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Official Review by Sean MacDonald, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
In 1982, WHL founder "Wild Bill" Hunter tried to buy the St. Louis Blues and move them to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He found commitments for 18,000 season tickets, but the NHL blocked the move and the Blues remain in St. Louis to this day. There was one positive development from his efforts though, as the city built a new hockey arena not quite large enough to host the NHL on a regular basis, but more than enough to handle many other world-class events. Opened in 1988 and called Saskatchewan Place, it has since seen two World Junior Hockey Championships, three Briers (Canada’s men’s curling championship), the WWF, and a number of other big sporting events, including some NHL pre-season games. In 2004, a group of Saskatchewan credit unions bought the naming rights and the venue was given its current moniker. In 2008-09, the facility underwent renovations in advance of the 2010 World Junior Hockey Championship, resulting in a seating capacity over 15,000, making it one of the largest venues in the WHL, although much of the seating bowl is closed off for these games.
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".
Food options are quite limited, with nothing out of the ordinary here. There is a restaurant called the Backstage Lounge which offers burgers, ribs, and chicken strips that might be worth trying, but it is a bit more costly than the fare available on the concourse. I just had BBQ chicken bun which was decent and cost $6.50. As usual in western rinks, poutine is also available and might be worth trying if you have yet to experience this unique Canadian culinary treat.
Even though much of the seating bowl is closed, the venue is still too big for the junior hockey crowds that show up and the atmosphere suffers as a result. Compared to the other rinks in the WHL, fans are spread out here and it can be tough to get into the game, even when the contest is exciting.
The construction of the facility was controversial due to its location in an industrial park at the north end of the city, just off highway 16. There are a few shops around here and some fast-food restaurants, but you'd be better off finding something downtown, which is a few kilometers south. Walking around here is also not an option, as anything you might be interested in will be far away from the rink. Drive in, drive out, and look elsewhere for dining or drinking options.
If you are looking for something to eat before the game, try Alexander's which is 10 kilometers (about 15 minutes) away, located across the street from the University of Saskatchewan campus at 414 Cumberland Avenue.
The Blades are the only original WHL franchise to have played continuously in the same city since the league formed in 1966 yet they have not a single championship to show for it. The fans are still very loyal and show up in numbers to support their team.
However, when one of their players notched a hat trick, not a single fan threw his hat on the ice, so I'm docking a point for that. The player was so upset he scored again 30 seconds later and only then did a couple of chapeaus find their way to the ice.
Access is limited to a few roads that lead to a large parking lot with free entrance; exiting after the game is very simple as well as you can reach the highway in just a couple of minutes.
The single concourse is obviously more spacious than necessary given that the attendance is about a third of capacity so there is no issue making your way around the facility.
As mentioned, several upper level sections are blocked by curtains and the others have yellow tape to limit access to the upper rows, which allows the rink to maintain some semblance of an atmosphere.
There are two ticket types: club seats in the upper rows of the lower bowl where you can order food ($24.75); and the rest ($19.75). Be careful sitting low down next to the benches as the players stand up to watch and block your view when the play is in the other end.
The scoreboard is four-sided with a video board that plays live action and replays, but doesn't include shots on goal, which are displayed on smaller counters above the lower seating bowl. There are two ribbon boards on either end of the rink as well that displayed upcoming events.
Junior hockey is one of the best sports in terms of value for the money and Saskatoon is no different. The club seats are really unnecessary though and take up some of the best seats in the venue. Fortunately, there are no ushers checking tickets, so I was able to sit there without trouble, but would prefer that the club offer a single ticket price for the entire venue.
One of the streets is named Bill Hunter Avenue. As well, hockey great Gordie Howe grew up here and is honored with a street name and a statue outside the front entrance.
Along the concourse you will find a couple of banks of TVs that are tuned to different channels which allows you to catch up on other games during the intermissions.
There is a trophy case that displays all of the Blades' club trophies as well as the WHL Eastern Conference trophy, won by Saskatoon last year and therefore still on display until the end of the current season.
There are several retired numbers, including Wendel Clark's #22 and a few championship banners in the rafters which add to the history here.
It is hard to believe that this facility is nearly 25 years old as it has been very well-maintained and is sparkling clean throughout the entire venue. It could easily house a pro team, although probably not the NHL at this point. There is enough here to satisfy any hockey fan.
The only problem is that it is somewhat oversized for the crowds that show up. I think this place would be great when it is full, so you might want to consider the 2013 Memorial Cup to make a visit.
Read about all of Special Correspondent Sean MacDonald's journeys at Sports Road Trips.
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