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Official Review by Afi Ahmadi, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Those looking for an optimal collegiate hockey atmosphere will undoubtedly be pleased when attending a game at the Gutterson Fieldhouse on the campus of the University of Vermont. If you’re lucky enough to secure a ticket, the venue is packed with highly knowledgeable (and boisterous) hockey fans who are attending the (traditionally) marquee sporting event in the state. The more competitive the Catamounts are, the more the students occupy one end of the arena, heckling the opposing team and the officials for three periods before a night (or after an afternoon) out on the town.
That’s not to say “The Gut” doesn’t have its limitations. All seating behind and across from the team benches are traditional bleachers, as is the entirety of the student section behind the goal occupied by the opposing goalie for two periods. The remaining end of the ice had no seats at all until 1991, when the arena was refurbished to add 700 chair-back seats (bringing the total capacity to slightly over 4,000), reserved primarily for season-ticket holders. On a night with a packed house—which is common—the bleacher sections can get pretty cozy. It’s nothing to complain about on a cold Vermont evening.
Another interesting quirk of the Gut is that your approach to your seat varies depending on where you’re sitting. More specifically, if your seat happens to be either where the chair-back seats are located or behind the team benches, you must first walk up stairs to a concourse and then walk back down the arena steps to get to your seat. However, if you’re seated either across from the benches or in the student section, you enter the rink at ice-level, and then must walk up the stairs to your seat. While the distinction may sound trivial, it does create a somewhat odd dynamic: only the sides where you walk down to your seats (one-half of the arena) have seats up against the glass. The other half has a walkway between the glass and the bleachers to allow attendees to access their seats. This is not only quirky, but occasionally results in frustration for those who sit in the front few rows of the bleachers, as their view is frequently obstructed by passersby. The staff at The Gut does an admirable job of preventing such disruption from those attempting to enter the arena by waiting until a stoppage of play, but there’s simply no way to control the traffic (folks walking out to the bathroom, concessions, etc.) in the other direction. Accordingly, unless your seat is off the concourse, you don’t want to be too low.
It has been suggested that the current facility is simply inadequate for a team which competes in perhaps the most competitive conference in college hockey (Hockey East), and that recruiting a student to attend UVM to play hockey is increasingly challenging given the disparity in venue amenities. An actual multi-purpose arena (referred to locally as an event center to promote it as more than a venue for athletic competition) is supposedly in the works, but funding continues to be an issue. Thus, until ground is broken, welcome to The Gut!
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 primary area to obtain an in-between period snack is the main concession stand, visible immediately as you enter the arena's primary entrance. The selection there is about what you'd expect at a college-hockey venue (hot dogs, pizza, assorted snacks and candy; no beer or alcohol). Cost and quality is reasonable but, because most of the traffic funnels in the direction of the concession stand, it's worth leaving your seat 30 seconds early to save 5 minutes at the concession line. There are two other "single-file" concession lines with more limited offerings upstairs on the concourse, so if you'd rather not go downstairs (remember, half the arena is forced up a flight to get to their seats), you can take advantage of those. The line can be frustrating, but moves quickly enough that, as long as everybody is decisive, you can be back in your seat for the drop of the puck.
The 4,000 seats make The Gut an intimate and intimidating place. The floor plan mandates that you'll always be close to the action, and the student section has a couple of fun traditions (particularly during the opening lineup announcements) that immediately get you in the spirit. The Vermont pep-band also sets up in one corner next to the student section, keeping the energy up and breaking out the cowbell whenever necessary. The sound system is so-so (despite a recent upgrade), but the natural sounds of the fans and the acoustics of a fieldhouse structure can get the place really, really loud, which is far more valuable than an expensive speaker system. If the team is playing well, the place is generally raucous. If not, the entertainment value is still more than adequate.
Simply put, Burlington, Vermont is a great college town, with numerous options to grab a tasty bite or microbrew pre or post-game. Gutterson Fieldhouse is located on campus, so you'll need to trek up the hill from downtown Burlington to get from the bar/restaurant to the game. That's a rarity, and most people simply drive. In other words, while the downtown options are generally fantastic, The Gut is not well situated to simply park, eat, and walk to the game.
