Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Arenas, Continued


The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

In Part 3 of my look at NHL arenas, past and present, I offer my personal ratings of the 15 current facilities in the Eastern Conference. Ratings of Western Conference arenas will be done in late November, as I will make my first visit to Glendale Arena in Phoenix for a Nov. 20th game between the Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets. Glendale is the only NHL building I have not yet seen, and I hear it’s quite spectacular. These ratings are based on several elements – many of which relate to my personal experience as a reporter. Also taken into account are factors that you, as fans, might entertain… ambiance, aesthetics, parking, and the quality of the immediate neighborhoods in which the arenas reside. Keep in mind, as always, that these are subjective opinions which may not coincide with your own viewpoints. Feel free to offer any rebuttal – or concurrence – to howard.berger@rci.rogers.com.

1. MADISON SQUARE GARDEN: Though it’s the second-oldest arena in the NHL – opening in February, 1968 – there is still nothing quite like a visit to the historic home of the New York Rangers. While the Garden has been extensively renovated since 1990, to accommodate several clusters of private luxury suites, it still lacks the amenities of the newer arenas, and it has just about the worst sightlines of any building in North America. But, it’s still Madison Square Garden – site of so many legendary sporting events, including the first two boxing classics between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier (March, 1971 and January, 1974). The main press box for hockey is in the most unique location of any arena. It sits directly above the corner Zamboni entrance, where the visiting team skates onto the ice. Comprised of four rows of tables, only the first two rows had been shielded by the corner glass, until the advent of protective netting three years ago. As such, it was rather hazardous for reporters sitting in the upper rows to take their eyes off the play for any length of time. Situated virtually at ice level, the sightlines from the box aren’t nearly as conventional as in the other press locations, but it is, by far, the best place to experience the sounds of the game and the speed of the action. The Garden is located a bit off the main path in Manhattan – several blocks directly west of the Empire State Building – but a 10-minute walk, north, takes you into the splendor of Times Square, with its flashing signs and lights, glitzy restaurants and high-rise hotels. New York is most definitely a city that never sleeps.

2. BELL CENTRE: I choose the Canadiens’ home rink as my second favorite, simply because there are few greater spectacles in hockey than a Saturday night visit to Montreal by the Toronto Maple Leafs. It seems not to matter where the teams are in the standings, or the time of season in which the game is played. Be it a “feeling-out” contest in mid-October, or a match with grave playoff implications in March, a Toronto-Montreal encounter is an event – the centerpiece of action that envelops an entire city core. Unlike downtown Toronto, where the main hotels are spread over a several-mile radius, the big hotels in Montreal are all within one block of each other, and within two blocks of the Bell Centre. Whether you’re staying at the Queen Elizabeth, the Marriott Chateau Champlain or Le Centre Sheraton, it’s virtually impossible to escape the hockey atmosphere on a Saturday. The hotel lobbies often overflow with Toronto rooters decked out in blue and white – many who make the trip with no hope of acquiring tickets to the game. They come merely to experience the festivity and excitement of hockey’s oldest rivalry. A Don Cherry sighting is enough to scramble the entire downtown area. And, good person that he is, “Grapes” (if cornered) will spend hours frolicking with hockey fans; signing autographs and posing for photos – usually with his familiar sidekick, Ron MacLean. The Bell Centre, itself, is a much-larger version of the old Montreal Forum – with more than 20,000 red, blue and white seats aligned in a very steep viewing angle to the ice. The press box is outstanding, as it extends almost directly over the players’ benches, with numerous portable televisions suspended in front of reporters covering the game. And the noise for a Saturday night Habs-Leafs match… well, it defies description, particularly if the visitors are prevailing. The emotional, partisan Montreal fans try to overwhelm the unusually boisterous Toronto rooters, who are much livelier and demonstrative than the stoic audiences at the Air Canada Centre. It truly is a hockey phenomenon worth experiencing for fans from both cities.

