As a Canadian living in Austria for nine years now, there is one thing that I really miss about home and that is live hockey. I recently moved to Salzburg, home of the EC Salzburg Red Bulls and one of Europe’s top hockey organizations. So needless to say, I was very stoked to write a review on their arena and catch a good old hockey game. I was a little skeptical about what to expect as a Canadian watching hockey in Europe, but I was not disappointed.
The Red Bull Eisarena was built in 1960 and has gone through some changes since. In the early 1990’s it went from an open ice rink with a roof to a closed ice rink with windows. The hockey club was purchased by Red Bull in 2000 but it wasn’t until 2004 that things started to happen. Red Bull decided to completely take over the club, restructuring the infrastructure and the arena. 3,200 modern seats, a jumbotron and a gym were added while the home dressing room was pimped like Xzibit paid a visit. The arena got another facelift in 2007 when Red Bull added the VIP section. A place where the upper-ups of Salzburg can mingle while they try to figure what the heck is going on with these bearded Neanderthals with sticks skating around below them. The club has produced 4 national titles since the take over of Red Bull.
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".
Let's face it, the majority of us like a good beer or five when watching sports whether it be the comfort of your couch or at the event itself. For this reason alone I would give an event at any Austrian arena or stadium 10 stars our of 5. However I need to consider the whole selection when assigning a rating to the food and beverage category. With that said, approximately 3000 of the 3200 fans at the Salzburg Eisarena only have a small selection to choose from. There are three small concessions inside that offer frankfurters, a couple of chocolate bars and some assortments of chips and pretzels and the local Stiegl beer. Personally, that about covers what I need, however for those that skipped dinner after working late and have the growlies, you best be brown-bagging it (if you can get it past security). Actually if you want a little more selection there is another snack shack outside that offers bosna (bratwurst with curry powder), my personal favorite fast food in Austria.
Prices are pretty standard for eating at any snack stand at any event in Salzburg, and by standard I mean ridiculously expensive. I paid €3.80 for my bosna which only kept my 6'6" frame fueled through the first period.
Lines are relatively quick if you go to one of the concession stands inside (since about two-thirds of the Austrian population smoke) meaning they were freezing their tails off at the outside concession stand while us non-smokers spread out quite nicely among the 6 lines provided by the three stands inside.
Approaching the arena from the southeast on a clear night you can see the Hohensalzburg Castle off in the distance behind the arena, which under the moonlight is a spectacular sight.
As you draw closer to the front of the building, you can catch a scent of the bosnas' on the grill and can hear a blend of voices and music coming from what is the Austrian version of a tailgate party. Instead of tailgates, there is a concession stand, fan shop and a handful of outdoor bar tables and beer umbrellas. Off to the left of the fan shop is a Red Bull fan bus, which has a big flat screen TV on top showing off the latest Red Bull sponsored random extreme sports. My personal favorites are Crushed Ice and the Red Bull version of footloose where some crazy athletic guy is basically dancing on and jumping off of everything he possibly can while throwing in some unbelievable gymnastic moves that would gain the respect of Mary Lou Retton.
Upon entering the front doors to the arena, there is a ticket booth where you can buy or pick up reserved tickets. If you shelled out the €100 for VIP tickets you need to approach the window on the right side of the ticket booth where there just happens to be the live version of Ken and Barbie serving you with their perfect smiles. Super friendly, super good looking people to make the VIP feel even more important as they slap your VIP bracelet on your wrist with a wink. The security check is pretty seamless if you aren't carrying a bag. I waltzed through without so much as a pat down or a line up. If your ticket is for the lower bowl you need to pass security at the left of the ticket booth. If you are seated in the upper bowl, you pass security on the far right when entering through the front doors.
After security for the lower bowl, you are immediately presented with a view of the ice right at ice level and can catch a little of the warm up action as both teams fire rubber off their respective keepers. The lower bowl is actually only half a bowl, with seats only on the east side of the arena behind the penalty boxes. The west side of the lower bowl is strictly for the benches and entrance to the dressing rooms. The great thing about the lower bowl is that you can choose to sit in your seat, stand at the glass, or fight for a spot on the small stands at the west corners of the rink next to the players benches that boost you just high enough to catch a great up close view of the action. Probably the coolest thing about the lower bowl is the platform located at the southeast corner of the rink where the "Wheelers" fan club sit in their wheel chairs and watch the game. They even have a logo that is fashioned using a combination of the Detroit Red Wings logo and a wheelchair wheel.
The upper bowl is positioned at the north and west side of the arena. The upper bowl is where the action is. This is where you can find the more hardcore supporters of the EC Red Bull Salzburg called the ECS Fanatics located in the southwest section. The most interesting and obvious feature of the upper bowl is the cage around the sectioned off seats for the away team fans that is located at the north end of the upper bowl. After investigating, it turns out that after an incident a few years back, owners were ordered by law to create this barricade for the protection of the visiting fans. A dramatic effect to the arena I might add.
The VIP section is the absolute best part. Lounge chairs, bar, buffet and endless beer on tap. Located at the south end upper bowl, with a private entrance at the back of the building, €100 Euros is a pretty good deal as it includes the entry, dinner and free beer. The media / players lounge in the northeast corner is another potential premium location and is where I spent the majority of my game (thanks for the free tickets Guido!) and where a mix of scratched players, family and media enjoyed a buffet and free beer. About half way through the game former Canuck goaltending sensation Alex Auld decided to watch his new team take home the 4-3 win in front of about 2,500 fans. Auld is currently restricted from playing as the team is over their point total for their roster, a point system that allots 60 points per team, which is used when acquiring players that "cost" various amounts of points.
