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Official Review by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
By Dave Cottenie with Jordan Scorgie
There is no Ontario University that is more isolated than Lakehead University. Located in Thunder Bay, Ontario, on the northwest shore of Lake Superior, Lakehead is 700 km by land from the closest competitor in Ontario University Athletics (OUA), the Ontario conference in U-Sports. It is a wonder that a university so isolated from its competition is able to field athletic teams, however, the Lakehead Thunderwolves are a force to be reckoned with, especially in hockey.
The Lakehead hockey program dates back to 1964 with a tumultuous existence most of the time playing schools from Manitoba. The team, known as the Norwesters would fold in 1985. The Thunderwolves were established in 2001 and have a fairly unique structure. The hockey team is not run by the university itself, but is part of a partnership between Lakehead University and the Lakehead Thunderwolves Varsity Hockey Corporation, a nonprofit organization. There are a few other situations like this in U-Sports, namely Laval Rouge et Or, Regina Rams and Carleton Ravens football. The organization of the Thunderwolves offers a unique relationship between the university and private sector. It can’t be lost that this situation is further advanced by the status of Lakehead Thunderwolves hockey as the premier sporting event in Thunder Bay.
Lakehead is a small university with approximately 7,800 students in Thunder Bay, a city of approximately 108,000. The Thunderwolves enjoy the premier attention of Thunder Bay as there is little to no local competition for the sporting dollar. Major junior hockey and minor league hockey have no real presence in Thunder Bay and the Thunderwolves enjoy not only the attention of Thunder Bay residents, but the attention of the Thunder Bay media as well, something many other U-Sports programs would kill for. With consistently the strongest attendance figures in the OUA, the Thunderwolves’ hard work was rewarded with the 2006 Queen’s Cup as OUA champions.
Home for the Thunderwolves is Fort William Gardens. A local arena with a capacity of 4,680, the Gardens is large for OUA hockey, but also serves as the main arena for all of Thunder Bay. Built in 1951, the city owned Gardens have undergone a number of facelifts over the years and did an excellent job hosting the University Cup to crown the Canadian National Champions in 2009 and 2010. A trip to see the Thunderwolves when in Thunder Bay is THE thing to do and provides a unique experience in Canadian university sports.
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".
The food options at the Fort William Gardens are better than you would expect for OUA hockey, but are not over the top compared to other professional or junior hockey venues. Standard concession options include hot dogs ($3.7 5), popcorn ($3.50), chips, candy and chocolate bars. All concessions come in under the $5 mark. As far as soft drink options go, Pepsi products are available in either bottle ($2.75) or fountain ($2.50) form. Unlike many OUA hockey venues, alcoholic beverages are available at the Gardens. The Outpost, the Lakehead student bar, has a presence in the Gardens and offers Molson Canadian, Coors Light, Budweiser or Thunder Bay's own Sleeping Giant beer ($3/$4). The concessions at Fort William Gardens would normally warrant a lower score, however the opportunity to find a local craft beer at an OUA venue is very unique and bumps the score up a smidge.
Being the only game in town, the Fort William Gardens is a great place to watch hockey with a nod to the historic. The exterior of the Gardens is unique in and of itself. Definitely showing its age, the Gardens features red, white and green siding covering what is definitely a barn-like structure. The main entrance can be found on Miles Street.
Upon entry, fans are immediately greeted by a seat from Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, which sets the tone for the feel of the arena. The concourses are covered in blue and white, and it is clear that the main tenant is Lakehead. Team pictures can be found in the concourses and give the arena a bit more life. Inside the seating bowl fans will notice the simple score clock hanging above centre-ice. Nothing fancy, but it does the trick. Also hanging above the arena fans will notice a banner honouring the 2002-2003 Division Championship, in only their second year back as well as a banner honouring the 2006 Queen's Cup Championship team.
The ice surface is oriented from north to south and the seating bowl is an eclectic mix of the old and new. The seats have all been upgraded over the years to standard, plastic arena seats that are comfortable. The more modern amenities continue with a press box and alumni box, another unique feature for OUA hockey. The modern standards are contrasted with the classic architecture with barn-like, triangular wooden ceiling with wood beams which have all been painted a classic, Northern Ontario white. The feeling of hockey history and community cannot be missed upon entering the Gardens.
The game day production is about what you would expect from a team in this league. The expected promotions can be found throughout the game, including chuck-a-puck, and Wolfy, the Lakehead mascot, has a presence both on and off of the ice.