3. AIR CANADA CENTRE: My home stomping ground has quickly become a shrine for the countless die-hards who worship the Toronto Maple Leafs. When I was younger, I could never imagine the hockey club playing its games anywhere but in venerable Maple Leaf Gardens, even as the proliferation of new arenas made vacating the Gardens a virtual certainty. But, the Air Canada Centre has grown on me since it opened in February, 1999, and it’s become a virtual hang-out for hockey fans, whether or not the Leafs are in town. The team’s ownership has done a terrific job of creating hockey ambience in the immediate area of the building – suitably located, as it is, within the framework of Toronto’s Union Station… the hub of rail activity in southern Ontario. The arena provides top-notch sightlines and audio; the only complaint being that the sound system is cranked up beyond comfortable levels on most nights. Though the Leafs are careening through the second-longest Stanley Cup drought ever, there is ample evidence that the team did, in fact, win championships once upon a time. Eleven Stanley Cup banners, fashioned for the new building, hang from the rafters, along with streamers depicting many of the legendary performers in franchise history: Charlie Conacher, King Clancy, Johnny Bower, Tim Horton and Darryl Sittler among them. There’s even a large banner commemorating the 68-year history of Maple Leaf Gardens, with its “Memories and Dreams” motto emblazoned across the front. A personal drawback in the ACC is the press box. Though it’s location to the ice is splendid, the structure, itself, was an afterthought, as the building was originally blueprinted as a basketball-only facility. In the late-‘90s, the Leafs and the NBA Toronto Raptors were owned by rival entities, and were threatening to erect private arenas within stone’s-throwing distance of one another. When sanity eventually prevailed, construction of the ACC was well underway, and the new combined ownership chose to make it the Leafs’ future home as well. Since basketball-only arenas do not require large, overhead press locations, this one had to be hastily arranged, and it is far-less spacious than most others in the NHL. In fact, it’s extremely difficult for reporters to walk behind the chairs of those who are seated. A rotund individual has virtually no chance of migrating while the game is on. Otherwise, the ACC is a great building. Like the Gardens, however, the devoted fan-base is quiet and studious, depriving the arena of any robust-like atmosphere on most nights.

4. COREL CENTRE: It is all but impossible not to notice the home of the Ottawa Senators, simply because this arena stands virtually alone in the middle of the wilderness. Located in the city of Kanata – about 25 kilometers west of downtown Ottawa – the Corel Centre is a terrific building for hockey… if you can get there. It is accessible by only one major artery (Highway 417, The Queensway) and traffic extends for miles in each direction before and after Senators’ home games. Parking is in abundance, however, and once inside, the hockey atmosphere is intoxicating. Especially when the hated Maple Leafs are in town. Though the Leafs have rarely dominated any team in the past four decades, they have somehow run roughshod over the Senators, prevailing in all four playoff match-ups since 2000. Adding insult to the locals is the fact that the Ottawa teams have almost exclusively been superior, talent-wise, to the prevailing Toronto clubs. You’re likely not to hear venom spewed with such utter contempt anywhere on earth than on Ottawa’s all-sports radio station, The Team-1200, when callers are castigating the Blue and White. The Corel Centre is handsomely appointed, with excellent viewing positions from all angles. It is such a distance from Ottawa, however, that I find it worthwhile to stay in any of the fine, newer hotels in the Kanata area. A Holiday Inn Select property, about three kilometers east of the arena, is a particularly fine choice, located next to the Kanata Centrum – an enormous cluster of shopping boutiques, restaurants and movie theaters that is normally bustling with activity on game days.

5. MELLON ARENA: Okay, I’m sure you’re wondering if I might have been accidentally dumped on my head as a youth. Pittsburgh’s ancient “Igloo” is the oldest facility in the NHL (opened in 1961), and Penguins’ ownership – led by playing legend Mario Lemieux – is doing everything within its grasp to convince city fathers that a new, modern arena is desperately required for the hockey club. But, I kind of like the old one. The newer rinks clearly offer more amenities and revenue streams, but few of them have any hockey history. Mellon Arena – known until recently as the Pittsburgh Civic Arena – is the home of the 1991 and ’92 Stanley Cup champions, and was home to the Penguins when they first appeared – in the fall of 1967 – with powder-blue uniforms and the word “PITTSBURGH” sewn diagonally on the jersey. Players like Andy Bathgate, Les Binkley, Ab McDonald, Al MacNeil, Ken Schinkel and Leo Boivin skated in the arena on the original Penguins’ team. The building is referred to as the “Igloo” because that’s how it’s shaped – a silvery-white dome-like structure that sits on an incline two blocks east of the main downtown core. It is easily accessible from a number of the city’s premier hotels, including the City Center Marriott, which is across the street. Once inside, the contour of the arena is evident, and it’s very much like sitting in a giant dome with sections of rust-colored seats hanging off the walls. As in all the older arenas, viewing angles are exceptional. Like everywhere else, rock music accompanies each stoppage in the action, but – unlike Toronto – it’s played at decibels most humans can comfortably withstand. And the arena’s organ, with an old-time sound dating to the ‘70s, is frequently played to rouse the audience – more so than in other NHL buildings. Fans of the Maple Leafs have fond memories of Mellon Arena, recalling Garry Valk’s overtime goal in 1999 that eliminated the Penguins from a second-round playoff series.

