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Official Review by Sean MacDonald, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
In 1969, the downtown arena in Medicine Hat burned to the ground. The citizens of this small Alberta city banded together and built the new Medicine Hat Arena with the capacity necessary to house a junior hockey team. In October 1970, the arena opened as home to the Medicine Hat Tigers and that relationship continues over 40 years later.
Despite several renovations, including new plastic seats, a new scoreboard, and a new entrance, the venue retains its original structure which makes The Arena a unique destination and one of the best venues in Canada to watch junior hockey.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Concessions are available along the inner concourses on both sides of the rink. Each concession stand is given a name which is clearly visible on the beams that support the seating bowl. There wasn't much unusual fare here; I tried the Snake Bites, which are very spicy chicken nuggets ($5.50) and they were a nice change from the usual. There was also Taco in a Bag which sounded intriguing. Meanwhile, the Dog Stop has a wide variety of dogs and smokies that would make Milwaukee proud. There are also combo meals and kid combos that were reasonably priced.
The food choices were identical on both sides of the rink except for an ice cream stand on the south side, while the Red Line booth sells Bloody Caesar's on the north.
There's also a lower lobby in the two corners nearest the main entrance where the same items can be found. One corner also features the Dayzoff Pub where you can sit with a beer during the intermission.
Medicine Hat has a storied history and they are rightly proud of their many championships, including two Memorial Cups. There are several banners celebrating every division, conference, and league title, as well as a single retired number, Lanny McDonald's #8. These touches really create an atmosphere of history throughout the building, helped along by photos of each Tigers team over the years as well as historical photos from the early 1900s. Do take the time to explore the concourses and the trophies at the main entrance; you will see many players who went on to fame and fortune in the NHL. For hockey fans, it is always fun to look back at the names that recall our childhood, such as Tom Lysiak and Don Murdoch.
This is an old-time rink much like the ones from my youth and it is great to find a place that is essentially unchanged for 40 years. Sure there have been some additions, but there are no bells and whistles here, the game and the team are all that matters. Children here don’t need to be entertained by anything other than hockey and that is the way it should be.
The rink is located in a small enclave on the South Saskatchewan River, just east of downtown. There is nothing around here and even the downtown area is rather quiet. I was visiting on a Sunday though, so it might be different on a weeknight, but it seems like much of the action in Medicine Hat goes on in the outskirts.
The river is quite scenic though and if you get there early and it is still daytime, you can walk along for a little bit and enjoy the natural beauty.
The fans are serious and pay attention to the game. This leaves the arena relatively quiet while the play is going on, but when the Tigers score, the place becomes raucous. In the game I attended, Emerson Etem scored his 50th goal in his 50th game and the crowd exploded, giving him a long, loud, standing ovation the likes of which I have not heard at this level. It gave me shivers and really made the evening memorable.
Another key for me is that the fans don’t get up and down during the action and they wait for a stoppage before returning to their seat. Courteous, knowledgeable, and enjoying the game; these fans serve as an example for those who erroneously feel like being a fan equates with being obnoxious.
There is just a single road that accesses the free parking lot directly in front of the arena. Despite the limited access, cars clear out pretty quickly after the game as people are polite and let other vehicles in front of them in an orderly fashion.
The seating plan illustrates the unique layout of the venue, with full sections along the boards but a small walkway that separates lower and upper sections at either end. There is a concourse above the seating bowl that allows you to walk around and many fans stand here throughout the game as it provides good views of the whole rink.
Despite being constructed at a time when ease of access was not considered important, the arena is simple to navigate with stairwells to the upper concourse at each corner of the building that lead to the upper concourse. There were never any problems with the crowd size or getting around, even during the intermissions.
Tickets at the box office are $18.50 for any seat in the building. The rink is compact so there is not a bad seat inside, and even the top concourse is a popular spot for standing.
The top row of each section is separated by a support beam, which might be slightly annoying but you can easily lean forward to see the whole ice. I found a perfect single seat next to one of these beams, on the aisle, which gave me a bit of leeway to take pictures without annoying the people around me.
The fans and atmosphere here are excellent and with the team performing well, it would be hard to find a better place to spend your money in Medicine Hat.
You might notice that the team benches are on opposite sides of the rink, something that is rarely seen these days and slightly alters the flow of the game when line changes are made.
You will also notice posters of several "franchise greats" scattered around the rink, such as Trevor Linden, one-time captain of the Vancouver Canucks, and Chris Osgood, Stanley Cup winning goaltender for the Detroit Red Wings.
Mentioned previously are the old pictures depicting the history of hockey in Medicine Hat, not just the Tigers, but going all the way back to the early 1900s. Take the time to look at all the photos, you will be surprised to see very young versions of stars such as Barry Melrose and his mullet, now a famous ESPN hockey analyst who got his coaching start here leading the Tigers to the Memorial Cup in 1987-88.
The program is just a dollar and comes with detailed game notes as well as a lucky number that might net you a prize during the evening.
Overall, Medicine Hat Arena is simply a great place to enjoy junior hockey. The barn is old, but has been maintained very well and there are many unique touches that make this one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had on the road.
**Sean MacDonald has been all over the world visiting stadiums. Follow his journeys at Sports Road Trips.
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