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Official Review by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
At basically the meeting place of Lake Michigan, Lake Huron and Lake Superior, lies the city of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The pride and joy of the Sault is its OHL team, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.
Being a Northern Ontario team, the Greyhounds have some challenges that other teams don't have. Often hockey parents are not overly enthused with sending their 16 year old sons so far away from home. Possibly the most famous example of this occurred when the parents of Eric Lindros would not send him to the Greyhounds, and eventually he was traded to the Oshawa Generals. Parents now use opportunities in the NCAA to put pressure on OHL teams to send their sons to the teams of their choosing. The Greyhounds have continued to use the same response, as well they should: The Greyhounds were good enough for the greatest player ever - The Great One. The 1977 edition of the Greyhounds featured a skinny kid from Brantford, Ontario who would star for the team, and later go on to be the greatest player ever to pick up a hockey stick, Wayne Gretzky.
The Greyhounds are one of those cornerstone franchises that seem to have been in the league forever. Founded in the OHA in 1972, the Hounds would be a model of how a team could be successful in a Northern Ontario city. They have made 4 appearances in the Memorial Cup, and those trips are represented on their uniforms with the 4 stars. The ultimate prize came for the Hounds in 1993 when they defeated the Peterborough Petes to become Memorial Cup Champions.
Since 2006 the Hounds have called the Essar Centre home. Owned by the City of Sault Ste. Marie, and selling the naming rights to Essar Steel Algoma, the Essar Centre is one of the truly excellent facilities in the OHL. The Essar Centre replaced the Sault Memorial Gardens, and is close to the original spot, with the Memorial Tower still there to this day.
The Hounds are currently owned by a local ownership group led by Dr. George Shunock and Dr. Lou Lukenda, but the Greyhounds name dates back to around the First World War. The Soo hockey team was unnamed, and rather than offer the chance to name the team to the public, Coach George MacNamera requested that the team be named Greyhounds because "a Greyhound is much faster than a wolf." Clearly this was a shot at what would be the Greyhounds chief rival, the Sudbury Wolves.
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".
You will find the concession stands in the four corners of the building. The concessions are what you would expect to find at an OHL rink with a couple of exceptions. Soda products are Pepsi products and Coors Light is the beer that is available. The basics are available at all concession stands including hot dogs, popcorn, pretzels, pizza, fries and onion rings. Some options that are a little different include donuts and stuffed pretzels. Give the Southwest poppers a try. They are pretty good. The prices are average and won't kill the pocketbook.
Being a newer arena, the fear of losing the history of the Sault Gardens is a real concern. The Greyhounds management has done a great job of balancing that new, clean, revenue-generating image of the new building, with some history and unique factors from the old days. Outside, the Memorial Tower, the last piece left over from the Sault Memorial Gardens, is a tip of the cap to Soo hockey history, and gives the Essar Centre a unique feature that other buildings do not have. The exterior of the Essar Centre is very appealing with lots of brick and glass.
Inside the building, the Greyhounds have done a wonderful job with the decor. It is simple, but strong. The arena is bright and inviting, the first departure from an older, darker arena.
The seating bowl at the Essar Centre is a simple one level bowl, with the concourse behind, similar to the Sleeman Centre in Guelph or the RBC Centre in Sarnia. On one side of the arena, the Greyhounds display their 12 banners commemorating division and league championships including their 3 J.Ross Robertson Cup banners as OHL Champions. On the end to the left the Greyhounds display the banners of their 5 retired numbers. These include John Vanbiesbrouck, Adam Foote, Craig Hartsburg, Ron Francis, and the aforementioned Wayne Gretzky. In the centre of these banners is the 1993 Memorial Cup Championship banner as the best team in the entire Canadian Hockey League. All of the banners are new, and although they don't have that historical feel to them, they are all crisp and clean and easy to read.
On the opposite end of the arena, there is some absolutely stunning local art. Above the seating bowl, where the Canadian and American flags hang, is a combination wooden and stained glass mural which displays some of the history of the Sault, and the city's relations with Aboriginal Canadians. This is definitely unique to any arena, and really beautiful.
The game production is not complicated, but it is effective. The Hounds skate out of a giant inflated dog, as do many other teams. The music is a combination of classic organ and modern/classic arena music. The Hounds mascot, Dash, entertains the crowd and captures the attention of the children. The sound system is clear, and the PA announcer is good. During the intermission, the local minor hockey teams play, but at this game, all 26 kids hit the ice at the same time. Definitely an entertaining spectacle.
The Essar Centre is located basically a block from the waterfront, and across Bay Street from the Station Mall. There are a number of options for food or drink before or after the game. It is important to remember that it is very cold in the Sault during the winter months and you don't want to stray too far from your car during an evening game.
Some options in the immediate area include the Bay Front Bistro, and the Breakaway Bar and Grill. There are a ton of hotels that surround the arena as well, which may be your best bet for a place to stay. If you are coming from the other side of town, a stop at North 82 Steakhouse would be a great choice for a place to eat. If you are crossing the bridge into Michigan, then the Antlers Restaurant is a unique place to visit, and a taxidermist's dream come true.
The Greyhounds are routinely in the top 5 in attendance in the OHL. It would be fair to say that they are at the top of the second tier in attendance, behind London, Ottawa, Kitchener, and Windsor, all with much bigger buildings. The Hounds routinely average over 4,000 fans per game, and are one of the cornerstone franchises of the league. The fans in the Sault are not overly loud or boisterous, but they are definitely intense! The focus is always on the game.
The Essar Centre is located between Queen and Bay Streets, not far from the waterfront, and the bridge to Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. It's not hard to get to, but it is not exceedingly close to the Trans-Canada Highway. There is a decent sized parking lot on site, which is free, but fills up quickly. Many local patrons park at the Station Mall for game night, which also avoids parking charges. Inside, the concourses are decent size, and the bathroom facilities are good as well.
Tickets for the Hounds will range between $11 and $17, depending on your age. Combine this with decent concession prices and free parking, and you have a fantastic night's entertainment in the frigid north.
An extra mark for former Greyhounds coach Muzz MacPherson and his place in hockey history. It was Coach MacPherson that convinced a young Wayne Gretzky that two nines were better than one when Wayne could not get his traditional number 9. It was with the Greyhounds, that Gretzky's now iconic number 99 was born.
An extra mark for the Dog-Fight rivalry that the Greyhounds have with the neighbouring Sudbury Wolves. If you have to choose one night to go see the Greyhounds, then look for a date that the Wolves are in town.
An extra mark for the fantastic local art that hangs in the Essar Centre.
If you happen to be in Sault Ste. Marie during the winter months, a trip to see the Greyhounds is an absolute must. A mixture of local flair, history, and a bright new arena are the recipe for this successful hockey franchise. If you have any doubts, remember that the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds were good enough for the Great One ... and they're good enough for you!
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180 Bay St
Sault Ste Marie, ON P6A 6S2
68 Dennis St
Sault Ste Marie, ON P6A 2W9
804 E Portage Ave
Sault Ste Marie, MI 49783
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180 Bay St
Sault Ste Marie, ON P6A 6S2