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Official Review by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
In 2012 the Phoenix rose once again.
The folding of the Lewiston Maineiacs brought the opportunity for expansion once again in the QMJHL, and a return to the Quebec town of Sherbrooke. Famous for being the home of the Sher-Wood hockey stick company, Sherbrooke had a few opportunities in the QMJHL on previous occasions. Ironically enough, the Sherbrooke Castors left Quebec for the greener pastures of Lewiston, Maine. The original Castors were founded in 1969, and left Sherbrooke in 1982 and would eventually become the Rimouski Oceanic. The Castors would return to Sherbrooke in 1998, coming from Trois-Rivičres, and making that stop in Lewiston before finally rising back in Sherbrooke.
The group that brought hockey back to Sherbrooke was led by former NHL goaltender, and former Sherbrooke Faucon, Jocelyn Thibault. However, the new Phoenix would not be satisfied to play in the old Palais des Sports. The City of Sherbrooke and Government of Quebec agreed to a huge renovation of the Palais des Sports Leopold-Drolet. This old arena, named after the founder of Sher-Wood, is now one of the model arenas in the QMJHL, and an example of what can be done to modernize an aging arena. New paint gave a fresh face to the arena, and new luxury boxes gave a fresh source of revenue.
In the end, what is exciting to see is that, in what may be the final opportunity for junior hockey in Sherbrooke, the fans have realized what they have been missing, and embraced the Phoenix with open arms, showing their support.
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".
Concession options were not too bad, but if you speak only English you will have to manage through the menu which was in French. You will find what you would expect plus a few Quebec staples. Beer is sold in tall-boys and sell for $5.50. They are actually sold in the stands, a la baseball, which was a bit of a surprise.
There are four main concession stands; one in each corner of the concourse. Two feature fries, poutine, onion rings and other fried offerings, and the other two feature salads and sandwiches. Subs and smoked meat are on the menu, as well as maple butter. The prices are not too bad, and are what you would expect from a junior hockey venue. The local flavour gives the concessions a bit of a bump up, and you will be satisfied if you choose to eat at the game.
As mentioned above, the Palais des Sports is an older arena that has undergone a significant renovation. The Palais is part of a greater sporting complex that is on the campus of Cegep de Sherbrooke, a kind of junior college that is part of the Quebec education system. Upon arriving at the Palais, there is nothing that will blow you away about the exterior. It is a pretty plain building, that has been decorated with some photo murals in the windows that make it a bit more homey for the Phoenix. There is a small monument outside dedicated to local speed skater Sylvie Daigle, who earned medals in the Albertville and Lillehammer Winter Olympics.
Stepping inside, there is a small atrium which offers access to the ticket office (Billetterie) and the team store. There is also some local team décor, which makes it feel a little better for the home team. In the seating bowl, the concourses travelling around the arena are above the seating bowl, similar to many other arenas in junior hockey, and the opportunity for standing room is available at the ends as well. Both sides are lined with luxury boxes, and the concourses travel behind them, with access to the seats available through small doorways.
The seats themselves are a bit of a disappointment. They are the classic wooden seats, that have been given a wonderful Phoenix-navy blue paint job, but the novelty of sitting in the wooden seats wears off after a while, right around the time your butt goes numb. Other key additions to the Palais are the crystal clear video board at centre ice and the ribbon boards on either side of the arena. There is also a traditional scoreboard at one end of the arena. The videoboard does not boast a scoreboard attached to it, so another traditional scoreboard may be on the menu for future developments. They do use graphics on the board to show the score and time among other things, but the traditional board is far better for this. The ceilings in the Palais are low, so a larger videoboard, with a scoreboard attached is probably not an option.
The in-game production is fairly strong, and that is obvious from the participation of the crowd. Music is a mix of modern pop/rock and traditional hockey organ music. The PA announcer, although speaking far more in French than English, gets a great reaction from the crowd. There are a group of young people who act as cheerleaders on ice-level and get the crowd involved, as well as the in-game emcee, who is far less annoying than in many cases.
