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Official Review by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Among junior hockey fans, one of the great tragedies of the OHL has been the North Bay Centennials. Plagued by the loss of their legendary coach, Bert Templeton, losing seasons, and stingy ownership, the Centennials were sold to a group of American investors and moved out of Ontario's Gateway to the North. After more than a quarter century of junior hockey, North Bay could do nothing but watch its team play the next 20 years in Saginaw, Michigan as the Spirit.
Over time, as other junior hockey franchises suffered financially, the rumors began. The OHL needed to return to North Bay. When Eugene Melnyk owned two OHL teams for a period of time and was looking for a buyer for the IceDogs, North Bay seemed a natural fit. However, St. Catharines would be the benefactor of the return of junior hockey.
Quietly waiting in the wings was Brampton Battalion owner Scott Abbott. The co-inventor of the Trivial Pursuit board game had owned the Battalion since their inception, and gradually saw the eroding of his franchise in what many consider the suburbs of Toronto. Waiting for his lease to run out in Brampton, Abbott quickly negotiated a deal with the city to bring OHL hockey back to North Bay. Immediately the junior hockey world was abuzz with the return of hockey to what many consider to be a more traditional market, correcting the errors that were made when the OHL foolishly placed three teams in the Greater Toronto Area within two years. Agreements were made for significant upgrades to the aged North Bay Memorial Gardens and all seemed right with the world again.
With the move, it was no surprise really that the exceedingly calm and patient Abbott decided that the Battalion name and logo would remain. It actually made more sense for the Battalion to be in North Bay given that it is a home for a Canadian Forces air force base. The real question remains: Can OHL hockey return to prosperity in North Bay after a generation? Only time will tell, but for now the Troops have returned, and brought hockey with them.
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".
There is pretty much what you would expect to find to eat at any arena at the Memorial Gardens. Hot dogs, pretzels, chocolate bars, popcorn, candy and chips are staples on the menu. Pizza is also available, however it is clear that the renovations have yet to be completed for all of the concession areas. Fried items including onion rings, French fries, poutine and chicken fingers are not yet available at all concession stands.
A fairly wide variety of Pepsi products are available for soft drinks, but coffee and hot chocolate are also not yet available everywhere. Molson Canadian and Coors Light are the beers that are available, however there are limitations on where alcohol consumption may occur within the Gardens.
Overall the prices are pretty decent for the league. I will give the Battalion the benefit of the doubt considering that they have not yet completed renovations. The selection is pretty average, but the prices help the mark a bit.
A face lift of North Bay Memorial Gardens was desperately needed. The city is in the process of doing a fantastic job with the renovations.
The building itself was built in 1955, but the city is attempting to remove that stigma from first sight of the building. Gone is the yellow siding which screamed "old" and it is being replaced by more contemporary green glass.
Inside, the changes are even more significant. All of the seating in the Gardens has been replaced. Gone are the original wooden "love" seats from the fifties, replaced with more contemporary plastic in blue and red. In addition, the capacity has been increased with the removal of the North Bay Sports Hall of Fame at the North end, which has been replaced with the Hall of Fame Club. Club seating is not overly common in OHL Arenas, but is a step up from the previous lack of seating. On the south end, the curtained off maintenance area has been replaced with another section of seating.
The old digital scoreboard has been replaced with a large videoboard, and the sound system has been replaced, making a significant difference in the acoustics. The grandstands on the east and west side remain under lower roofs than the playing surface. The higher you sit, the more likely the main support beams will block your view of the videoboard. The renovations have also included new digital scoreboards on the seating side of the beams, as well as numerous flat screen televisions giving the fan total access to whatever is being seen on the main board.
The brown brick remains, keeping a bit of a classic look for the Gardens. The brick flows through the main concourses, which contain some history of the Centennials and North Bay sports. The members of the North Bay Hall of Fame retain pictures in the concourse, as well as former North Bay hockey players who have played in the NHL. Some of the decor that was previously found in the concourses no longer remains, however by no means is the renovation job one hundred percent complete.
One item that is definitely lacking in the seating area, that hopefully will be rectified over time, is any link to the 25 years that the Centennials played in North Bay. Hopefully the division banners from over the years as well as the banner for the 1994 J.Ross Robertson Cup as the OHL Champions, will return.
The military motif has been a holdover from the Brampton days as part of their game day production. The PA announcer alerts the crowd to "one minute to cease fire, " and the troops skate out from the same inflatable tank that they did in Brampton. The helicopter sound effects remain as does the Edwin Starr song "War" for Battalion goals.