6. PHILIPS ARENA: The home of the Atlanta Thrashers encompasses one of the most unique designs of any arena in North America. One side of the arena bowl is conventional, with lower seats, and a pair of balconies. The opposite side, however, looks like an apartment building. After 30 or so rows of seats rising from the ice, six tiers of private luxury boxes extend from goal line to goal line, one on top of the other. At the very top, is the press box for hockey – an extremely spacious area with comfortable rolling chairs. Until the Thrashers host either a Stanley Cup Final or an NHL All-Star Game (as they would have done in the canceled 2004-05 season), they will never fill the enormous press location. As such, reporters usually have ample room to spread out. Philips Arena is built on the site of Atlanta’s first NHL facility – The Omni – which was home to the Atlanta Flames from 1972-80. The franchise then re-located to Calgary. The Omni was used for volleyball during the 1996 summer Olympics, and was then demolished to pave way for the current structure, which is attached to the CNN Center – world headquarters for the cable giant. Many of my media colleagues dislike Atlanta, but I very much enjoy visiting the city, and staying at an Embassy Suites hotel in beautiful Centennial Olympic Park, adjacent to the CNN Center. The park had been a run-down cluster of dilapidated factories until it was re-furbished for the ’96 Olympics, though it gained notoriety during the Games as site of a bombing that killed two people and injured many others. Still, it’s a nice place to stroll during the day, surrounded by all the huge office and hotel towers of the downtown area. My fondest memories of Atlanta include covering my first-ever Olympics, and being on hand for the radio station at Fulton County Stadium (since demolished) when the Toronto Blue Jays won their first of consecutive World Series titles, in 1992.

7. NASSAU COLISEUM: They ought to call this place the “Stan Fischler Arena”, in honor of my good pal – the Hockey Maven – who often revels in telling tales about the New York Islanders’ Stanley Cup dynasty of the early-1980s. I can’t help but think of Stan whenever I check into a room at the Long Island Marriott, pull back the curtains, and look out at the Coliseum across the parking lot. That’s all there really is in Uniondale, N.Y. – a white, oval-shaped arena, and a large hotel. I’m sure there are some nice homes and parks in the area, as well, but the arena and hotel seem isolated from the rest of the world. I don’t mind it, however. The Marriott has probably the best food of any hotel on the NHL circuit. Conversely, the press room at the Coliseum has just about the worst. So, it’s no problem at all to eat a leisurely dinner at the hotel, and then walk over to the rink a half-hour before game time. Once inside the Coliseum, the Islanders’ rich heritage comes to life. The smallish building is unremarkable, with 16,000 dark-blue seats in tight confines and relatively few private boxes (it opened when the Islanders joined the NHL as an expansion team for the 1972-73 season). But, the rafters are teeming with reminders of the club’s four consecutive championships (1980-81-82-83) and the great people who made it happen. There are the Stanley Cup banners, of course, and individual banners for players whose jersey numbers have been retired by the team (Denis Potvin #5, Billy Smith #31, Mike Bossy #22, Bryan Trottier #19, Clarke Gillies #9, and Bob Nystrom #23). Also, a banner with a large black bow-tie to commemorate the Islanders’ architect – GM Bill Torrey – and his familiar attire. And a streamer recognizing the 739 career victories of legendary Islanders’ coach Al Arbour. Throughout the late-‘90s, when the team struggled, there were sparse crowds in the Coliseum. I can remember covering Leafs/Islanders games with not more than 4,000 people on hand. But, the club and its rooters came alive under new ownership in the 2001-02 season, and the wildest fans I’ve ever seen filled the building during the seven-game Toronto/Islanders playoff series that spring. Many of the fans at ice level were obnoxious and foul-mouthed – hurling profanities at the Leaf players during the rough-and-tumble set, but the atmosphere in the arena was electric, and the home team swept all three of its games. Unfortunately for the Isles, they couldn’t win on the road, losing four matches – and the series – at the Air Canada Centre.