A favorite of the fans, although not downtown, is The Windjammer restaurant located less than a mile from the facility. The casual steak-and-seafood restaurant also houses a bar upstairs called The Upper Deck Pub, which is the unofficial gathering spot of Catamount fans for televised non-home events. The food selection and quality is fine, and the prices are Burlington-reasonable.
The Church Street Marketplace downtown is quite vibrant and has numerous bars and restaurants. The good places (The Farmhouse [local burgers/gastropub], El Cortijo [Mexican] and Leunig's [Bistro]) get packed quickly, so you'll want to order no later than 5:30 to be done by 6:30 and make the aforementioned trek up the hill. There are dozens of quality options, but make a decision quickly. It isn't far to the fieldhouse, but downtown does get busy that time of night, and if the teams are playing well and a good-size crowd is expected, getting from the restaurant to your seat could conceivably take 45 minutes. If it were more convenient to walk to The Gut, Neighborhood would likely get five stars.
The wait-list to obtain season tickets to Vermont men's hockey games is several years long, as a large percentage of the fan base is made up of very loyal and extremely knowledgeable hockey fans. With hockey being one of the primary sports for Vermont's youth, it is not uncommon to see families cheering right alongside the hard-core fans. The students also come out for hockey games more so than other sports; in part because the product is exciting and the student traditions are fun, but also because hockey generally schedules its games on Friday and Saturday nights around 7:00 p.m., making it the ideal place to jump-start weekend evening activities. It is not uncommon to see students completely fill the three sections designated exclusively for them.
Like anywhere else, a dip in team performance will be accompanied by a dip in attendance, but in general these tickets are in heavy demand, and the folks there can talk hockey for all three periods.
Parking is free, and finding a spot is simple enough, either in a big lot adjacent to The Gut itself or in a remote lot not too far away (just follow the signs) from which the school provides a free shuttle. There is no other form of public transportation.
If there is a drawback to access, it's that the primary road used to access the adjacent lot (if you're coming from the East) requires navigating a heavily-trafficked roundabout which incorporates two traffic lights. In other words, it is not inconceivable that you can start to progress through the roundabout, but sit through four or five cycles of green-amber-red before making your way through. As with most venues, leave ample time when driving to the game. Typically, 75%-80% of the fans are in their seats when the puck drops.
If you're not a regular and sitting in a general admission seat, you'll likely need to ask an attendant where the bathrooms are. The fieldhouse is far from a true arena, so such matters aren't adequately signed.
Men's hockey reserved seats are $20, and general admission tickets are $15 (and discounted further for children). A "reserved" seat is not necessarily a chair-back, as many of the bleachers spots are set aside as reserved seats. Overall, on a per-game basis, it's a reasonable price to pay for top-level Division 1 hockey. Because hockey can sometimes play up to 25 home contests in a season, a single season-ticket package could run close to $500, so a pair could price some locals out of the market. Nonetheless, there are sufficient diehards that demand will, for the foreseeable future, exceed supply. Suspicion is that prices will rise if a new, more modern facility is built. Whether the Vermont consumer has the appetite to pay more for better amenities is somewhat unknown at this point, but that's a bridge most people would enjoy having to cross.
Student tickets are free, but require a pick-up several days before the event. Logistically, this may lead to fewer students in attendance. However, for those on the ball, the value is tremendous.
Vermonters have a reputation of being "nice folks," and that perception is generally upheld at UVM hockey games. The staff is courteous and accessible, and fans are primarily regulars, so each game is really a social event layered with a sporting event.
There are in-between period promotions, food giveaways, and a mascot who can skate. So, on the whole, UVM does try to put on a good show for the fans. The real draw, of course, is the team, which as recently as 2009 made to college hockey's Frozen Four. Continued success, in a no-frills facility that is rather outdated in comparison with those at rival institutions, is a credit to the coaching staffs and recruiters, who regularly draw in student-athletes that make the Burlington community overwhelmingly proud.
**Photo attributed to Kentoarashi.
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