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Official Review by Chris Patton, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Junior hockey is definitely not new to the fans of Springfield, Illinois. In an era where smaller sports franchises come and go, the Springfield Jr. Blues have played in the North American Hockey League (NAHL) for two decades, making them the league’s oldest team.
The NAHL is a Tier II Junior A league, the only such league in the United States. The league is made up of players between the ages of 16 and 20. The Jr. Blues are in the North Division and won back-to-back Robertson Cups in 1996-97.
The 2,100-seat Nelson Center is a multi-purpose facility that not only hosts the Jr. Blues, but also the Robert Morris University-Springfield hockey team. The building has two NHL regulation-sized ice surfaces, which are also used for public skating, figure skating clubs and youth hockey teams.
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".
For a facility that is owned and operated by the Springfield Park District, the Nelson Center offers a wide variety of food and drink. Concessions are handled by the Quaker Steak and Lube restaurant. The biggest seller appears to be the nachos deluxe that comes in what looks like a large popcorn bucket for $7. Cheeseburgers ($6 for a single and $7 for a double), hot dogs ($3) and pork sandwiches ($6) round out the main entree fare. Chips and cheese ($5), popcorn ($3) and pretzels ($2) are also available.
The alcohol selection is impressive. There is something for most tastes and it all is reasonably priced for a sporting event. Coors Light and Boulevard Wheat are available on tap for $3, while a Blue Moon draft runs for $4. The most popular choice is $3 10-ounce aluminum bottles, with Coors, Coors Light, Miller Lite, and Stag for offer. For $4, 12-ounce bottles of Molson Canadian, Corona, Redd's Apple Ale, and Mike's Hard Lemonade are sold for those looking to venture out from domestic beers.
There is only one food stand and one drink stand and they are both located between the two sets of metal bleachers on the east side of the rink. This is the main entry point to the seating area, so the concourse gets crowded, but the concession lines move quickly.
The best way to describe the atmosphere at the Nelson Center is solid, but unspectacular. There are four sections of general admission seats, with two sections on the east side and two on the west side of the arena. Metal bleachers are on the east side right when you enter, with the wooden bleachers across the way on the west side. Each section is usually about 2/3 full.
There is room to stand and watch the action behind the goalies at each end of the ice. At the south end of the ice, there are stickers on the boards reserving these spots for season ticket holders. At the north end, where the Jr. Blues attack twice, there are no such stickers.
The atmosphere is enhanced by the team's mascot, Gilly, a skating blue gill. Gilly is assisted by Gilly's Girls, young ladies who help the mascot pass out freebies to the loudest fans.
The Nelson Center is located in Springfield's Lincoln Park, a city park. There aren't any bars, restaurants or other hot spots within walking distance to hit before or after a game. The park is lovely on a summer day, but the novelty is lost during hockey season with most puck drops at 7:05 PM.
The building isn't far from the Illinois State Fairgrounds. While there aren't any options right next to the Nelson Center, there are some dining and drinking options closer to the fairgrounds. I stopped in at Fulgenzi's Pizza and Pasta mostly due to their sign advertising "The World's Greatest Hamburgers." My double burger, onion rings and soft drink ran me just over $10 and while it was very, very good, it might not have been the "world's greatest." The restaurant does have a limited beer and wine selection, along with video gaming.
Keep heading east towards Interstate 55 from the fairgrounds complex and you'll run into some local and national chains as well.
The crowd appears to be a nice mix of Jr. Blues diehards who love having a team to call their own and families looking for a night out. There are plenty of people following along and paying attention, but there are are just as many chatting and not looking at the ice for more than a minute at a time.
Along with a surprising number of Jr. Blues jerseys, you can expect to see a lot of people in St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks apparel. The recent success of the two teams (the two-time Stanley Cup champions more so) has been noticed by the capital city of Illinois.
Parking at the Nelson Center is free and there are multiple lots outside the building. Cars can also park on the street that goes through the park. Pay attention though, because there are sections where the road is one-way.
The main restrooms in the lobby leading to the arena seem to handle the crowd without any problem.
General admission seats are $8. Add in $5 for a soft pretzel and a microbrew draft beer, and you have a pretty good bargain for a sporting event at any level.
I recommend reviewing the team's website before heading to a game and checking out their ticketing partners. You can save $4 off an adult ticket and $3 off a youth ticket (12 and under) by purchasing your ticket beforehand at either a grocery store or YMCA location. $12 seems like a lot for a general admission ticket, but the price is right with $8 when you seek out the discount.
I'm awarding one point for the between period entertainment. After the first period, local pee wee hockey teams hit the ice. Before the third period, the heavily promoted "chuck-a-puck" contest was held. Fans could purchase rubber pucks and on command, throw them towards center ice to see who could gets the closest.
I'm giving another extra point for the team partnering with a local labor union to hand out free seat cushions to everybody who wanted to use one. I thought the fans might be asked to give them back after the game, because it seems like a big promotion for a junior hockey team. But, to my surprise, I now have a free steel workers seat cushion.
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