Fort William Gardens is located a solid five kilometers south of the Lakehead University campus. There are a couple of pre and postgame spots to find something to eat or drink near the Fort William Gardens. Just across Miles Street fans will find Excuria, a decent spot to grab a drink. The cocktails are known across the city of Thunder Bay. Another option fans may want to consider is Man vs. Meat, which is a block south of the Gardens on Victoria Ave. The best burgers and sandwiches in town can be found here.
Thunder Bay is generally viewed as an outdoor recreational community and golf, skiing, fishing and snowmobiling are all popular at various times during the year. Fort William Historical Park and Mount McKay are destinations fans may consider. As far as other sporting options go, the best idea is probably to head to the Lakehead University campus to catch some Thunderwolves basketball at the C.J. Sanders Fieldhouse.
Fans who are looking to stay in Thunder Bay will want to try the Valhalla Inn. It is Northwest Ontario's largest hotel and is a 10 minute drive to the arena and close to the airport. The Holiday Inn may also be a consideration.
There are no fans in OUA hockey quite like Lakehead fans. Lakehead does enjoy being the only game in town and are rewarded with the most ardent and true fans in all of U-Sports hockey. Lakehead has consistently lead the OUA in attendance, most of the time hovering around the 3,000 fan mark. In a conference where the strong majority of programs measure the number of fans per game in the hundreds rather than thousands, Lakehead is head and shoulders above the rest. It is a point of pride for the Thunderwolves and their fans that they top the league in attendance as it is plastered all over various articles and promotional materials on the Thunderwolves website.
Lakehead fans are a microcosm of the people of Thunder Bay. Lakehead fans are tough. They are tough on the players, coaches and referees, while showing any visitor that they are a long, long way from home. Lakehead fans are loud, proud and intelligent and give the home team a home ice advantage unlike any other in U-Sports hockey.
Fort William Gardens is located south of the Lakehead campus, not far from the waterfront. It is a fair distance east of Highway 61 and southeast of the Trans-Canada Highway. Getting to the Gardens can be challenging as travelers will have to traverse through Thunder Bay to a fairly residential area.
Parking for Lakehead games can be very difficult. Although the arena lot is free, it is totally inadequate for the number of fans in attendance. Parking on local streets or other surface lots force fans to search hard for spots to park their cars.
Public transit is available in front of the Gardens. Buses run every fifteen minutes and may be the way to go to get to the Thunderwolves game. Check out the Thunder Bay City Transit website for fares, maps and schedules. The main ticketing windows are large and lines move quickly. Seats are reserved, which is also unique for the conference.
Getting around the arena is no problem at all. Concourses are surprisingly wide considering the age of the facility. Washroom facilities are adequate to handle the crowds that the Gardens see.
OUA hockey continues to provide a top notch return on investment. Thunderwolves tickets go for $13 and students and children are $8. This may be on the expensive side for OUA hockey, but it is not that far out of line from other programs. Concession prices are what is to be expected and parking, if you can find it, will be free. Combine that with the opportunity to take in high quality hockey in a community that loves university hockey like no other, and at a historic venue and fans will not be disappointed with the Lakehead Thunderwolves. This is a true Northern Ontario hockey experience.
An extra mark for the unique university and private sector partnership that has brought the Thunderwolves to life and helped them rise to one of the premier hockey programs in the country.
An extra mark for the Terry Fox Memorial and Lookout. On the outskirts of Thunder Bay, Canadian icon Terry Fox was forced to end his 1980 Marathon of Hope where he had run across Canada to raise money for cancer research. Terry ran on an amputated leg and completed 5,373 kilometres in 143 days. He was forced to end his run as cancer had returned to his body and would eventually take his life. The Marathon of Hope continues to this day and Canadians have raised over $600 million, eclipsing the $1.7 million Fox earned in his initial trek.
An extra mark for the most unique Lakehead statistic. In their final season in the Great Plains Conference, the Lakehead Norwesters made it to the playoffs with an 0-24 record. Brandon University was suspended for making illegal payments to athletes paving the way for Lakehead's entry.
If there is a bucket list item in Canadian university athletics, a trip to Thunder Bay to take in the Lakehead Thunderwolves might just be it. A totally unique experience, visiting fans will get a full Northern Ontario experience in the best university hockey atmosphere in the country. Sure the Thunderwolves benefit from being the only game in town, but it can't be a coincidence that other leagues are a little shy to attempt to take up residence at the Fort William Gardens and compete with the Thunderwolves.
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