8. WACHOVIA CENTER: At least, I think that’s what it’s still called. The home of the Philadelphia Flyers seems to have a different name every time I visit the city. It started as the CoreStates Center in 1996, and then became the First Union Center, before adopting its current title. Whatever the name, it is constantly filled to capacity with some of the NHL’s most vocal and enthusiastic fans – as was its predecessor across the parking lot, the Philadelphia Spectrum. The Flyers and Maple Leafs have met in three playoff series since 1999, providing yours truly with some terrific games to cover. Wachovia Center is part of the new sports complex in south Philly, which includes Lincoln Financial Field (home of the NFL Eagles) and Citizen’s Bank Park (home of the baseball Phillies). The Spectrum – miniscule by comparison – still stands across the street from the site of old Veterans Stadium, which was demolished in January, 2004, after serving as the Eagles’ and Phillies’ home field since 1971. With three sports facilities, the complex is replete with acres of parking, and is easily accessible, particularly from Philadelphia International Airport – just a short, 10-minute hop along Interstate-95. That’s why I usually stay at an airport hotel when the Leafs play there. Flyers’ fans are loud and boisterous. The Wachovia Center is big and brightly lit, with two levels of dark-red seats, and the press box is in a conventional location, up high, behind the penalty benches. I’ll long remember the Leafs’ first appearance at the CoreStates Center: Nov. 10th, 1996, a Sunday night. Earlier in the day, I’d bought a ticket to see the Eagles and Buffalo Bills play at Veterans Stadium. I then ventured across to the new arena and the Leafs/Flyers game ended with goalies Felix Potvin of Toronto and Ron Hextall of Philadelphia engaged in a wild donnybrook.

9. OFFICE DEPOT CENTER: The home of the Florida Panthers is the most beautiful arena in the NHL. Located in the city of Sunrise, about 20 miles west of Fort Lauderdale, this building can be seen for miles, because it practically borders the Florida Everglades. The alligator-infested swamp begins mere yards from the arena’s west façade, and across from the Everglades Parkway. On the opposite side of the arena stands one of America’s largest shopping centers, the Sawgrass Mills outlet mall. So, there’s plenty to do with a wad of cash on a night the Panthers are in town. The arena is surrounded by acres of parking, and numerous palm trees line the perimeter of the handsome building. Inside, one of the NHL’s largest arenas has four levels of seats that are mainly pine-green and mustard in color. The press box is roomy and efficient, but is quite a distance from the ice, given the building’s size. The crowds I’ve seen in the arena have been moderate, except for Leafs/Panthers games around Christmas or Spring Break, when thousands of travelers from the Toronto area inundate the building with their blue and white jerseys. I enjoyed attending the 2003 NHL All-Star Game at Office Depot Center – originally called the National Car Rental Center. There aren’t many hotels in the immediate area, and I usually stay in the city of Plantation, about 10 miles east of the arena.

10. R.B.C. CENTER: I’m hoping the Carolina Hurricanes rebound from the lost NHL season better than most are predicting they will, because I always enjoy my visits to the Raleigh-Durham area. North Carolina has a much different feel to it than any other location in the NHL. It’s more country than city, and the people I’ve met there are unfailingly polite and friendly. The arena is quite a distance from downtown Raleigh, located about a mile off the main highway: Interstate-40. It sits next to Carter-Finley Stadium, where the North Carolina State University football team plays its home games. One of the most unique sights in all of my years covering the NHL was the tail-gating that took place during the Hurricanes’ charge to the 2002 Stanley Cup Final. The R.B.C. Center (short for Royal Bank of Canada, the arena sponsor) is surrounded by acres of parking lots, and the weather was absolutely perfect in May and June of that year. The Maple Leafs played Carolina in the Eastern Conference Final, and I also covered the championship round between the Hurricanes and Detroit. Two hours before game time, thousands of hockey fans – decked out in their red Hurricanes’ jerseys – sat around cars and mini-tents, with barbecue grills going full blast. It was the same atmosphere as in stadium parking lots prior to NFL games. The R.B.C. Center seats are all scarlet-red – color of both the ‘Canes and the N.C. State Wolfpack, which plays its college basketball games there. As such, when hockey crowds are small, the empty seats stand out quite vividly. Though Raleigh is a mere one-hour and 20-minute flight from Toronto, the sports atmosphere is altogether different. NASCAR is monstrous in North Carolina, and it’s impossible for a visitor not to get caught up in the basketball rivalry between the three major universities in the area: N.C. State, North Carolina and Duke. Mostly, though, a visit to Raleigh is one of the most relaxing and enjoyable in the NHL.

