweight Boxing championship in to some guy named Buster Douglas. The arena was also the site of a real “scoop” in my role as a reporter. During the first night of the 1994 NHL draft in Hartford, a friendly agent I knew passed along details of the colossal Mats Sundin-for-Wendel Clark trade between Quebec and the Leafs. I was live on the air back home, and able to break the story.

16. GREENSBORO COLISEUM: The first home of the Carolina Hurricanes gets a ratings nod here for the simple fact the arena was so ridiculously large, and the hockey crowds were so incredibly small. This old, basketball-first facility was in the city of Greensboro NC – an hour’s drive west of the Raleigh-Durham area. The seats were all a foam-green color and in the balconies, five or six entire sections would be completely empty. The club took to cordoning off the upper reaches with black curtains during the ‘Canes’ second season there. Also, the place was freezing cold. The make-shift press box was in the empty balcony seats, but there appeared to be no heat in the building during the winter months. I’ll never forget Mike Ulmer – currently a Toronto Sun sports columnist – covering a Leafs-‘Canes game in Greensboro, and tapping away on his lap-top while wearing gloves with finger-holes. At the time, Mike followed the Leafs for the National Post. Nobody on the hockey beat was disappointed when the Hurricanes finally moved into their new home in Raleigh for the 1999-2000 season.

17. PACIFIC COLISEUM: The venerable home of the Vancouver Canucks from their 1970 inception to the end of the 1994-95 campaign, the Coliseum was functional and bright, with very good sightlines, and was almost identical in design to the Northlands Coliseum in Edmonton. Located on the grounds of the Pacific National Exhibition, it stood adjacent to the city’s old football field – Empire Stadium – home of the CFL’s B.C. Lions, which has been long-since demolished. Pat Quinn’s Canucks knocked off the Maple Leafs in the 1994 Stanley Cup semifinals, as Greg Adams scored an overtime goal in Game 5 of the series, touching off one of the wilder celebrations I’ve witnessed in my years of traveling with the Leafs. Getting to the press box could be a dicey situation for any reporter with a fear of heights. You had to walk along a rickety wooden platform that extended above the seats. A look down was not recommended. I remember my pal Ken Daniels – currently the TV voice of the Detroit Red Wings – with his neck strained, looking up at the ceiling of the arena, as he gingerly traversed the catwalk. Ken was still backup radio voice of the Leafs in 1994.

18. CALGARY STAMPEDE CORRAL: What an old relic this place was! The home of the Calgary Flames for three years after their re-location from Atlanta in 1980, the Corral was a horse-barn with ice. I lived and worked briefly in Calgary in the winter of 1982 and covered the Wranglers of the Western Hockey League for the Calgary Sun newspaper. It was such an outstanding hockey city that the Wranglers would attract crowds almost as large as the Flames. Mike Vernon played goal for the junior team before his years in the NHL. The arena capacity was only about 7,500, but the spectators knew how to make noise, and the place was much louder on most nights than the Saddledome is nowadays (2004 Stanley Cup run notwithstanding). The rink-boards in the Corral were much higher than in any other arena. Players used to joke that they needed a parachute in order to change on the fly. The old building is still very much in evidence across a narrow street from the Saddledome. The Leafs actually practiced there one day a few years ago, and it brought back a lot of memories from my brief stay in the city.

19. REUNION ARENA: The unremarkable and very basic home of the Dallas Stars from 1993 to 2001 sits just southeast of the main downtown core, across from the glass-covered Hyatt Regency hotel. Reunion Arena was built in 1979 for the arrival of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, and it came into being just before the proliferation of private arena suites. So, neither the Stars nor Mavericks could make any ancillary revenue when they played there. The lower bowl and upper-balcony chairs were all dark-green, and there was nothing wrong with the place, unless you were seeking frills. I remember sitting in the first rows of the balcony – in the auxiliary press location – and watching Jason Arnott win the 2000 Stanley Cup for the New Jersey Devils. Arnott scored an overtime goal on Ed Belfour to knock off the defending-champion Stars. Reunion Arena is located about four blocks from Dealey Plaza, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22nd, 1963. Walking over to that notorious section of downtown Dallas has filled a number of idle hours during hockey trips to the city.

20. CAPITAL CENTER: This saddle-shaped arena in suburban Landover, Maryland – later named the USAir Arena – served as home to the Washington Capitals from their inception in 1974 to the end of the 1996-97 season. To suggest it was out in the middle of nowhere would be an understatement. Located off the Capital Beltway, about a half-hour’s drive from downtown Washington, there was absolutely nothing of any significance in the immediate area. While covering Leaf games in Landover, we would stay at the closest hotel – the Greenbelt Marriott – and we had to make sure we ate lunch before 2 p.m. Otherwise, the hotel restaurant would close ‘til dinner-time and, with no other culinary options nearby, we would starve. The Capital Center was a large building (more than 18,000 seats for hockey) and it was very dark. All the light was focused on the arena floor, and you almost needed a flashlight to walk around the seating areas. The press box was an abomination – located way up in the corner, a half-mile from the ice. No hockey reporter would have cried when the building was demolished a few years ago. FedEx Field – home of the NFL’s Washington Redskins – is adjacent to where the arena once stood. The Capitals, of course, now play out of the MCI Center in downtown Washington.

Temporarily, Berger Fixes can now be seen at www.bergerfix.blogspot.com as well as a preview on my blog..