When the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) decided to expand to Barrie in 1995 they chose a scenic city with a prime position for growth and for sport fans. Barrie is located on Kempenfelt Bay, a western arm of Lake Simcoe and just one hour north of Toronto on Highway 400. The city has seen extraordinary growth as the commuter railway, as GO Transit has begun to provide quick rail connections to downtown Toronto. Barrie is still a very distinct entity from Toronto, but the two cities have seen their fortunes become increasingly linked.
Barrie's position just north of Toronto is not convenient for commuters. Anyone who has ever tried driving up the 400 through Barrie on a summer weekend can tell you all about the famous 'Cottage Country traffic' that suddenly appears after work on Fridays between the mid-May Victoria Day weekend and Labour Day in September. Between these dates, thousands travel two or three hours north to Ontario's world-famous Cottage Country. Barrie finds itself situated on the very southern tip of the region, dotted with lakes and covered in forest. North of Barrie lies the Muskoka region and its country clubs, quaint towns, and fine dining. But for great hockey, fans need only go as far as the Mapleview Drive exit in the south end of Barrie where the arena appears right away.
The Barrie Molson Centre was the trailblazer in the renaissance of the Ontario Hockey League, ushering an era of sparkling new arenas across the province. Constructed over only one year and opened for the Barrie Colts' inaugural season in 1995, the arena introduced many of the features now seen throughout the league. The BMC, as it is known, now finds itself in a similar situation to Toronto's Rogers Centre in that it set the standard for amenities but has since been rendered somewhat out-of-date by a slew of newer venues.
In recent years the Colts have seen lots of success. Currently coached by NHL legend, Dale Howerchuk, the team has turned out a number of NHL players but no huge names yet. The fans continue to fill the Barrie Molson Centre; an arena that although no longer state-of-the-art is still a great place to watch some high calibre junior hockey. Also the Colts are bidding to host the 2014 Memorial Cup, hosting the top teams from throughout the Canadian Hockey League and their fans.
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The BMC concessions hit all the arena staples including burgers, hot dogs, poutine, and confections. Pizza Pizza, which is ubiquitous in almost every stadium in Canada, is unique here as pizzas are made right in front of you, instead of delivered to the arena. Pricing is fairly standard with hot dogs going for $4.25 and more flavourful sausages for 50 cents more. Beer options are from Molson and Coors.
In the concourse one can get the usual tea, coffee, or hot chocolate but the standout option is the Colt Coffee Company located in the northwest corner of the concourse near the team store. Here you can get a coffee with a shot of Bailey's Irish Cream for $6.50, something not found elsewhere in the OHL.
The best food at the Barrie Molson Centre is not found in the concourse, though. Horsepower Sports Bar and BBQ Grill is located on the west end of the arena and offers a full sit-down restaurant, an outdoor patio for the nicer months, and two levels of sports bar overlooking the arena. There is also a section of the seating bowl designated for patrons of the restaurant so that diners don't only have to have an early dinner but can also dine during the game. The menu here is broad and has something for everyone including vegetarian options. Still, the meat is the specialty here and ribs are impossibly tender and smoky. Sizzling fajitas can be ordered and six warm wraps accompany the meat, grilled veggies, and a plate of cheese, sauces, and vegetable toppings. The classic hamburger is also on offer but much larger; whopping 10oz patties are available for those who come hungry. New and interesting appetizers include deep fried pickles or deep fried mac and cheese. Pastas, poutine, salads, and interesting beers and wines are all on the menu for reasonable prices. The restaurant is decorated with hundreds of photos and a stable of memorabilia while huge windows provide views of the ice.
The Colts have not been around for that long, but have done an incredible job of honouring their short history. Aside from the numerous photographs and historical displays, there are boards hanging from the rafters highlighting 100-point seasons and top scorers. Unlike some of the larger arenas in London and Ottawa the rafters are not cluttered with any advertising - just two Canadian flags, a few division champion banners (with another East Division champs banner due to be added honouring the 2012-2013 season), a 2000 OHL championship banner, and the adjustable boards mentioned above.
The seating bowl is laid out uniquely. On one end of the rink there are suites located at ice level! One end of the ice has seats reserved for the Horsepower restaurant with the two levels of glass for the restaurant above. Down the length of the ice are taller stands while the ends are about half as tall.