11. ST. PETE TIMES FORUM: Site of the most recent Stanley Cup presentation, the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning is striking from the outside, with huge panes of glass covering the façade of the building. The arena is part of a waterfront redevelopment program at the south end of downtown Tampa that includes the Convention Center and a giant Marriott hotel. There is little else to do in the immediate area of the rink and, as such, the celebration following the Lightning’s 2004 Cup victory over Calgary was rather limited in scope. Most of Tampa’s nightlife occurs in the Ybor City district, east of downtown. The Westshore business district, close to Tampa International Airport, is also a hub of activity. The St. Pete Times Forum is sponsored by and named after the St. Petersburg Times newspaper – one of the two major broadsheets in the area, along with the Tampa Tribune. The arena had previously been called the Ice Palace. Inside, it is brightly illuminated, and the seating plan is almost identical to the HSBC Arena in Buffalo. All of the 19,758 chairs are blue, and all were filled with rabid hockey fans for the Lightning’s Stanley Cup run. It was a far cry from previous years, when the arena would be half-empty on most nights. Like in Sunrise, Fla., the crowds for Tampa/Toronto games swelled during holiday periods; in fact, the Leafs have played in Tampa around Spring Break practically every year. The press box is up behind the last row of balcony seats, allowing fans in the area to stand up, turn around, and watch TV replays. Wrestler Hulk Hogan is a staple at Lightning games, and his daughter, Brooke, sang the national anthems during the Tampa/Calgary Final. Staying at the adjacent Marriott during that series was enjoyable, as I had a balcony on the 22nd floor overlooking the arena and downtown buildings.

12. CONTINENTAL AIRLINES ARENA: The location of the main press box in this older NHL facility keeps it from ranking lower in my personal ratings. Other than the Air Canada Centre, this is the arena in which I’ve covered the most games during the past decade, as the New Jersey Devils have twice met the Leafs in the playoffs, and have won three Stanley Cup Finals, all of which I’ve attended. I also covered the Devils’ seven-game triumph over Ottawa in the 2003 Eastern Conference Final. The press box is carved out of the main seating area, directly at center ice, and roughly 20 rows behind the team benches. It’s an absolutely perfect spot, reminiscent of the old Philadelphia Spectrum. Also similar was the press location at America West Arena in Phoenix, where the Coyotes played until midway through the 2003-04 season. But, in that rink, fans were seated directly in front of the box, and would often stand and block our view of the action. Continental Airlines Arena is part of the Meadowlands Sports Complex, which includes Giants Stadium (home of the NFL’s New York Giants and Jets) and a harness-racing track. It is located, famously, in the middle of an enormous swamp, and street planners for the neighboring cities of Rutherford and Secaucus must have been on LSD. Few places on Earth have a network of highways and side-streets that are so utterly confusing, and difficult to navigate. For instance, I stay at a Hilton Garden Inn in Secaucus, roughly three miles southeast of the Meadowlands. When you exit the hotel parking lot, it is not possible to go northwest towards the arena. You must, instead, travel east on Route 3 for about a mile-and-a-half, then pull a U-turn three stoplights down the road to get back in the proper direction. The arena is operated like a virtual boot-camp by Devils’ president Lou Lamoriello, an otherwise decent and friendly man. Security personnel are paranoid beyond belief, and there are strict rules that all media members must follow. No standing, for instance, anywhere close to the players’ exit between the benches during practices or morning skates. And while traveling hockey reporters gain access to all other facilities in the morning by showing their NHL-issued pass, at this arena, they must first walk to the opposite side of the building and obtain their actual game credentials before entering. It’s nothing more than a minor inconvenience, but it’s curious, nonetheless. Always a tempting site as you enter or exit the arena is the skyline of Manhattan (the Empire State Building, etc.) jutting out of the horizon about three miles to the east.

