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Official Review by Jim Flannery, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The University of Lethbridge Pronghorns men’s hockey team plays in the Canada West division of Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS). Although the U of L is a relatively small school in a relatively small city, in the 1993-94 season they won their division and then went on to take the national championship.
‘Horns hockey is played at the Nicholas Sheran Ice Centre, part of the Nicholas Sheran Leisure Centre, which is just a few blocks west of the university campus in West Lethbridge. The Centre services the West Lethbridge community and includes a swimming pool along with the rink.
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There is a single concession stand in the lobby of the Ice Centre, to the west of the rink. It's a relatively modest location, providing a handful of typical concession items at pretty reasonable prices. You'll find hot dogs ($2.75), pretzels ($3.25), pop ($2.50) and candy bars ($1.75) but nothing out of the ordinary.
There is an alcohol line as well, offering Canadian and Coors Light ($5.50) as well as Palm Bay spritzers ($5.75).
In an arena that holds less than a thousand people, the Pronghorns typically draw between 100-200 fans, occasionally breaking the 500 mark. At the game I attended, there were 130 people in attendance.
It is really tough to build up any energy in the stands when there are so few people in there. Even a place as cozy as the Nicholas Sheran Ice Centre seems empty when most of the seats are unoccupied.
Nevertheless, this is surprisingly high quality hockey, considering how little attention it gets and that, all by itself, adds significantly to the atmosphere at the rink.
The Pronghorns' championship banners from 1994 are hanging proudly in the middle of the arena and the team logo is painted onto the ice in the centre ice face-off circle. Beyond that, you won't find much in the building to let you know about the team or its history. The walls are largely free of any decoration, aside from advertising on the south side of the rink. As a result, the building seems clean and tidy, but lacks much character.
West Lethbridge is mostly a residential area, with a smattering of commercial buildings, especially to the north end, and the university campus is situated at about the midpoint and overlooking the coulees that separate West Lethbridge from the rest of the city.
The West Village Mall is right next to the Nicholas Sheran Leisure Centre and features several spots where you can grab some food before or after the game. For conventional fare, there's a joint KFC/Taco Bell on the corner. There are also two pubs in the mall: Pop's Taphouse and Backstreet Pub and Pizza. I recommend trying the Jamie Sandwich at the Backstreet; it's a sandwich made of pizza fixin's and is delicious.
If you're willing to take a bit of a drive, there are a number of other dining options to the north along University Dr. My favourite is Mojo's Pub and Grill, which has more of a family friendly atmosphere than Pop's or Backstreet. The burgers there are very good and the sports pub atmosphere is comfortable and pleasant.
Something else I appreciate about the immediate vicinity around the Nicholas Sheran Leisure Centre is the network of walking paths that wind through the neighbourhood and on to the large park across the street from the leisure centre.
Overall, there's probably enough local entertainment to meet the needs of the couple hundred people in attendance at Pronghorns games. But ultimately, if you're looking for the heart of Lethbridge's entertainment scene, you'll be taking a drive down Whoop-Up Dr. to either the downtown core or all the way out to Mayor Magrath Dr. South. While this actually isn't that long a drive in the grand scheme of things, it does mean that you'll be crossing the city to get to other interesting places.
With a relatively small number of people in the stands, you know these fans are dedicated. You've got friends and family of the team, a smattering of U of L sports fans, some alumni and a few people like me who just enjoy seeing sports played at a high level. As a result, this is a group of people who know the sport, know the team, and are engaged and excited by the game. That's all good news.
I'd just like to see more of them.
West Lethbridge is a bit of a drive away from the rest of the city, separated as it is by a deep valley of coulees and the Oldman River, but in a city of about 100,000, nothing is really that far away from anything else. I guess it's all relative.
Parking is free outside the Nicholas Sheran Leisure Centre, but seems to be at a premium; for a game where the arena was filled to less than 20 percent capacity, the parking lot was full to overflowing. This could be university students parking there and walking the couple blocks to campus, but in any event, it was a challenge finding a spot.
There is a bus stop around the corner from the Leisure Centre, on Columbia Blvd. so that's also an option for getting to and from the game.
Once inside, the main lobby has plenty of room for the size of crowd and the hall at the back of the stands also has enough room to allow people to move freely.
Tickets to see the Pronghorns play hockey are $12 for adults, $9 for seniors, $7 for youths, and free for kids under four years of age. University students can get in for $3, which is an awfully good deal.
The overall calibre of hockey at the CIS is surprisingly high, generally considered to be as good or better than Junior A hockey so this is truly a best kept secret. Help fill the stands at a CIS game, for half the price of a Junior A game, and you can count on being entertained.
The U of L has its championship banners hanging in the arena, reminding fans and players alike of the team's proud history.
During the intermissions between periods, there were little tykes playing a quick exhibition game and a fan shooting contest, adding a little extra interest during the moments between game action.
I'm always happy to see recycling bins at a stadium and the Nicholas Sheran Ice Centre does just that. You'll find bottle and can recycling throughout the facility, keeping the world a little cleaner and tidier.
The U of L Pronghorns have struggled for a few seasons-the last time they had a winning record was 2010/2011. But they still work hard and play a fast, exciting brand of hockey. This is definitely worth a visit to discover what everyone else is missing.
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