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Official Review by Kirsten Richards, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Ice hockey support in Australia is very small, with approximately 4,000 registered club members across the nation. The Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL) is the premier league and teams are semi-professional.
This iteration of the national competition started in 2000 with three teams – Canberra Knights, Sydney Bears and Adelaide Avalanche. There are currently eight teams spread across the country, with three of those teams in New South Wales. What the AIHL lacks in numbers, it more than makes up for with passion.
Six weeks before the opening game of the 2014 season, the Canberra Knights were rendered defunct by the decision to hand back the licence and wind up the team. The players still wanted to play and formed a consortium to take on the license. New owners came on board and drove a brilliant fundraising and sponsorship campaign to bring the CBR Brave to life in time for an almost movie-script dream run that saw them through to the AIHL semi-finals after years of the Knights being cellar dwellers.
The Brave play their home games at Phillip Ice Skating Centre, located in the precinct of Phillip in the Australian Capital Territory. There is a mismatch between the physical facilities that the Brave play in and the professionalism of every other aspect of the team. It makes for a fascinating place to watch an ice hockey game.
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 concession stand is at one end of the rink and can be very crowded and a little overwhelmed during period breaks. Food is very standard Australian canteen food with hot chips, meat pies, burgers, hot dogs, a range of crisps and biscuits, pre-packaged soft drinks, coffee, and tea comprising the menu. Prices are in line with other stadiums, with pies running at $4, hot chips around $3, coffee at $4, and soft drinks around $3.
There is a bar area upstairs at the same end of the rink. Alcohol is not permitted to be taken into other areas of the rink and may not be brought in from outside.
There is not a lot of room between the boards and the concession. During games, this area can be very tight, as there is no division between the standing room at the boards and the queue for the food at the secondary window. Given the position behind the goal and the fact that the rink has netting rather than plexiglass, keeping an eye on the game while in line is a requirement, as the crowd may surge to dodge a puck.
There can also be wait times involved for foods like hot chips, which sell out quickly and need to be made fresh, creating yet more traffic in this area. The hot chips are worth the wait though, especially on days when it is colder outside than inside and you've spent an hour waiting to get into the venue.
The atmosphere at a CBR Brave game varies between excellent and electric.
Like most AIHL teams, the CBR Brave have their home in a suburban ice rink. The Phillip Swimming and Ice Skating Centre opened in 1980. It is rather small and run-down. The ice is often snowy and bumpy - visiting teams are often vexed by the puck taking strange bounces and slowing down dramatically. There is chicken wire rather than netting at one end of the rink. The Zamboni puffs out clouds of choking fumes. The carpet on the floor of the stands is far along the path to total disintegration. Unsurprisingly, a new rink is an everyday feature of discussions about the Brave.
With such a small venue, all seating is very, very close to the ice. On top of that, both teams must walk between the stands and the rink to reach their locker rooms between periods. The visiting team actually has to leave the rink, as they use the changing rooms for the pool. The crowd is very respectful of the players' space, but fist bumps are easily attainable.
Seating is painted wooden benches. Bringing blankets and cushions is highly recommended. The sound quality at this rink is excellent and provided by a series of PA speakers set on the floor against the boards. The music is always lively and appropriate and adds to the atmosphere. The two mascots - the Brave Tiger and the Brave Bot are fully engaged with the crowd and perform dance-offs.
The scoreboard is very basic, showing only time remaining in the period, the score and any time remaining in any penalties.
There is no reserved seating, but CBR Brave members are let in first, followed by pre-paid ticket holders and then tickets are sold at the gate. Pre-purchasing your ticket is highly recommended. Any seated spot is a good spot to watch the game. Standing room is only available at the corners and behind the goals.
The rink has netting rather than glass and it is not at all uncommon for pucks to get over the net. Paying attention at a CBR Brave game is mandatory.