The concourse is quite wide with plenty of room for people to stand at ice level to watch from the glass while still providing plenty of room for traffic flow. A very nice added feature is the spit and beer guard provided as a cover for the lower bowl fans that are exiting under the visiting fans section.
My recommendation for seating would be to sit high up in the lower bowl and alternate between your seats and the ice level each period. However you can sit pretty much anywhere and have a good view of the ice unless perhaps you are in the first row of the lower bowl, which is a bit obstructed by the penalty boxes.
After the warm up and the Zamboni cleaning, the opening light show prior to the introduction of the home team is pretty darn cool. Instead of your standard strobe lights and spotlights, there is a big-time light show on the ice surface that has a variety of effects ranging from the ice cracking like it was out of an Ice Age movie to highlights of games and celebrating moments. The players are then called out of the tunnel one at a time under dimmed lights as the spotlight leads them from the shadows. During the game regulars anticipate a familiar song that is often played as an interlude leading to a close up of a couple in the crowd with a heart superimposed around them, encouraging them to kiss for the onlookers.
In the first intermission there was the standard kids game and during the second intermission they pulled out a giant slingshot and proceeded to sling fans on a sled across the ice through giant bowling pins. Another very cool thing was the awarding of a Nintendo DS to a young fan in the stands. All of this impressed me and made me feel like I was at home and for the most part was what I would expect from any professional sports event...except for one thing: no mascot. Everybody loves a mascot. Whether he is shooting free shirts with a potato gun into the crowd or walking through the crowd himself, everybody loves a mascot.
The décor is a little lacking. What is the number one thing you can expect to see at a stadium of a professional team with any kind of tradition as far as decoration is concerned? Championship banners and retired numbers right? Not at this arena. This was a huge surprise for me especially considering the success of the team since the sponsorship of Red Bull, you would think they would have banners of all over showing off their achievements.
The arena is only a 15 minute walk from the Salzburg city center where there are plenty of options for sightseeing, dining out and an endless amount of bars along both sides of the river. The immediate area happens to be one of the best spots around. Steinlechners pub has the best traditional Austrian food in Salzburg and is an ideal place for pre or post game food and a little clubbing/ socializing after the game. Attached to the arena is the Two Seasons pub which is the EC Red Bulls official hangout where you can catch the NHL on ESPN and eat Salzburg's best burgers.
As many of you already know, Europeans like to chant familiar soccer songs during games and whistle when angry with the ref. Canadians like to ring cow bells and swear or boo at the ref (sometimes even wait for him by his car after the game). However when it comes to passion for your team, whether you are European or Canadian, both can act a little crazy after a couple of beers in support of their team. Luckily on this night everything was pretty tame.
The local fan club (ironically called the "Fanatics") which occupy a certain section of every home game just like in Canada, continually stood and beat their drums during the game and often broke out into songs, many of which are heard at North American sporting events today. Many fans are seen walking around wearing NHL jerseys and caps. I even saw someone wearing a Gretzky jersey, which definitely helped in gaining my respect for the Austrian fan.
There were, however, a few subtle differences that I picked up.
1) After a very good shift by the home team that involved a ton of puck control and pressure in the Vienna end without a goal, there was not so much as a single person cheer as they skated off at the end of their shift.
2) More of a social thing than a night out for a good hockey game. After observing the crowd for three periods, I noticed a glaring difference; many of the fans are there to socialize and meet friends rather than to watch hockey.
3) Not many kids. Kind of a sub point to #2; the general fan at the game was an adult. A good mix of both male and female, but mostly adult. Of course there were kids, just not nearly as many as you would see at a hockey game in Canada. For some of you, this may be a good thing!
Getting to the arena from anywhere in Salzburg by bus is as easy as saying yes to an Augustina beer at the local brewery, a must do while in Salzburg. Getting to the arena by car and finding parking is as difficult as saying the infamous German word "Oachkatzlschwoaf". Not from Salzburg? Then don't drive. Simple as that. Take the #7 bus from Hanuschplatz downtown (#6, #10 go there as well) and get off at "Volksgarten" and you can't miss it. The arena is located right on the river where there is a paved bike path that stretches the entire length of Salzburg, providing easy access to those on two wheels or who have the energy to hoof it from wherever they are.
Tickets range from €12.50 - €18.50, from standing only to premium seats. For kids it is €10 - €14.50. I find these prices to be a little too expensive for what I expect in a hockey game as a Canadian. I am a typical Canadian hockey fan who loves the rough side of the game as much as the skill side. The EC Red Bull Salzburg team showed good skill and created some nice plays, but there was not enough physical action for my personal liking. If there was a little more entertainment and some extras to the event, then I would be happy to pay that price regularly. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
As far as extras are concerned, I really have to jack this one up to the fact that Salzburg is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and the city center is only a hop skip and a jump down the road. There are so many things to do and see in Salzburg that make going to a hockey game like a nice little taste of home before you head back out to do the tourist thing.
The average Canadian at a European hockey game will probably feel the same way I do. They will enjoy the game but will feel something is missing.
Growing up in Vernon, British Columbia, I caught my fair share of junior hockey games watching the Vipers (formerly Lakers) play in the BCHL. For those of you unfamiliar with junior hockey in Canada, just imagine 17-21 year-old young men jacked up on Red Bull competing not only for a position on the team, but for a shot at a scholarship or pro contract in either the AHL or NHL. Now imagine all of this testosterone within a small ice surface that in comparison to European ice surfaces is kind of like a pack of Rottweilers in a one room dog kennel.
With that being said, the likelihood of any European based hockey team living up to my expectations as a viewer is pretty slim. The EC Red Bull Salzburg game vs. the first place Vienna Capitals on Jan. 20th came about as close as any European game could, especially considering it was not a playoff game. I would have killed to see a bone crushing hit or a good scrap but it is evident that that is not part of the game over here.
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