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Official Review by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The league that produces more hockey talent than any other league in the world for the NHL is the Canadian Hockey League. This 60 team junior league is really an affiliation of 3 separate leagues that each have their own specific identities.
La Ligue de hockey junior majeur du Québec (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League), or "The Q" to most, is currently a 17 team league (18 when Sherbrooke returns next year) with teams located in Quebec and Atlantic Canada. It has the reputation for fast paced, extremely high-scoring hockey, but it has also produced the numerous legendary francophone goaltenders that have graced the National Hockey League.
One of the bedrock franchises of the Q has been the Gatineau Olympiques. Formerly known as the Hull Olympiques (civic amalgamation led to the name change of the city), this team has been around nearly as long as the league itself. Hull was granted membership in the league in 1973 when Paul Grant of Ottawa and Yves Bourassa petitioned the league for a team just across the river from the Canadian Capital City. Since then, Hull/Gatineau has hosted 4 Memorial Cup tournaments, and the Olympiques have hoisted the Memorial Cup in 1997, and been to the tournament 6 other times.
A who's-who of hockey greats have worn the Olympique flame including Luc Robitaille, Michael Ryder, Ales Hemsky, Jose Theodore, Claude Giroux, David Krejci and Jack Adams Trophy winning coaches Alain Vigneault, Claude Julien, and Pat Burns.
Currently owned by Manon Sauve, Andre Chaput, and Alain Sear, the Olympiques can claim to have formerly been owned by hockey icon Wayne Gretzky, who actually convinced Jeremy Roenick to play for the team before going on to become a great for the Chicago Blackhawks.
Robert Guertin was a local sportsman, who played numerous roles, on numerous teams, over numerous years in the City of Hull, which would eventually become named Gatineau. In the 1940's, as an Alderman of Hull, Guertin lead the charge to create an arena in Hull, which would satisfy a growing population. Previously, sports were played in Ottawa, and it was a point of local pride to create something for the local residents in their home province of Quebec. Guertin's dream was realized in 1957, and the arena was named after him, due to his philanthropy and tireless efforts to make the arena a reality.
The Robert Guertin Centre is owned by the City of Gatineau, but it is not long for this world. City council has recently approved a plan to replace the old barn with a new 5,000 seat arena. Word is that it will be on the same site as the current arena, which leaves the question, where will the Olympiques be during construction. My bet is that they will be sharing a home with their rivals across the river, the Ottawa 67's, for a bit. Either way, it seems like this is the last dance for Robert Guertin.
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 menu at Robert-Guertin is as limited as the size of the building. You will find the staples here that you will find in most arenas. Hot dogs, popcorn, soda, pizza, fries and chocolate bars are all available. The selection may be limited, but the prices are good. Hot dogs are only $2, and poutine are available for $5. Pepsi is available in 591 mL bottles for $2.75 and beer is available for $5.75. Budweiser and Bud Lite are the only brands available. The closest thing to a unique item would be the Slush Puppy stand which offers a very large selection of flavored ice. You don't have to go hungry at Robert-Guertin, but you won't have a huge selection to choose from either.
Entering the Robert-Guertin means entering a whole different era, as it is 60 years old. The outside is not much to look at. It is your typical local hockey barn with nothing aesthetically pleasing on the outside. When venturing inside you will immediately notice a lack of space. The ticket window is right there along with a kiosk that sells Olympiques merchandise. The ticket takers stand just off to the right and then you can enter. A few steps up and you are are at the bottom of the seating bowl. The 360 degree concourse is at the top of the seating bowl, and you will find the concession stands there as well. Around that upper concourse you will find a series of picture displays honouring those players who were members of the 1997 Memorial Cup Championship team.
Upon arriving to your seat you will notice that it is wooden, and screams old-time hockey. The legroom is not great, nor is the shoulder room. The sightlines make up for the lack of space. The steepness of the seating bowl make almost all seats, great seats. Up in the rafters you will find the banners honouring the retired player numbers of Sam Lang, Guy Rouleau, Jose Theodore, and Luc Robataille, as well as a banner honouring former head coach Pat Burns. On the other side of the arena you will find the banners honouring the 7 QMJHL Championships and 1997 Memorial Cup Championship.
Once the game begins you will be peppered with announcements in French first and then English. Everything about the production is LOUD! The music is loud. The announcer is loud and the fans are loud.
The aesthetics on the inside are nothing special, and there is not a ton of history on display, but you are still left with the feeling that you are walking into an extremely historic place.
Robert-Guertin is located in a fairly residential area. It is absolutely a community rink. As a result, the opportunities for pre and post game establishments in the immediate area are pretty sparse. You might want to give Le P'tit Grecque a shot.
You also need to remember that you are just a 2 minute jaunt across the Portage Bridge to get to one of the great Canadian tourist cities ... Ottawa. Immediately across the bridge you will find the Mill Street Brew Pub.
If you are looking for a couple of things to do, then you most definitely need to catch the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, and the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau. Both are worth your time, and can take hours to go through.
The Olympiques are a community team. When inside you get the impression that all of the fans know each other. Intermissions are spent comparing game notes with friends and neighbours, as opposed to rushing to the washroom or running for a beer. Standing room is extremely popular, and you have a far better chance to find a seat than you do finding a spot on the rail.
The Olympiques usually average around 2,500 per game. This puts them right in the middle of the pack in the QMJHL. However, you must consider that compared to their English cousins, French fans are loud! The French fans in Gatineau make themselves heard. They are into their game and will make sure that you can hear them. This goes hand-in-hand with the QMJHL which tends to be a faster league that produces more chances and more goals. Overall there is much more to cheer about.
Gatineau is a great place to get your first tastes of French culture. If you are nervous about the language, you have nothing to fear, as the Québécois in Gatineau easily switch between the two languages and are friendly and accommodating. Ottawa does provide ample competition for the sporting dollar with the Senators and 67's clogging the hockey market. With a new arena on the way, it is curious to see if the patrons will fill a new building, as they are not currently doing so in this classic barn.
Getting to Robert-Guertin is not a problem. If you are early, there is enough free parking to satisfy you, however if you are a late-comer, you might be forced to find parking on the street. The higher the attendance, the more difficult it can be getting through the surrounding residential area.
Once inside, the building really shows its age as the washroom facilities are inadequate and the entrance to the building is very small. These items will most definitely be addressed with the building of the new arena.
Tickets for the Olympiques go for $16 with a discount for children. This provides one of the best values in the CHL. Combine that with good concession prices and free parking and you not only have a great opportunity for family entertainment, but you have better value than both the Ottawa 67's and Ottawa Senators on the other side of the river.
An extra point for some great goal celebrations as the Olympiques blast "Rock and Roll, Part 2" and the crowd blasts out the "HEY."
An extra point for the great product that The Q puts on, with some fast action, and a ton of shots and chances.
An extra point for the heated rivalry between the 67's and Olympiques. Over the years the two junior teams have played each other numerous times, especially in exhibition play. They had to begin cancelling the games because the fans got so heated, they were getting out of control!!
With the opportunity to see some great QMJHL hockey, a trip to Gatineau is worth your time and money. A superb return on investment, Olympiques hockey brings you back to a previous era, where sports were simple, and a great place to see all of your friends in the neighbourhood. I'm not sure what to expect when they close the doors for the final time, and christen a new building, so take Robert-Guertin for one last dance ... while you still can. You may regret never getting there.
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