Overall, the atmosphere has been significantly improved from the days where only the Nipissing Lakers skated in the Gardens. The renovations have been successful and impactful, adding to the Battalion experience.
North Bay is a Northern Ontario city, and the winters can be significantly cold. There is not much within walking distance of the Memorial Gardens, but on a cold winter night, nobody in North Bay is interested in walking anywhere. There are a few decent spots that are just a short drive away. Burger World provides a diner type atmosphere with great food. Other options include the Urban Cafe, Canadian Legends Eatery, or Danny's Justa Pasta if you are willing to make the short drive to Sundridge.
I'm not really sure what to make of the fan situation for the Battalion. The Nipissing Lakers have drawn remarkably well in North Bay, by CIS standards. The Battalion are averaging around 3,500 fans as of November 2013. This is not over the top by OHL standards, but pretty much in the middle of the pack. It is markedly better than what the Battalion were drawing in Brampton. However, I would have thought that tickets would be at a premium, and more games sold out after the long absence of OHL hockey and the pushing for a team to return to North Bay. Perhaps there are other factors involved. The fans that are in attendance are very laid back and fairly quiet, even by Ontario standards. They are not quite as quiet as Barrie Colts fans, but they aren't that far off.
The return of the OHL has put pressure on the limits of the Memorial Gardens. Getting to the arena is not too difficult as it is just a couple of blocks from Highway 11/17. The parking situation has been stretched to the limit. The parking is shared with the neighbouring YMCA, but insufficient when considering the increased attendance. In the mild fall, the mostly unpaved parking lot is an absolute mess, probably better in the winter when everything is frozen. Before heading to the Gardens, make sure you educate yourself on the parking situation at the Gardens and surrounding area by checking the team website.
Inside, the concourses remain narrow and difficult to manoeuvre during intermissions. The washroom facilities are also stretched to the limits. However, at this point, this is a small price to pay for the return of the OHL.
North Bay Battalion is one of the real bargains in the OHL. With ticket prices remaining under $20 for adults, and student, senior and child discounts, Battalion hockey can be a family affair. The parking is free and the concession prices are some of the best in the league. The return on the small investment is also high, with OHL hockey being some of the fastest and most exciting anywhere. Combine all of this with a strong game day presentation, and the feel good notion of a team returning to where it belongs, you can't go wrong.
An extra mark for the framed prints of those North Bay residents who were lost in World War I and World War II. In an era of corporate arena naming it is nice to see that there is a Memorial Gardens and that there is a nod to what they are memorializing.
A pair of extra marks for the return of hockey to North Bay and the strength of owner Scott Abbott. This seems to be a match made in hockey heaven, and will hopefully be a long term partnership.
An extra mark for the great job the city of North Bay is doing with the renovations of the Memorial Gardens.
A final extra mark for the pregame ceremonies put on for the game that was reviewed. The Battalion put on a significant show for their game on November 10, one day before Remembrance Day. With video tributes and a host of veterans dropping the puck for the ceremonial faceoff, the Battalion showed how important Remembrance Day is in a military city like North Bay. Very classy.
Making their first steps upon return to the OHL, the city of North Bay and the Battalion are well on their way to a significant stay in the Gateway to the North. It is a return that has been long in waiting, but for all those involved, it hopefully will be a permanent return.
Member Review by HockeyFan on Nov 12, 2014
Having an OHL team in North Bay has brought junior hockey back to its roots. The Gateway City was doing fine with the Nipissing Lakers, but bringing in the Battalion has done wonders for the community.
The team has begun its second season, following a OHL Finals apperance, and the place is still rocking. The facility underwent a major renovation, which wasn't yet completed midway through their first season.
The arena has a classic feel, but has most of the amenities one would expect when attending a rink for an OHL game. The only problem I found with the rink is the scoreboard obstruction for those who like to sit away from the glass. They have televisions in place to show replays and ads, but I find it makes you feel like your away from the game.
The other issue I find with the rink is parking. There is plenty of free spots, but when you go to leave, prepare to wait a bit.
The work done on Memorial Gardens is fantastic, and so exciting to see the Battalion succeed in their new home.
1405 Hammond St
North Bay, ON P1B 2J3
101 Worthington St E
North Bay, ON P1B 1Z8
1501 Seymour St
North Bay, ON P1B 8G4
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