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Official Review by Greg Johnston, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Harbour Station opened in 1993 to be the home of the Saint John Flames, formerly the Utica Devils. The American Hockey League (AHL) franchise, and Calgary Flames affiliate, lasted ten seasons in Saint John until the eventual demise of every AHL franchise in Atlantic Canada. The team had a successful run reaching the Calder Cup finals twice, winning in 2001. The franchise moved to Omaha in 2003 and is now the Stockton Heat.
As AHL teams in Atlantic Canada departed, the QMJHL moved in to fill the void. Harbour Station made renovations in anticipation of a major junior team by renovating the seating bowl and adding 13 luxury suites. In 2005, the Sea Dogs began play as an expansion franchise. After some “growing pains” in the first few years, the franchise has had as long of a dynasty that can be expected in junior hockey. The Sea Dogs went to three straight Presidents Cup finals from 2010 to 2012, winning two of them, and added the Memorial Cup to their trophy case as the best junior hockey team in 2011. Notable players that have played in Saint John include: Martin St. Louis, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, and Jonathan Huberdeau.
A visit to Saint John is recommended for those who enjoy watching junior hockey players strive to accomplish their dream of becoming a professional. Though there is room for improvement, several factors make attending a game at Harbour Station a fun overall experience for hockey fans and families.
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".
Harbour Station offers a basic array of concession options. If you are in the mood for coffee and donuts, get to the arena early. As soon as doors open until well into the third period, there is a long line at the Tim Horton's stand. All other concession stands have fairly short lines but serve the same unimaginative assortment of stadium food. Popcorn, French fries, nachos, pretzels, pizza, hot dogs, and hamburgers are all offered at decent prices. Combos can be purchased for a lower overall price. Vegetarians have no significant protein options. Moosehead Breweries control the beer taps. Alpine Lager is heavily advertised around the rink and through in-game promotions.
Recommendation: Eat a meal before heading into the stadium, and then enjoy a popcorn and beverage at the rink.
From the outside, Harbour Station is aesthetically simple with a mix of brick and stucco facades. Topography of the area and the surrounding highways isolate the arena from being integrated with the downtown core. The area becomes a bit eerie after the sun goes down. Inside, the seating area is small and intimate, with every seat close to the action. The arena has two levels of seating, 11 rows in the lower bowl, and 12 rows in the upper bowl. Patrons in the highest row could easily hear the referee announce a call without a microphone. Most seats have the usual leg room problem for tall people, but they come equipped with cup holders. The upper bowl is laid out in a horseshoe style with executive suites filling the void at one end of the rink. A small club level is located above the upper bowl on one side. There you can get a variety of food and drink with a lounge area.
Overall, the game experience is fun and comfortable. Fans were handed free clappers as they entered the arena to help cheer on the Sea Dogs. "Fleaburn," the team mascot, entertains the crowd on the concourse. The public address (PA) announcer speaks in both English and French. The music during a break in the game is at an appropriate volume and is a good mix of music types. The hanging scoreboard is pretty simple and only shows shots-on-goal for stats. The picture is at a comfortable size and clear.
Seat Recommendation: First three rows of the second deck have padded seats and a great view of the game. Be sure to grab a seat in the middle of the section. The end seats have an obstruction due to a safety railing from the stair aisle.
Saint John has a rich history to explore, including the architecture. In 1877, a fire tragically destroyed much of the city. The community rebuilt Saint John using masonry as the main building material. Many of these ornate brick buildings still stand today. The city market is also a sight to see. It has a historic setting on a sloped floor that follows the general topography of the land. For bars and restaurants, head toward the west end of town to the Market Square. You will find a variety of dining options in historic buildings with a lot of character. Each of these establishments offers large patios, if it's warm enough. Try the Saint John Ale House, 32 beers are on tap, many of which are from local brewers. And try any dish with the hand-cut fries. Grannan's is a popular seafood restaurant that is also located in Market Square.
Take a day and check out the history of the city. Almost all of the historic areas are within a few blocks of Harbour Station. For an overnight stay, the Hilton is a five-minute walk away from the arena. For a more affordable option, stay at a near by bed and breakfast, or stay at the Howard Johnson located a short 10-15 minute walk away.
Attendance at Harbour Station is around 55% capacity for early season games. This sounds low, but consider the arena can fit 9% of the total population of Saint John. The Sea Dogs have been ranked in the top 6 in QMJHL attendance every year since they began play.
Sea Dog fans are fairly subdued, unless a goal is scored. But they have a positive vibe, are respectful to the referees and the other team, and have an impressive hockey IQ. Fans recognize a great shift or effort with a supportive standing ovation. The Sea Dogs attract many families to the games with the great atmosphere. Ushers are good at asking patrons to wait for a stop in play before proceeding to their seats.
Getting to the arena is confusing by car, even though the building is right next to the expressway. Parking is only $3 at Harbour Station but only 500 spots are available. With the arena located so close to downtown, many fans choose to park downtown and walk via the indoor pedway. The pedway connects the arena with two parking areas at Brunswick Square and Market Square. Consider this option in the winter months; the walk is only 5-10 minutes each way.
Locating the only entrance into the building is pretty easy. On the south side of the building there is a glass atrium and a concrete feature that resembles a large framed gate. The box office is located within the atrium. If you have time, head upstairs where you will find the New Brunswick athletic Hall of Fame. The galleries include plaques with sketches of the inducted members.
Once inside, finding your seat is fairly straightforward. The arena has one concourse level with access to both the lower and upper seating bowls. Accessible seating is offered all around the rink at the concourse level. The concourse is narrow, which makes maneuvering through the crowds at intermission difficult. Crowd control methods are non-existent as concession lines naturally develop perpendicular to the flow of moving people. The majority of the concourse lacks a good place for patrons to stand and stretch their legs, this adds to the intermission congestion. The stairs descending from the upper bowl further reduces the width of the concourse. Watch your head, the stairs create a safety issue by having no barrier to prevent you from walking underneath. Washrooms are located throughout the concourse. Lines are not noticeably long during intermissions.
Ticket prices for the Sea Dogs are reasonable for seeing the highest level of junior hockey. The prices range from $16-$18.50. Discounts are available for seniors, students, youth, and group tickets. The experience you will get from the staff, fellow fans, and the product on the ice is beyond worth the price of admission.
+1 for the video booth replaying opponent goals. Game operators realize these fans are not only Sea Dog fans, but also hockey fans that enjoy seeing big plays, even if the opponent makes it.
+1 for the ushering staff. Ushers can make or break a patron's experience. This staff is friendly, approachable, and go out of their way to help.
+1 for the "Column of Fame." The concrete columns on the concourse provide a unique opportunity to showcase past Sea Dog stars.
If you are planning a visit to Saint John, come in October. Hockey season is starting, the weather is pleasant, and the drive is beautiful with the leaves changing color.
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