They all travel with Onyx, the Phoenix mascot, who does a great job engaging the crowd. Overall, whether you are English-speaking or French-speaking, you will enjoy the game in Sherbrooke, even if it is a blowout (as was the game for this review).
You may even want to step out of your comfort zone and buy a Moitié-Moitié billet (50-50 ticket). The one thing that was really missing, was any sort of recognition of the past Sherbrooke hockey teams. There were no banners or recognized players that I could find. The Castors did have some success as they made it to the Memorial Cup in 1982.
Being part of a larger sporting complex, the neighbourhood surrounding the Palais does not immediately jump out with numerous options for pre or post game meals. If you head down to Rue King, you may find a couple of options. Mike's Restaurants are an Italian chain in Quebec that you may want to try, or possibly you could try Louis' Luncheonette, which has a reputation for great poutine. What pumps up the neighbourhood mark is that there are some decent ski destinations in this region. You may want to add a Phoenix game to a little recreational skiing if you are in this region of Quebec.
During the 2013 season, the Phoenix welcomed over 108,000 fans to the Palais for hockey. This was a record for an expansion team in Quebec, which is impressive considering that the capacity for the Palais is not very high, under 4,000. At this particular game, the Phoenix welcomed 3,800 patrons to the Palais.
What jumps out about the Sherbrooke fans is that they are loud! When gameplay is on, the fans treat the game with intensity, focusing on the play. However, between plays and at key moments, the noise level in the Palais is really high! What makes the Phoenix a feel-good story in the QMJHL is that the fans seem to understand what they have lost in the past, and both the Sherbrooke fans and the management of the Phoenix are not going to let another team leave Sherbrooke.
Getting to the Palais is not that difficult. Not being a huge city, navigating to the Palais from the Autoroute in Sherbrooke is no problem. There is plenty of parking in the general vicinity, around the complex, and there is no charge for it. If public transit is your option, there are a number of bus stops just outside of the doors of the Palais.
Inside the Palais is where the building shows its age. Getting around the concourses can be a real problem. The atrium was not that full, but the weather was beautiful. On a cold day, before the game, the atrium is more than likely packed. Also, people tend to stand and visit in the concourses, which makes travel even more difficult. The washrooms are below the seating bowl, and are not easily accessible.
Tickets in the QMJHL are a fantastic value. Adult tickets for the Phoenix go for $16, while children's tickets go for a ridiculous $6! You get a high quality product for an excellent entry fee, in a great atmosphere with fantastic fans. Add to that, free parking and some decent concession prices, and the opportunity for an outing with the family for a good price is not to be missed.
Two extra marks for the pre-game ceremony. Being the final game of the 2013 regular season, the Phoenix put on a great show for those players who would be "graduating" from the QMJHL as over-age players. It could be considered like a senior day at a university sporting event. A great job by the Phoenix, who not only honoured each player individually, but also put together a short video highlight reel for each player.
An extra mark for the first intermission entertainment, which was a lovely young lady who did an amazing rendition of "Skyfall."
An extra mark for the fans of Sherbrooke who have embraced the Phoenix, and are making sure they have a long future in Sherbrooke.
We are in an era where teams are beginning to return to markets that had previously lost them. We have seen examples in the Winnipeg Jets, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns, and most recently, the Sherbrooke Phoenix. This will continue in the future as Ottawa will receive a new CFL team, and the North Bay Battalion will begin playing in the OHL. In all cases, what is most important, is that the fans embrace the team, and create a situation where the fans make it almost impossible for the new team to leave. This is what is happening in Sherbrooke, where the Phoenix have risen from the ashes of the Castors. If you have the opportunity, a trip to Sherbrooke will not be disappointing, and watching the Phoenix rise again will bring you to your feet!
Follow Dave's sporting adventures on twitter @profan9.
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1705 Rue King Ouest
Sherbrooke, QC J1J 2C8
1875 Rue King O
Sherbrooke, QC J1J 2E3
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