In 2011, former NHL player Dale Hunter took on the rather large task as the head coach of the Washington Capitals and star enigma Alexander Ovechkin. Less than one calendar year later, Hunter announced he was leaving the Capitals to return to his brother Mark and their ownership and operation of the London Knights of the OHL. Dale returned to his position as head coach, sending Mark back to the office and his full-time General Manager position. The idea of an NHL coach heading back to junior hockey was a head-scratcher for many hockey pundits. However, in the London Knights, the Hunters have the perfect situation. One of the top franchises in the entire Canadian Hockey League; a beautiful building; strong community and fan support.
The Hunters have built a franchise that is in the top 10 in all of Canada in regards to attendance and performance on the ice. Before the Hunters, the Knights were one of the worst. They even amassed the worst ever record with only three wins in 1995-1996. The Knights have pulled a full 180 degree turn, amassing a record 59 wins in 2004-2005, an OHL record. From a travel perspective, the Knights are also one of the premier destinations in Ontario as well. Budweiser Gardens is one of the nicest areas in the entire league, and the on-ice consistency of the Knights makes for the distinct possibility of a great game.
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 selection at Budweiser Gardens is very strong. All of the expected items are available for sale at pretty good prices (pizza $4.50; popcorn $4; hot dog $4.50; soda $3.75; and beer $6.25). There are some other items available including fresh lemonade and cotton candy.
Little Red Rooster Coffee is also prevalent in Budweiser Gardens. The soda products that are available are Pepsi products, and there are a number of different beers available. Both Budweiser and Bud Light are understandably available. There are also a few other beers including Alexander Keith's and Rolling Rock. If you are a bit nostalgic, then you may choose to go with the Labatt's Blue, a nod to the former name of Budweiser Gardens, The John Labatt Centre. The Budweiser King Club is available on the main floor for patrons who want a more sit down, traditional bar experience.
Budweiser Gardens is the nicest of the newer arenas in all of the OHL. When construction began before opening in 2002, the city of London was saddled with the task of keeping the original facade of the building at the corner of Dundas and Talbot. They did a fantastic job of meshing the arena with the downtown ambiance. The King Street side of the building, which features the main entrance, has a more modern look to it, with lots of glass to allow in natural light.
Inside, the Gardens is like many other large arenas. It has upper and lower deck seating and concourses. Budweiser Gardens has the second largest capacity in the OHL, behind only the Ottawa 67's.
Inside the seating bowl, you will find fantastic sightlines from pretty much any seat. The upper deck in the west end features a club section, and there are luxury boxes between the upper and lower decks.
The scoreboard is state of the art and crystal clear. There is a ribbon scoreboard a full 360 degrees around the arena as well.
The Knights history is well documented within the arena, with numerous banners celebrating their three J.Ross Robertson Cups as OHL Champions and 2005 Memorial Cup Championship. They also have other banners celebrating the best regular season records of various years and their 29-0-2 unbeaten streak, which was a CHL record. There is no shortage of banners celebrating great Knights players of the past including Rob Ramage, Dino Ciccarelli, Darryl Sittler, Brendan Shanahan, Brad Marsh, Corey Perry and Rick Nash as well as trainer Don Brankly and broadcaster Pete James.
Budweiser Gardens is located in the heart of downtown London, where there are a ton of dining options available. There are a variety of options that are on both the higher and lower end of the dining scale. Some options that you may consider are the Fox and Fiddle, The Works, J.Dee's Market Grill or even Milos' Craft Beer Emporium.
Just on the other side of the Thames River Bridge is Labatt Memorial Park, which may have some sort of baseball still happening in the first month of the OHL season. Finally, on the other side of Talbot Street, you will find Covent Garden Market, which has a number of merchants and restaurants.
The Knights are consistently at the top end of the OHL in terms of attendance. It is one thing to have the second largest building in the league, and it is another to make sure that you are filling it consistently. Since the Hunters took over the Knights, they have enjoyed a decade of success that the franchise had not previously seen. With Ottawa moving out to Canadian Tire Centre temporarily, the door has been left open for the Knights to take over top spot in the OHL attendance race. In the 2013-14 season, averaging over 9,000 fans per game, they are almost 2,000 fans above the next best team. The fans that are in attendance are knowledgeable and polite, but are also typical Ontario fans who are pretty quiet. They require a bit too much prodding and encouragement to show some life.
Budweiser Gardens is located between Dundas and King Streets at the corner of Talbot Street. This is the heart of downtown London. It is a pretty fair distance from Highway 401, which runs east-west across southern Ontario. If you are heading in from the highway, make sure that you give yourself enough time to make it downtown.
Conversely, after the game, getting out of downtown London can take some time as well. There is parking around downtown, but you will pay for it, which in the world junior hockey, is not a plus.
Inside, the concourses on the main floor are a pretty good size and travel is pretty good. However, the upper deck concourses are quite small and get congested easily. The washrooms are also pretty small and lineups are common during intermissions and peak times.
