Junior Hockey in the United States is perhaps never been greater. With the North American Hockey League's recent expansion to 28 teams for the 2011-2012 season, there are opportunities all over the country to see the young stars of tomorrow competing for victories, college scholarships, and eventual professional hockey careers.
The Michigan Warriors, based in Flint, joined the league for the 2010-2011 season, and were surprise Robertson Cup finalists before falling to the Fairbanks Ice Dogs. Playing their games in the recently renovated Perani Arena, the team has found early success on the ice, but have failed to attract the kind of community support they have hoped for.
Flint, Michigan has long been home to minor league level hockey, with two incarnations of the Flint Generals. The first team had their run from 1969-1985, as members of International Hockey League (IHL), winning a Turner Cup Championship in 1984. Then in 1993, the Generals were resurrected in Flint only to fold again in 2010. In between the city had minor league hockey in the form of the Flint Spirits and Flint Bulldogs. You'll still see Flint Generals jerseys and apparel in the stands today at a Michigan Warriors game.
The junior level status of the team means that many of the young players are located in the states of Michigan or Ohio, bringing an element of local cache to the product on the ice. While a trip to a Michigan Warriors game is far from a life changing sports experience, it is a good way to spend the evening watching some hard played hockey at a reasonable price. Now the team just needs to convince the Flint community of this.
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 isn't a huge selection, or anything fancy, but the team does a good job in a couple of respects. First, I was happy to see that Koegel brand hot dogs ($2.50) and Polish sausage ($3.50) were offered, since it is a locally made product. Second, if fans turn in their ticket stub, they get $1 off at the concession stand. It's both a good way for the team to encourage concession purchases, and a way for fans to save a buck. The downside is that if you like to save your ticket as a souvenir, as I do, then you may pass on the discount. I would like to see the team find another way to allow fans to cash in the discount.
Other offerings include basics like popcorn, pretzel, and pizza offered by Little Caesar's ($2/slice). Coca-cola is the soda of choice ($1.50 or $2.50), and hot beverages like coffee, hot chocolate, or cappuccino are available for $2. Twenty-four ounce selections of Bud Light, Labatt, and Jeremiah Weed are on hand for $4.50 each.
It is difficult to generate a lot of electric energy when there are so few fans in the building. Perani Arena seats over 4,000 for hockey, and I would guess that the arena was about 10-15% full during my visit. That being said, the play on the ice is fun to watch. At this level of hockey, you rarely see fights, but the players are out there skating hard, and giving a determined effort.
Many things aesthetically are very basic. The scoreboard shows score, time, period, and penalty information. There is no video screen, which I found to be rather refreshing. Seats are comfortable with better than average leg room and cup holders as long as you are sitting in rows G-M. Below that, you are relegated to folding chairs, which is probably not the most comfortable, nor does it have the best view of the action. If you sit along the boards it would be a fun place to see the game, but otherwise, I would recommend opting for the higher rows.
The NAHL usually plays two games on back-to-back nights with the same opponents, which provides a fun opportunity to see tendencies emerge and rivalries to develop.
For the game I attended, the puck dropped a few minutes earlier than the scheduled time, which didn't bother me, but I could see as a minor annoyance for fans who were more vested in the outcome. The Michigan Warriors mascot, a skeleton figure, could do a better job of making his way through the crowd. With as few fans as I saw, the mascot should have an interaction with everyone (specifically the kids) who may want a chance to high five the mascot.
Perani Arena is located just off of I-69, near the division between the city of Flint and the town of Burton. I chose to stop into the nearby Firkin & Fox Pub, an English-style pub that serves burgers, fish and chips, and the typical bar fare. The burger was decent and beers were 2-for-1 during happy hour, which was a plus. There's a large bar area, a pool table, and comfortable booths, as well as several TVs. Located just 1/4 mile from Perani Arena, it is definitely the place to spend some time before or after the game.
Nearby you will also find a Bob Evans restaurant and a Super 8 motel in case you are spending the night in the area.
It is always hard to judge when there are so few fans in attendance. You should definitely bring a cowbell with you if you want to fit in as an ardent fan, but for the most part the fans are a laid back crew, just there to see some basic hockey. If I were a resident of Flint, I would prefer that this team was known as the Flint Warriors to make me feel like they were more a part of my community. The more generic "Michigan" label probably has greater appeal from a marketing perspective, but from a community perspective, I've always felt it better to be more specifically titled.
The arena is easy enough to find, and as I mentioned earlier, just off the highway. Parking will cost you $4. I found the fact that you had to pay for parking to be a real disappointment, especially to see this level of hockey.
The concourses are great. They're wide enough to move about, and the low walls allow you to keep an eye on the action at all times. Many fans chose to stand along the wall in the concourse and had a great view of the game. A fresh coat of white paint has really brightened up the look of the interior I am told, and while you may not notice if you are a first time visitor, it is a great improvement for returning guests.
The restrooms are fine, and you certainly won't find any lines. There was one door to a men's room that was sticking enough that you had to put your shoulder into it to enter, and I would hope that would get some attention soon.
The overall price to attend a game is pushing it a bit. Tickets are $7, and if you grab a Polish and a beer, factor in parking, then you're looking at $18 for someone to attend. While this isn't overly cost prohibitive, it's getting close, especially if you want to make this a family outing.
I love the sponsorship of the opponent's penalty box at Perani Arena. A local florist has an ad on the door of the penalty box, and has dubbed it the "Pansy Box." A rather fun poke at the opponent.
I also found the staff at Perani Arena to be extremely friendly and helpful to me personally, and to the patrons overall. For a team still trying to gain a following, this is an important attribute to have.
Overall, while there are some flaws in the experience, I would certainly recommend that the community of Flint, or hockey fans from the surrounding area, should make a trip to Perani Arena to see a Warriors game. It is a no frills, hockey-pure experience.
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