As NHL hockey spirals down the drain in Atlanta for the second time, it gets significantly tougher for anyone who gives a darn about the ice here in the metro area. Thankfully, for now the Thrashers' imminent migration has no implications for their ECHL affiliate, the Gwinnett Gladiators - who put on a pretty good show themselves.
Part of their solid product is undoubtedly their rink, housed on the campus of the larger event complex called Gwinnett Center. Here one finds a performing arts center and a convention floor among other venues, but of interest to the sports fan is the appropriately-named Arena.
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The Arena is only about 10 years old, meaning the refreshment amenities were conceived of recently enough that trends like Moe's and microbrews have had their influence, and that's nothing but a plus. Better yet is that a burrito is only about $7 and a Yuengling can be had for the same; overpriced for sure, but not the racket we're accustomed to seeing.
And for those who don't want their experience sullied by these new-fangled concessions, there's still the Georgia Grill (burgers, chicken sandwiches, fries) and the straightforward pizza and hot dog stands. No single item tops $8, and as an added bonus, there's a fair-sized and comfortable area with standing tables at the center of every 'food court.'
Between the prices, variety and dining room, this is darn impressive.
Perhaps this is just unavoidable when it comes Southern U.S. hockey, but hockey concepts like getting loud for power plays and reacting positively to good passing, goaltending and skating - really, anything but goals and fights - feels forced. Then again, there could be no response at all to the on-ice action, so this will have to suffice.
More on this below in the Fans section, but there is a heavy, heavy focus on families at the Arena. This is not necessarily either a bad or good thing, and it certainly makes sense, considering Gwinnett has been one of the fastest-growing suburban areas for years, boasting decent schools and plenty of housing all over the market.
However, it does mean the rowdier bunch (i.e., those who might like to get loud and a touch inebriated) are really not accepted. Just something to keep in mind.
As stated, this is mostly residential area and the light commercial that comes with "" there is no bar scene, and at this point not many bars in walking distance at all. Though an effort has clearly been made on both the franchise's and local businesses' parts to make the surroundings a bit more conducive to a "night on the town," this is still suburbia.
With the closing of The Loafing Leprechaun (a personal favorite pub), the best option by far is the Arena Tavern, which actually is just across the street. Of course, that street is the fairly heavily-trafficked Satellite Boulevard, but one could supposedly brave it on foot.
Beyond that, there's Marlow's Tavern a couple blocks further north and plenty of other sit-down and fast food eateries all over - a Frontera Mexican chain location, a Carraba's Italian Grill, and a Chick-fil-A to name a very few - but also a lot of houses. Folks are raising their kids in this county; expect no concrete jungle.
The reader has gathered by now that the average turnout for a game is around 65 percent families with children, many with elementary school-age tykes. Whether or not this is a drawback is for each individual to decide, but then again, as singles and couples are in the minority, the environment is not likely to change.
A few facts to mention that may or may not influence one's opinion: A decided majority of these families seem to be united in their fandom, as a unit of four frequently means four maroon Glads jerseys and at least one foam finger. Also, kids are frequently put to good use, i.e., banging on the opponent's penalty box as soon as a player enters.
It almost goes without saying that promos and giveaways increase both in frequency and juvenile nature with this crowd, but at least there's still humor in this for all. For example, there might be a "Star Wars: The Clone Wars" backdrop that children flock to for picture posing, but at the same event, everyone enjoys the first-ever ceremonial puck drop by a robot, courtesy of R2-D2.
Getting lost is tough to do when all a driver must do is take the exit off I-85 and go through one light. Weekend contests are exceptionally easy to get to, as interstate traffic should be at a minimum.
Parking is tolerable; for a crowded game, a second lot may open, but in general, everyone finds a spot on the right-hand side after the entrance. Yes, there is only one convenient entrance/exit, but this might be the only concern.
That is, unless a commuter is coming back out of town at rush hour Monday through Friday. The stretch of 85 from Atlanta all the way to Sugarloaf is without exception a nightmare from six o'clock to seven, which is right when one would be traveling north to the Arena.
At least after a long drive the inside is cozy and inviting. Hallways are mostly carpeted, lighting is warm but not drowsy, and most every facility is clean and in good repair. Not your average venue in that regard.
For glass seats, it's $30 in advance (and $31 on game day). This is tremendous and well worth it; don't think for a second that because these guys play in the minors that they aren't skating as fast and hitting as hard as NHLers.
There are several stages beyond that as well, up to Mezzanine, which is just $10. How worth it that is depends on how important the sport is to the visitor; casual hockey fans probably don't want to drop even low double-digits on upper-level ECHL tickets.
In the middle, there's premium ($17) which would work for a date if the significant other loves and understands the sport. And of course, there's always the food and a possible Wookie sighting (if you go on Star Wars night as I did) to spice things up if the on-ice action isn't of particular interest.
A point here for how well the marketing team embraced first Russell Crowe's movie and since many other pop-culture trends for in-game entertainment. The lack of a central hanging jumbotron (screens are at the top of either end zone) kind of hurts the delivery, but production values are still stellar.
Another point for the effort put forth to partner with local businesses and institutions. Not a game goes by that an elementary school student group isn't welcomed, nor are there nights when a neighborhood restaurant, grocery store or service provider doesn't show their support for the team.
This is community hockey, through and through.
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