OHL hockey is a fantastic value for the dollar. You get what some say is the most exciting brand of hockey available for a pretty good price. Tickets can be had for under $20 a piece, which is on the higher side for the league, but not over the top. Concession prices are also much cheaper than "major league" facilities. The Knights drop off just a bit with their downtown location, and having to pay for parking in mostly private lots or garages.
An extra mark for the unprecedented success that the Knights have enjoyed since moving into the John Labatt Centre, renamed Budweiser Gardens. The Hunters' ownership has been a model for the entire Canadian Hockey League.
An extra mark for the Timbits mini-game during intermission which showcased some local youth hockey teams.
An extra mark for the human slingshot promotion during intermission.
An extra mark for London hosting the 2014 Memorial Cup Tournament.
The London Knights have become the model franchise in all of the OHL over the last decade. Under the ownership and direction of Dale and Mark Hunter, the Knights have turned their fortunes around from having the worst season in Canadian Hockey League history to putting up some of the best seasons in the league. There is no reason to believe that the Knights will fall off of their current pace and it is expected that they will continue to enjoy success both on and off of the ice.
During the 1995-1996 season, the London Knights hit as low as humanly possible. They amassed a 3-60-3 record, which was the worst in Ontario Hockey League and Canadian Hockey League history. The franchise had hit rock bottom. They were playing in an old arena, and it was falling apart. The owners had stopped putting money into it. They had possibly the worst logo ever, nicknamed the "Spiderknight." The Knightmare had reached its apex.
Enter former NHL players Dale and Mark Hunter. The brothers had finished their long NHL careers and were looking for a new challenge. They bought the fledgling, yet promising OHL franchise in 2000, and were linked to a deal with the City of London for a brand-spanking-new downtown arena.
Ten short years later the Hunters had completely changed the London Knights. Taking over the operations of the team themselves (Dale acts as President and Head Coach, and Mark acts as Vice-President and General Manager), they had done a complete 180 degree turn. The Knights have moved into an arena that is the envy of most of the league, set the CHL record for longest unbeaten streak (31 games), had four consecutive years as the top regular-season team in the OHL, and won a Memorial Cup in 2005, defeating some guy named Sidney Crosby.
The Knights' history dates back to the 1950's, but it was in 1965 that the London Nationals joined what would become the OHL. In 1968 they were sold and renamed the team the Knights following a contest to the team. Since then the Knights have changed hands a few times and had moderate successes and failures, but their fortunes really turned when they moved into the John Labatt Centre.
Named after Labatt Brewery founder John Labatt, who started up the brewery in London, the JLC is now at the heart of downtown London. It is owned by a public-private partnership known as the London Civic Centre Corporation and run by Philadelphia management company Global Spectrum. It is the JLC that has helped catapult the Knights into the upper-echelon of the OHL, and made the Knights the Hunters' Pride.
Going to a Knights game is like going to an OHL game in a full NHL arena. Amenities are NHL-level, it has a big game feel, and downtown London is a great setting, especially when the market across the street has the outdoor rink in front. But NHL crowds have changed from blue collar, passionate to quiet and corporate. London feels NHL in that regard too. Southern Ontario is known for quiet fans, but London is quiet even by local standards. I've actually sat in the back row of this 9,000 seat arena and heard conversation on the ice. It's not just the fans but the sound tiles that surround the arena at the top and front of the upper level. Acoustics for concerts are good, but I'm not sure it would be physically possible to make the arena loud.
Concessions are in a class of their own in the OHL. In most arenas, it's not possible to make a meal at the game, unless you like a lot of hot dogs and popcorn. At the JLC, you can grab a burger, chicken or beef nachos, some BBQ, you name it. It's arena pricing of course, but the selection is greatly appreciated.
The facade of the one-time hotel has been preserved, and the exterior of the arena is as nice as you'll find anywhere. That's deserving of an extra point. Washroom facilities are nowhere near sufficient, long lines are the norm. That's deserving of one less point. The setting in downtown London is deserving of an extra point, as is the outdoor rink across the street in winter. Another point for having a big-time event feel for a roughly $20 ticket.
Overall, you'll find a full house in a beautiful rink. The atmosphere is very sedate though, and sometimes feels more theatre than sports when it comes to the game environment.
Absolutely gorgeous entryway and concourses. Plenty of room to walk through the arena with clean restrooms that had zero waiting time. The team store was very well done and the seating was superb. The only bad thing about the JLC is that they don't serve Labatt beer!! Other than that, this arena is the gem of the OHL.
113 Dundas St
London, ON N6A 1E8
119 Dundas St
London, ON N6A 3G6
117 King St
London, ON N6A 1C6
109 King St
London, ON N6A 1C3
355 Wellington St
London, ON N6A 3N7
420 Talbot St
London, ON N6A 2S2
109 King St
London, ON N6A 1C3
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