13. HSBC ARENA: The home of the Buffalo Sabres is a fan-friendly, attractive building with relatively easy access from all directions, but – for me – it pales in comparison to its long-vacant neighbor, the Memorial Auditorium. Perhaps it’s the memories I have of the Sabres’ early glory years in the mid-to-late-‘70s, when former Toronto GM/coach George (Punch) Imlach built the club into a Stanley Cup finalist in only its fifth NHL season. Led by players like Gilbert Perreault, Richard Martin, Rene Robert, Jerry Korab, Don Luce, Craig Ramsay and Danny Gare, the infant Sabres were an exciting, entertaining team, and they had a terrific geographic rivalry with the decent Toronto clubs of that era, featuring Darryl Sittler, Lanny McDonald and Borje Salming. There was always a special atmosphere during games at The Aud, with its steep seating incline and fabulous organist. HSBC Arena – originally known as Marine Midland Arena – is a fine building, reminiscent of most of the newer NHL facilities. As mentioned, there is virtually no difference on the inside between it and the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa. The seating plan, color of the seats (blue) and the lighting pattern are almost identical. When the Leafs play in Buffalo, it is practically indiscernible as to which club the audience is rooting for. Thousands of Toronto-area fans pour over the Peace Bridge to wail for the Leafs, who usually disappoint them. Coach Pat Quinn still has night sweats upon recalling the “New Year’s Massacre” of January 1, 2000, when his team crossed the border and got obliterated, 8-1, by the Sabres. I’ll always remember sitting in the auxiliary press location for Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup Final – high in the corner balcony seats – and watching Brett Hull score his infamous toe-in-the-crease goal to win the championship for the Dallas Stars about 100 feet directly below me.

14. T.D. BANKNORTH GARDEN: The Boston Bruins’ home rink, re-named once again, also gets a lower rating here because it’s impossible not to compare it to the old Boston Garden, which stood mere inches from its east façade. In fact, the Garden had to be carefully imploded in order not to bring down the new arena as well. Formerly known as the Shawmut Center and the FleetCenter, this building’s most striking feature is the 17,565 seats, which are predominantly yellow. Like the bright red seats in Carolina, these also stand out quite brilliantly on TV when they are empty. Otherwise, the building is rather tight and cozy in comparison to many of the newer rinks. The press box is overly spacious, and located properly in back of the last row of balcony seats. Like everything else in Boston, you can see the arena from practically all directions, but getting there is another matter. With its maddening network of roundabouts and re-directed streets, navigating Beantown is always a chore. Unlike other NHL cities, I would never rent a car in Boston, for fear of dying of old age before arriving at my destination. It’s much easier and more convenient to stay at one of Logan Airport’s classy hotels, than anywhere in the downtown area. A quick taxi ride through the tunnel beneath Boston Bay takes you to the substratum known as the “Big Dig” and, eventually, up to the exit closest to the arena. My preference is the Logan Airport Hilton, with rooms that have fabulous views of either the airport runways, or the Boston skyline across the Bay.

15. MCI CENTER: The Washington Capitals play their home games in this arena, located adjacent to Chinatown in the D.C. sprawl. It’s a clean, well-appointed building with a large restaurant in the seating area behind one of the goals. Otherwise, it is tediously similar to many of the other modern arenas, with no overwhelming character. It also serves as a bit of an intrusion, as there’s so much else to do in Washington besides attending a hockey game. The Detroit Red Wings won the 1998 Stanley Cup in the MCI Center, and I’ll always remember being on hand when the victorious players wheeled former teammate Vladimir Konstantinov onto the ice after the Cup presentation. Konstantinov had suffered a severe head injury in a car accident a year earlier, but he was able to smile and enjoy the celebration, as captain Steve Yzerman rested the Cup in his lap. There are many fine hotels to stay at in the Washington area, and D.C. has one of the most efficient subway systems in the world. So, getting to the arena from anywhere in the nation’s capital is no problem.