The last time you were in Southwest Florida (if, of course, you have ever been), you were probably enjoying the sugary-white sand of Captiva Island, the laid-back lifestyle of Fort Myers and Cape Coral, or you were captivated by the money that has settled in Naples and Marco Island. You were probably down on a winter vacation far from the ice and snow that covers your hometown in a blanket of permafrost from December to March, and rightfully so. But, did you know that, in seemingly-isolated playground designed to cure the winter blues, you're able to watch professional hockey?
Immediately adjacent to the other "Main Street" of Florida, Interstate 75, and halfway between Fort Myers and Naples, is the community of Estero and its Germain Arena. Built in 1998, this has been the only home the ECHL's Florida Everblades have known, as well as a host of concerts, community events, comedy shows, extreme sports, and more. Its proximity to both Naples and Fort Myers (as well as the large nearby communities of Cape Coral and Lehigh Acres) has made it the de facto top-tier arena of Southwest Florida, and honestly, it's not a bad place to take that title.
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For such a small venue (more on-par size-wise with the FAU Arena than my last hockey arena review, the St. Pete Times Forum whose main tenant, the Tampa Bay Lightning, are coincidentally affiliated with the Everblades), there are a lot of eclectic choices: on-top of the typical choices, take your pick of Cuban, Italian, and a low-carb center for those trying to watch their weight called the Key West Deli. All the places gave an ample, if not an overabundance, of choices with prices that are average for a "major" arena. While you're not getting Mama's massive meatballs or Abuela's famous arroz con pollo dishes, they're good enough to leave you feeling full and content.
There's no upper deck, nor space for one to be built easily. This may seem like a disadvantage, but that makes for a better experience by forcing all the fans to sit together; besides, the tickets fans at the Amway Center pay ten times more for, are standard here.
The in-game announcer kept everyone excited, even when the 'Blades went down 2-0 in the first, and were blanked 5-0 by the Wheeling Nailers, the sound throughout the Arena was excellent. The video board is an old colored dot-matrix that was outdated, but considering the venue's size, it's not as major of a flaw like the Jax Arena's ancient board.
Here's something I haven't said in a review prior, and it affords this arena a bonus point: not that any arena I've reviewed before is not family-friendly, but they go out-of-the-way to make it a great atmosphere for kids and adults alike. With kid-themed giveaways and intermission games, not only can you feel fine bringing the kids, it's definitely encouraged.
There's really not one of which to speak. You have Florida Gulf Coast University just to the north, the Miromar Outlets shopping center to the immediate south, I-75 next to the parking lot, and golf courses and woods surrounding. Yeah, there are chain bars and restaurants in walking distance, but nothing you can't find anywhere else, so not really a positive. The good news is this dearth of entertainment options makes for easy ingress/egress; more on that in a moment.
Being the spring training home of the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins, I saw those jerseys in the 2/3-full crowd, but I also saw Bruins, Wild, and the affiliated Lightning and Hurricanes sweaters, as well as plenty of 'Blades apparel to go around. For being a tropical mecca for thousands of tourists from the north every year, hockey, it seems, thrives just nicely thanks to these people looking for a great time and to spread their knowledge to the not-so-versed.
Not only is the signage extremely clear on I-75, but you actually can't miss it from the interstate. Though there is no direct access from the freeway, simply get off the exit you're told and you're directed down a two-laned, cut-through-the-woods boulevard, only to turn west and go even more into the woods. For a pretty-packed house, there was no traffic getting in or out. Parking is plentiful and priced right for $5. The bathrooms are plentiful, clean, and well-maintained.
The lone point off resides with the concourse. It's super-wide, easily navigable, and well-signed. However, they commit a huge pet peeve of mine in not having it wrap around the building. I get that there's probably not a need since there's no upper-deck, but the seating is 360Ëš around the building, so why isn't the concourse? They may have their reasons, but it's still inconvenient to walk in the direction you think you're supposed to go, only to come to a wall and have to turn around.
The tickets are cheap for seats other hockey metros would kill for, and the quality of play on the ice is usually exciting. The 'Blades, in their 13th season, haven't missed the ECHL playoffs in any season, with this one (2011) being no exception. And while it's minor league hockey, you may see one of those players someday playing in Tampa's Forum or Raleigh's RBC Center. It makes the price of admission worth it when you can say five years down-the-road, "I saw him before he was popular."
There may not be much offsite you can't do anywhere else, but the Arena offers a few special places you should check out, like the Breakaway Sports Pub, a popular bar and restaurant attached to the northeast part of the Arena, and the Big Cypress Club, a full-service restaurant for large groups.
One thing that's very unique, however, is the amount of suites available in this small venue. Above the last row of seats are the suites, and when I say "seats", I mean every last-row seat in the house has a suite (26 in all) above it, wrapping around the entire building. Plus, one of those suites is available to the public every game, so if you have a group of 10, pool your money and have a great night of hockey.
Plus, if that isn't enough, they make sure they include giveaways in every section they can. From free food to gift certificates to local businesses, you're more likely to walk out with something than not. How cool is that?
Other than visiting the now-demolished home of the Adirondack Phantoms, Philadelphia's Spectrum, for numerous games, I never had a close appreciation of minor league hockey. It was something I did when the Flyers were out-of-town, and it was fun, but nothing that made me want to follow the AHL religiously. That's probably why it didn't work in Philly.
On the flip-side, Southwest Florida may not be the premier hockey destination, but they're not trying to be; that lack of expectation is what makes hockey at the Germain Arena better than one would imagine. The fact you can enjoy good hockey without having to drive 120 miles to the parent club in Tampa, as well as have a great time all-around, makes this a fun time for the locals and tourists alike. You may be trying to escape the winter's grip, but a little ice and cold in Estero will make your evening a fun one.
The highlight of Germain Arena is the variety of concessions available. Atmosphere could have been better considering I was there on a Friday night. Easy access from I-75 although during the holidays traffic can be heavy because 2 major shopping centers are nearby. Also don't understand why the concourse doesn't go all the way around.
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