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Official Review by Paul Baker, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The Notre Dame Arena is a community rink located in Berlin, New Hamphire. For decades, it has hosted local concerts, events and high school hockey. In the 1950s and 1960s the arena served as home to the Berlin Maroons, who were four-time United States Senior Amateur Champions. Since the fall of 2015 it has also served as home of the Berlin River Drivers, a team in the Federal Hockey League, a low level professional league with teams across the northeastern United States.
In 1969 the roof of the arena collapsed due to the weight of accumulated snow, killing a local youth hockey player. Ironically, it was found the snow that had been piled up against the facility’s walls to help support them led directly to the collapse.
Berlin is a small town of just over 10,000 residents located on the northern edge of the White Mountains just 60 miles from the Quebec border. For decades the town thrived on logging and wood industries. The team’s name derives from the town’s logging past, as a river driver is a person who moved logs from the forest to the sawmill using the currents of a river.
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There is a snack bar in the lobby of Notre Dame Arena which serves a decent menu. Hungry River Drivers fans can select from hot dogs, pizza, chicken tenders, french fries or nachos. Other snack items, including mozzarella sticks, pretzels and onion rings are also on the menu. Of course, being so close to the Canadian border, it's not surprising to see poutine offered here. No item on the menu costs more than six dollars.
Thirsty River Driver fans can choose from a variety of Coca-Cola products. Warm drinks such as coffee, tea and hot chocolate are popular choices in this chilly rink. Alcoholic beverages are sold at the snack bar, with Bud Light the most popular choice here by far.
A trip to Notre Dame Arena for a River Drivers game is a long way, both literally and figuratively, from the bright lights of major league hockey. The first thing that will strike a first time visitor to Notre Dame Arena is the sense of community here. It seems that the entire town shows up to catch the action, and everyone knows everyone else in attendance.
So what do you do when your home rink lacks any kind of mechanism for fancy pregame festivities? Why, you improvise, of course. During introductions the house lights are turned down and the fans take out their flashlights while the River Drivers take the ice.
The game day presentation at Notre Dame Arena is pretty basic, as there isn't a whole lot that can be done in this community rink. Music blares over the speakers during play stoppages. The scoreboard hanging at center ice displays score and time, and nothing else. The team holds a 50/50 raffle and chuck a puck during the game to raise money.
Fans in attendance at a River Drivers game have a close bond with the players on the ice, and are really into the game. There is only so much noise a few hundred people can make, but in this tiny barn, the amount of noise put out is pretty impressive. Air horns and cowbells can be heard throughout the game, as fans come armed with a variety of noisemakers.
After a River Drivers win, the team salutes the fans and takes a victory lap around the rink, high-fiving the fans that line the glass.
Notre Dame Arena is located just a few blocks from downtown Berlin. Visiting fans won't find a whole lot in terms of fancy restaurants or lodging options around, but there are plenty of decent options in Berlin and neighboring Gorham.
With the spectacular White Mountains so close by, it's not a surprise that there are many excellent ski resorts located just a short drive from Notre Dame Arena. When the weather warms, outdoor activities continue to be a strong draw in the area, as the Appalachian Trail passes through the town.
The River Drivers averaged just over 600 fans per game during the 2016-17 season, good for sixth place out of the seven teams in the Federal League, and consistent with their inaugural 2015-16 season. The team's first playoff game attracted 1,000 fans to the cozy Notre Dame Arena.
In a small town like Berlin, it's no surprise that there is a strong sense of community here. Most of the fans seem to know each other, and the rink is simply an extension of the local neighborhood or workplace the fans are coming from. The fans have a strong connection to the players, and the team to the fans. It's not something you will find in a bigger city or higher level of pro hockey.
To paraphrase the old monster truck radio commercials, at a River Drivers game you are going to purchase the entire seat, but you are only going to use the edge! Fans do not sit down at a River Drivers game. Not during the game, and not during the intermission. Wear some comfortable shoes, and do not expect a clear view of the action.
With the town of Berlin's remote location, driving is really the only way to get to a River Drivers game. Located 40 miles from the nearest interstate (I-93), fans will take Route 2 to Route 16, which winds through Berlin. Be sure to enjoy some of the spectacular scenery as you drive through the White Mountains.
Notre Dame Arena is a small facility in a small town. This makes it very difficult to get around when a decent crowd is in the rink. Fans enter the arena into a small lobby, where the snack bar, pro shop, tables and restrooms are located. Add in a merchandise table, booster club table and trophy case, and it's understandable that this area can get crowded in a hurry.
Once you enter the rink, seating is located on both sides of the rink, with the majority of seating located to your right as you enter. All seats consist of wooden bleachers, which are sold as general admission. Many fans here eschew the bleachers entirely, choosing to stand at rinkside. Get here early, because these prime spots fill up quickly.
Netting surrounds the entire rink, further blocking views around the arena. If you want an unobstructed view at a River Drivers game, you will have to stand at the glass. You'll be blocking others, but hey, no one here seems to mind.
Tickets to River Drivers games cost only ten dollars at the door. Purchasing tickets in advance earns you a one dollar discount. Children under 12 and members of the military are admitted for seven dollars. Parking is free in the Notre Dame Arena lot or on the surrounding streets. Concessions are inexpensive as well, making this a very affordable entertainment option for northern New Hampshire hockey fans.
Extra points are awarded for the strong sense of community here at Notre Dame Arena. It feels like every fan in attendance knows every other fan. Add in the fantastic support given the River Drivers during their inaugural visit to the playoffs in 2017 and the quirky touches like Flashlight Night and the victory lap, and Notre Dame Arena becomes a most unique place to take in some low-level pro hockey.
You are not going to stumble upon Notre Dame Arena by accident. Located deep in the White Mountains, you are only coming here by design. The facility is little more than your basic local community rink, but it is the place to be in the small town of Berlin on a Friday or Saturday night. Some aspects of the game day experience may strike some fans as hokey, but River Driver fans sure seem to be enjoying themselves!
Follow Paul Baker's stadium journeys on Twitter @PuckmanRI.
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