Another thing to note is that this arena (and many other AIHL arenas) are much colder for spectators than professional arenas in North America. Plan to spend a couple of hours spectating in around 5-8 celsius / low 40's fahrenheit. Bring something warm to wear.
Phillip Ice Skating Centre is located just across the street from the hotels and restaurants in Woden. Within easy walking distance are Woden Tradies, Smoque American BBQ, and the Hellenic Club. It's $2 for a guest membership to either Tradies or the Hellenic Club. Team and fans often head to the Hellenic Club for postgame meals.
The Quality Inn and The Abode are two hotels within easy walking distance.
Canberra is the capital city of Australia and is home to Parliament House, along with many of the National Museums and Galleries for all kinds of arts and sciences. It's well worth making a weekend of it in Canberra. There is plenty to do and a range of other sports are also played in winter. With a little planning, you could easily make a doubleheader with one of the football codes.
It is also a small city, so it is very easy to get around and easy to find your way. There is also the Route 100 free hop-on/hop-off bus service that visits the major monuments, museums and public buildings (including Parliament House) of Canberra.
The stands are packed to the rafters with face-painted CBR Brave fans screaming their lungs out and living and dying with every pass and shot on goal. The queue to get in starts forming up to two hours before puck-drop and the entire 2014 season sold out. It's known as the Brave Cave, which gives a sense of both the intense home town crowd and the rudimentary nature of the arena.
In the close confines of the Brave Cave, the perpetually full house rocks after every good play and takes the roof off after a goal.
The crowd is seriously into CBR Brave and recognises and celebrates good hockey. But ice hockey is still very much a niche sport in Australia, so it is also not uncommon to hear the rules or a play being explained in quick rushes as new fans are indoctrinated in between bouts of cheering.
The crowd absolutely makes the game and would easily fill a larger, more modern venue.
Access to this venue is not a problem for the able-bodied.
It's by no means the centre of Canberra, but it's right near the heart of one of the larger suburban centres. There's a bus stop right next to the car park driveway and it's also within walking distance of the Woden bus terminal and Woden town centre. Cash fares for buses are $4.80 one way. Buses from the city centre to Woden are very frequent and take about 20 minutes.
Parking is free and directly in front of the entry. Canberra is about a three-hour drive from Sydney. Otherwise you could rent a car at Canberra airport and be at the stadium within 30 minutes.
There is only one entry to the complex and pool entry and exit is taking place while hockey fans queue for entry to the arena. Tickets are checked in the queue with an 'admit one' stub given to each ticket holder. CBR Brave are well set-up for paperless tickets and only need to scan from your phone screen the QR Code emailed with your ticket receipt.
Once entry to the ice arena begins, those stubs are handed to the door guards. Merchandise is set up in the courtyard before arena entry. I recommend claiming a seat before coming back outside to purchase merchandise.
The floor surface is uneven, with carpet squares and cable-guards and plenty of people in-between periods. The bathrooms are elderly, but clean enough.
Access for wheelchairs and mobility scooters is difficult, with the path around the rink being fairly narrow and having some obstacles in the form of speakers, bins, cable-guards and small children.
The rink is showing its age. If the facilities were the only criteria on which to judge a game day experience, it would be difficult to say many positive things. However, the nearness of the game, the outstanding front office and game day organisation and the next level fanaticism of the crowd make this a trip well worth your time.
Ticket prices are exactly in line with the rest of the competition at $20 per adult, regardless of pre-purchase or cash sale on the day.
Watching a CBR Brave game will set you back around $30 for the ticket, some hot chips and a coffee.
A family membership for all 14 games of the home season for two adults and two children-under-16 for $599 is the cheapest way to see the CBR Brave play for those who live in the area and want to see multiple games.
The welcome for travelling fans from the team's front office and fans is outstanding.
It's hard to ignore the romance of this team's phoenix-like birth in 2014. The work done by the major co-sponsor Coordinate to promote the Brave is outstanding. It's very much worth checking out the Brave's YouTube channel.
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