The four-sided scoreboard is fine, with a clear video display. There are ads displayed during game action, but replays are shown frequently. On the east end wall are some advertisement boards with an LCD screen displaying 'Go Colts Go!' The main concern with the BMC is the small capacity relative to other arenas in the OHL, but there is an intimate community feel here that falls somewhere between the old barns of the past and the big new multi-purpose palaces in some cities.
The equestrian theme is used effectively, commemorating the Barrie area's numerous horse breeders and the nearby horse racing track. Players enter the ice at the beginning from under a horse, the mascot is cheekily named Charlie Horse, and play resumes after a goal with the whinnying of a horse.
Horsepower Bar and Grill is great before the game for an early dinner, inside or on the patio during the warmer months. During the game, a pub-like atmosphere is created with the upstairs level acting as a lounge with good ice views.
Located just off the highway in Barrie's southwestern suburbs, the neighbourhood has had an interesting history. Nearby was a Molson brewery that closed and became a marijuana grow-op unknown to the authorities. The police stormed the facility upon getting a tip and found the largest grow-op in the country! The building was demolished afterward.
The area around the Barrie Molson Centre has undergone dramatic improvement in recent years with the Park Place shops being added across the street. Milestones Restaurant is a nice place for an early pre-game dinner if you don't wish to eat at Horsepower. There are a handful of chain and independent restaurants as well as small-format shops and a few big box stores.
Five minutes south on the 400 brings you to Georgian Downs, a horse racing track with slots too. If you can find a day with an afternoon race followed by a Colts hockey game, you have the perfect doubleheader.
Outside of the neighbourhood, the region surrounding Barrie is rich with activities. Just north and west of Barrie you enter a rolling area with a bunch of ski hills and conservation areas where you can hike, canoe, cross-country ski, or snowshoe. South of Barrie, in Cookstown, is the Tanger Outlet Mall.
Downtown Barrie has a large waterfront promenade and lots of parkland. Cafes and restaurants line the waterfront and there are plenty of boat charter options if you want to cruise Lake Simcoe.
As soon as you get north of Barrie you enter Cottage Country. There are dozens of resorts, bed and breakfasts, and cottages for rent. Not much further north along the 400 in Orillia, is Webers BBQ. Stopping for Webers burgers on the way to the cottage is such a popular tradition that Webers purchased an old pedestrian bridge from the CN Tower and placed it over the highway because hordes of people had been running across from a parking lot on the opposite side of the highway just to get a burger! Even though it is a little ways north of town, the aroma can be smelled from way down the highway and roadtrippers should make the effort to head north from the Barrie Molson Centre to enjoy this local tradition.
Heading northwest from Barrie, you can visit Wasaga Beach (don't go during the winter months!) which also has cottages for rent on the shore of Georgian Bay. Of course you could head the other way and be in Toronto in under an hour.
Barrie fans pack the house every night and the BMC rarely has empty seats. The games during the regular season can sometimes be so quiet it is almost freaky. Barrie fans are very polite and friendly, but the barn can seem almost silent at some points during play. There is cheering of goals for a short period but it seems to get very quiet right after and there is very little in the way of chanting or heckling.
During the playoffs things get much more exciting. The fans are excitable and ride the refs hard. Bad calls are harshly criticized and the arena can be rocking during exciting periods of play. If only the fans could carry the atmosphere into the regular season the experience would be much better. Still, the fans always come out, which is impressive considering all the big-league sporting events just a train ride away in Toronto.
Getting to the Barrie Molson Centre is easy, with the arena right off the highway and ample free parking. Barrie Transit operates buses that stop right outside the arena and make connections with the two GO Train stops in town easy. The GO Train Barrie line goes through Toronto's northern suburbs and eventually links you to Toronto's Union Station. This is where the arena gets its points in this category.
If only getting around within the arena was as easy. Cramped concourses during intermissions are the unfortunate norm for OHL arenas these days but the BMC takes the crowding to a new level which is unacceptable considering the small capacity of the bowl. Concourses are narrow and there are pinch points. Laid out in a u-shape, it is impossible to get all the way around the arena without going through the restaurant. Washrooms are pretty small and lineups for certain concessions like the Colt Coffee Co. can be time consuming. Give yourself the entire intermission to get around the arena if you want to get dinner or visit the washroom.
The Colts are middle to perhaps a tad high on the OHL ticket price spectrum. Group rate tickets go for $18 at the low end and at the high end, a seat in the Horsepower section of the bowl is $22. Parking is free, which is a major bonus and food and drink prices are not out of whack either.
