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Official Review by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The Nipissing Lakers are the proverbial babe in the woods. A small university with only 5,000 undergrads, Nipissing University grew up from a college and received their university charter in just 1992. They became members of the CIS and ran a few sparse programs. However, in 2009, the Nipissing Lakers fielded their first major program - a men's hockey team. The timing was perfect, as the city of North Bay was still reeling from their loss of the OHL North Bay Centennials in 2002. The Centennials moved south to the Dow Arena and became the Saginaw Spirit, and a gaping hole was left in the Northern Ontario city. The Lakers were going to attempt to fill that void.
Four years later, and the Lakers are an enormous success, capturing the attention and imagination of the community of North Bay. Their attendance is significantly better than almost all other hockey programs in the OUA (Ontario conference of the CIS), and they have things that other programs only dream of. They are on local TV and local (not university) radio. They receive strong coverage from the local newspaper. Perhaps they were too successful.
In 2012 it was announced that the OHL would be returning to the Gateway to the North. The Brampton Battalion would finish out their lease at the Powerade Centre, and begin the 2013-2014 season in North Bay. The city quickly responded agreeing to some upgrades for the almost 60 year old Memorial Gardens. The community responded, quickly selling the required season tickets.
The mystery now is where this leaves the Lakers. There is no doubt that the Lakers and their success off the ice made this move by the Battalion even possible. Whether or not the fans open their hearts to both OUA and OHL hockey at the same time may be another matter all together. Either way, right now a trip to see the Nipissing Lakers is a good evening of fun.
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 selections at the Memorial Gardens are your typical snack bar type of selections that you would find in any local hockey arena. You are going to find your basic hot dogs, fries, popcorn, pizza, and candy. Soda products are Pepsi.
Concessions range between $1 and $5, so although you won't be blown away, you won't get gauged either.
Built in 1955, the Gardens has been around for a while to say the least. The exterior is not overly pleasing to the eye. Yellow aluminium siding is not beautiful, but is a staple among older arenas.
Once inside, the Gardens has a unique look to it. The exterior walls are large brown bricks, which is unique. The concourses are an eclectic collection of North Bay sports history. To go with the numerous team pictures for the Centennials, and local, minor sports history, there is a wall featuring players who played in the NHL and for the Centennials including Nick Kypreos and Dave McLlwain. There is also a framed Atlanta Thrashers jersey from when North Bay was awarded an NHL preseason game for being named Hockeyville in 2007.
In keeping with the memorial part of the Memorial Gardens, two large framed prints list those who were lost in both World War I and World War II.
The concourses themselves are unique, in that there are really only two of them, each under the grandstand. There are no seats at the ends of the arena, and ice level is open to all to walk around.One end of the arena features the official North Bay Sports Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame is enclosed and beneath the box seats, and features a variety of local sports figures. The opposite end is quite unique. All of the maintenance items are at the other end of the rink, and are only closed in by a giant brown curtain. When the zamboni needs to come out, the curtain is opened and out it comes to do its thing.
The roof over the rink is higher than the roof over the grandstands. All are wooden and painted white. The raised roof in the centre is a bit of a problem as it aids to the terrible acoustics in the Gardens. The sound gets trapped in the higher ceiling, and the PA announcer ends up sounding like Charlie Brown's teacher.
The grandstands feature a combination of single and double wooden seats. The sightlines are decent however, the higher you are, the more you have to deal with the girders that hold up the press box and the higher ceiling. At the end above the brown curtain, the 6 banners won by the Centennials over time are featured, including the 1994 J.Ross Robertson Cup.
There is a large banner advertising a sports printing company and the Lakers, but their very short tenure has not given them much to hang. There are also many banners won by Tier 2 and Junior B teams as well. Finally, there is a banner featuring the number 9 of Bill Barber, who played junior hockey in North Bay, before moving on to the Kitchener Rangers.
Overall, the Gardens is unique and has a strong sense of community, one which is felt in other areas as well.
There is not much around the Memorial Gardens. The local YMCA is on the other side of the parking lot, and Chippewa Street is a fairly urban area, with little retail. There is not much within walking distance. However, the reality is that the winter weather is usually pretty cold, and you wouldn't want to walk anywhere anyway. There are some decent places to eat not too far away. You may want to try Burger World or the Urban Café in downtown North Bay. However, the place the locals rave about is just outside North Bay in Sunridge. There you will find Danny's Justa Pasta and you could find the best pasta you've ever had!
The Nipissing Lakers do not draw your normal CIS hockey crowd. The Lakers usually average around 2,000 fans, which is probably in first or second in Ontario (with Lakehead.) The curious part is that there doesn't seem to be huge support from the students. Lakers hockey has become the thing to do in North Bay. The large crowd is a community crowd, with all different types of community members. The fans are very laid back and relaxed, more like a typical baseball crowd rather than a hockey crowd. The reality is that the Battalion would not have ended up coming to North Bay without the support the community has put behind the Lakers.
Getting to the Memorial Gardens is no problem. It is just a block or two away from Highway 11/17. There is plenty of free parking available for the number of fans that attend Lakers games. There is a bit of a delay getting out of the parking lot after the game, but nothing too major.
Inside, the concourses under the stands are not too wide, but okay for the fan base. Congestion is also alleviated by the ability to travel around the outside of the ice surface. Washroom facilities are not the greatest, but you will get by. All of these items are okay with the 1,500 - 2,000 fans for Nipissing games, but could be serious problems for sold out OHL games in the future.
OUA hockey remains a real bargain. Tickets for the Lakers run $12.50 for adults. The classic arena is a bonus, and is a neat place to see a game. Free parking combined with decent concession prices leaves the consumer with the feeling that they've received their money's worth. A fan base that was a little more excited and made a little more noise would help put the ROI over the top.
An extra mark for the Laker Fanatics; two students who dress up in full Laker gear and paint their faces. They are definitely the first "super-fans" that I've ever seen at university hockey. On a Laker goal they run the perimeter of the ice cheering and making noise.
An extra mark for the surrounding neighbourhood in North Bay. Just one km away from the Memorial Gardens, still well within the urban-scape of the city, I saw 4 deer crossing the street. Definitely something you won't find in the south!
An extra mark for the most unique poster of all; a framed poster commemorating the 1972 visit to the Memorial Gardens by Liberace!
The Nipissing Lakers are definitely a unique experience in CIS hockey. The team, school and community have worked hard and put together a product that is enjoyed by huge numbers of fans, as compared to other programs. There is no doubt that the success of the Lakers at the turnstiles is a direct contributor to the Battalion relocating to North Bay. I hope that once the Battalion reach the Gateway to the North, the Lakers will not be forgotten. It will be an even greater challenge for Nipissing officials to attempt to capture the interest of the student body to help maintain their success.
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1308 Algonquin Ave
North Bay, ON P1B 4Y5
101 Worthington St E
North Bay, ON P1B 1Z8
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