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Official Review by Britton Anderson, Stadium Journey Guest Correspondent
Often confused with and satirically attributed to the NHL’s Washington Capitals star defenseman, the John A. Carlson Center (commonly known as the “Carlson Center,” and often abbreviated as “The Carl”) was named after the long standing Fairbanks North Star Mayor. Originally designed and intended as a community and convention center, University of Alaska officials stepped in and sought to adapt its function as a sporting venue, including a full Olympic-sized ice sheet for hockey. Shortly after the facility opened in June of 1990, the UAF Nanooks--now known as the “Alaska Nanooks”--hockey team officially made the 4,595-seat Carlson Center their home venue. After decades of playing at the on-campus Patty Ice Arena, that center was no longer viable as the team’s growing fan base far exceeded its capacity (seating 1,260). The Patty Ice Arena now serves as the team’s practice facility.
The Carlson Center also serves as the primary site for commencement ceremonies for local high schools, as well as the University, and also was the home arena for the now-defunct Fairbanks Grizzlies of the Indoor Football League.
The arena is designed in a horseshoe, with light seating available in the south side of the building, lower reserved seating and mezzanine bleacher seating on the east and west sides of the ice. The north side of the building does not feature any seating, as the arena can be converted to a concert venue with staging set up on the north end.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Typical arena food applies here, but what makes the food stand out is the benefits to the community. During Nanooks' hockey games, area youth programs volunteer to prepare and take orders at the various concession stands around the concourse, and the profits from the sales benefit those programs. Just look for the Fairbanks Ice Breakers shirts to support the teams. In addition, local town favorite spots like The Fudge Pot also provide popular concessions as well. The general favorites are:
* Fudge Pot - Caramel Apples (sliced or whole apples with caramel sauce and choice of assorted toppings are a big favorite) $5
* Carlson Cantina - Nachos Carlson (typical nacho fare, but a good sized portion with quality ingredients--and a lot of them) $8.25
* Philadelphia Ave. - Philly Cheesesteak (the usual meat and cheese accoutrement) $8
Due to NCAA policy, alcohol is restricted from the seating area during NCAA events, but two beer gardens are available: one in the upper concourse on the northwest side, and one on the ice level on the southern end. $5 per glass of domestic, and often a local brewery selection is available for $6 per glass.
Sodas are $3.25 for 24 oz. fountain, or $4 for a 32 oz. fountain. Commemorative cups are also available for $6, and include season-long $1 refills when you return the cup. Bottled sodas are available at the side vendors who typically charge $3.50 per 20 oz. bottle.
The arena is starting to show its age in some areas, but some recent funding has breathed new life into the building in recent years. Some of the lower seating is falling apart, but some of it is brand new. New seamless glass was installed in 2010, but the relationship of the 14' height to the seating area obscures some of the sightlines from the upper rows in the lower sections due to the connectors along the top of the glass.
During rivalry games, the building gets very rowdy, especially with the Alaska Governor's Cup series, which pits the Alaska Nanooks against their primary rival, Alaska-Anchorage.
The Carlson Center sits in the heart of Fairbanks, recessed on the banks of the Chena River neighboring other Fairbanks icons in Pioneer Park (commonly referred to as "Alaskaland"), and the Fairbanks Curling Club. Baseball and Soccer fields also serve the area.
There are a few restaurants in Pizza Hut, Wendy's, Denny's, McDonald's, and Subway as well as a couple of locally owned eateries to choose from within walking distance (depending on cold tolerance). The great part of Fairbanks is that nothing is very far away. A 5 minute drive opens up a breadth of other options, like local favorites Tubby's BBQ and Sports Bar, The Cookie Jar Restaurant, Gambardella's Pasta Bella, Bobby's (Greek), Brewster's Restaurant, and College Town Pizzeria.
While visiting in the area, teams stay at the local hotel The Alpine Lodge (whose restaurant, "Finish Line", is also quite good). The hotel is just down the street from the Fairbanks International Airport and is just a short drive down Airport Way to get to the Carlson Center. The Nanooks also host their booster club luncheon in their banquet facilities at 12PM Friday on game weekends.
Nanooks fans are among the kindest in country. Hospitable and kind are understatements as visiting fans will be welcomed by the locals. Due to the distance and cost of travel, visiting fans are a rarity for out-of-state teams. NHL Hall of Famer Chris Chelios lauded the Fairbanks fans when he visited Fairbanks for the 2011-2012 CCHA Playoffs while his sons played for the Michigan State Spartans.
Often fans need to be reminded not to leave their seats during play. While most adhere to this hockey rule of thumb, the beginnings of the period are often met with verbal reminders over the PA.
The arena's surroundings not only complement the building, but also serves as a convenience for fans to easily get in and get out of the parking lot. Great for those bone-chilling nights when you need to get out quickly. Several diverse routes divide the traffic well, and getting out of the parking lot and back on the road is often a sub-10 minute affair.
But, if you don't have your own vehicle, getting out could get interesting. A few idle taxis will be around up front, but those are often quickly claimed and gone. With the traffic flooding the other direction, getting a taxi will take some time.
For around $17 per ticket for general admission and $25 for reserved, the cost of entry isn't the cheapest in the league. Especially for those with families. While the discount for season tickets is pretty hefty, the up front $250/seat cost is a lot to swallow for some. But the athletic department does a great job putting on a good show. The downtime is mitigated with fun and engaging activities, and lots of free swag is thrown around. And the Nanooks are the premier team in town.
During Nanooks games, your standard accoutrement of split the pot and other raffle tickets are abundant. Chuck-a-pucks are often sold as well, for another chance to win some cash if someone can hit the target. There's nothing outside of the ordinary that's done outside the game, as the highlight is and should be the hockey game. Several renovations have been done to the building to modernize the facility, but nothing is really too flashy.
Up until 2013, the Nanooks had reached some level of national fame when their then-introductory arena video featuring the Nanook mascot flying a jet plane and bombing former CCHA foes went viral. That video got the arena going quite often, and is still featured around the internet occasionally. The video has since been substituted for a highlight montage.
The Nanooks are the Pride of Fairbanks. The team has a long standing history, and the Carlson Center has captivated fans with an abundance of memories and miracles. There are few comparisons to the environment in the Carlson Center when the UAA Seawolves come to town. The game extends far beyond a hockey rivalry, and is among the best to witness in the country. Having been to Denver/Colorado College and BU/BC thus far myself, the Governor's Cup is up there with the best of them, and there's no better place to see it than the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, Alaska.
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