-Extra point for the elaborate Remembrance Day Ceremonies put on by the Colts. The bagpipes are played and the poem, "In Flanders Fields" is recited. Near Barrie is Canadian Forces Base Borden and the Colts do a good job of honouring their service.
-Extra point for the Barrie Molson Centre being the first new OHL rink built in a long time and introducing amenities that other teams followed. Most arenas now have full restaurants in them but Horsepower is among the best.
-Extra point for the thorough employment of the horse theme which ties in to Barrie very well, what with the horse farms in the area and the racetrack nearby.
-Extra point for all the incredible amenities, both urban and natural, surrounding the arena.
Although the Barrie Molson Centre doesn't provide a rabid experience in a big new arena, the BMC does its job admirably. It suits the Colts and the community and has played a big role in reshaping the Ontario Hockey League.
Fans visiting a Barrie Colts game get the chance to see junior hockey without the sterility of the big, multi-purpose corporate venues, but also without the lacklustre amenities of an old barn.
The BMC is the perfect middle ground between big and small and it is located between Toronto and Cottage Country. With the potential to host the Memorial Cup in 2014, cottagers heading north might have to stop for some championship action right off the highway because this arena is one of the best places to experience junior hockey in Ontario.
On the doorstep of the Muskokas, and on the banks of Lake Simcoe, sits Barrie, Ontairo. Barrie is located just on the outskirts of Ontario's famed Cottage Country, a short drive north of Toronto. A growing city, Barrie's successful history with Junior B hockey warranted the OHL to grant them an expansion franchise. In 1995, the Barrie Colts moved from a Junior B franchise, to the OHL and Major Junior A Hockey.
When Barrie was granted an OHL franchise, the City of Barrie rushed to put together an arena appropriate for the OHL. Unbelievably, the Barrie Molson Centre was completed in just one calendar year, opening on December 31st, 1995. It was the first new arena that the OHL had seen in a very long time and was the base of what other franchises would look to in future arena construction.
In 2006, the Colts were sold to local entrepreneur Howie Campbell. They have remained moderately successful, missing the playoffs only in 2011 during his tenure as owner. The Colts have never seemed to produce that big-time NHL star, but continue to be a fairly strong draw with a solid on-ice product, and an NHL Legend behind the bench ... Dale Hawerchuck.
The Barrie Molson Centre is a solid place to catch a hockey game. There are a few standout features, like the Horsepower Restaurant, but there are also some negatives such as the small size and quiet fans.
The arena is located off Highway 400 and upon being approached, has the classic arena appearance with brown brick and a large arching ceiling.
The highlight of the arena is the Horsepower Grill which has smooth service and very good ribs. There is also a thoughtful seating section for restaurant patrons going right down to ice level behind one of the nets.
Another interesting feature is that a row of suites is situated at ice level along the side of the arena. While this seems bizarre at first, it actually makes sense because fans in seats cannot see much from the first few rows anyway.
A problem in Barrie is the quiet fans. It has been said online before and it really is true. The arena is almost silent during play. Between whistles there are a number of intersting costumes and noisemakers displayed but during play one feels embarrased to heckle or cheer. I would advise to come in a group and all cheer together so that you can not be the only one in your section making noise.
Aside from this the arena is very nice, however, and makes for a great place to grab dinner and catch OHL hockey with your family or friends.
Bonus point for the hilarious intro video of a young boy in a Colts sweater pumping everyone up by saying "Screw 'em" to the opposing team.
Extra for the stats boards hanging from the roof functioning as a Level of Excellence for Colts players and teams of the past.
The BMC is a great place for a game, the atmosphere is good, but a little quieter than some other arenas, but has been much louder this year. The concessions are what you would expect in a OHL arena with recent additions of Beaver Tails and Jugo Juice.
For seating, there is no bad seat in the arena. The Horsepower Bar and Grill is also a great place to go before or after a game. The Washrooms are also quiet good and I have never seen a lineup on a regular sold out Saturday game.
Extras would include the many giveaways during and after the game along with seeing a team that has only missed the playoffs once in 18 years.
150 Park Place Blvd
Barrie, ON L4N 6N5
555 Bayview Dr
Barrie, ON L4N 8Y2
7485 5th St
Barrie, ON L9S 3S1
1101 Horseshoe Valley Rd
Barrie, ON L4M 4Y8
20 Fairview Rd
Barrie, ON L4N 4P3
81 Hart Dr
Barrie, ON L4N 5N3