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Official Review by Jim Flannery, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Until 2016 the province of Saskatchewan was home to just a single professional sports franchise: the Roughriders, playing in Regina as part of the Canadian Football League. That is no longer the case as the Saskatchewan Rush are now residing in Saskatoon.
The Rush had a busy and exciting 2015. In their 10th year of operation in the National Lacrosse League, they won their division for the third straight season, went to the Champion’s Cup for the second time, and won their first championship. A few weeks later, the team announced that they were relocating from Edmonton to Saskatoon.
As a result, folks in Saskatoon are not only getting their first pro sports franchise, but they’re getting to see it played at the highest level, with a top-ranked squad coming to town.
The Rush now play indoor (aka “box”) lacrosse at SaskTel Centre. The arena has undergone a number of renovations, expansions and improvements since it opened its doors in 1988, with seating capacity more than doubled in that time, such that the facility can now hold more than 15,000 people. As a result, SaskTel Centre has played host to a number of high profile events, including the men’s and women’s Canadian curling championships, the 2010 World Junior Hockey Championships, the Memorial Cup and any number of first-rate concerts and exhibitions.
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 stands around SaskTel Centre offer a fairly conventional menu. You'll find cheeseburgers ($6), nachos, ($5.25), pop ($3.75 for a small) and, like most Canadian venues these days, poutine ($6 for french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds).
You'll also find a few locations selling a decent selection of beer and other alcoholic beverages ($6.25 for a bottle of beer, $7.25 for Original 16 beer on tap, $6.25 for highballs).
The Original 16 Lounge is also open on the upper floor during the game, although you kind of have to go looking for it as there isn't a lot of signage pointing the way. The lounge is a quieter place to have a beverage and relax, with a few tables and TVs showing the game out in the arena.
My single biggest complaint about the concessions are the lines, which were massive at the game of this review. At halftime, the lines backed up significantly and still hadn't cleared out when the game resumed 18 minutes later. Also, be forewarned: the concessions were sold out of several items after the halftime crowd was gone, so grabbing something in the third quarter might not work out.
All things considered, you won't find much out of the ordinary. The food I sampled at the game was quite tasty (the cheese and jalapeńo stuffed pretzel was awesome), but the selection is fairly pedestrian.
Box lacrosse is, without a doubt in my mind, the best spectator sport ever created. It has everything that a sport needs to be entertaining: speed, power, finesse, subtlety, aggression, and a healthy dollop of rough-and-tumble to round it all off. I know people who aren't into sports who will happily go see a couple NLL games a year.
So it comes as no surprise that there's some good energy in the building when the Rush take the floor, even given that the sport is relatively new to the fan base.
There is always music playing at NLL games, which adds extra juice to the atmosphere and helps keep the fans engaged throughout the event. This is apparently a rather polarizing subject with most fans either loving it or hating it and not many in between.
Personally, I'm in the "love it" camp but it seemed to me that the sound system at SaskTel Centre was turned up to 11 while I was there to the point that having a conversation with other people in my group was difficult at best. Yes, I like the tunes, but I don't think it should drown out the crowd noise or make it challenging to even communicate with other people. Then again, our seats were right under a speaker, so my perception on this subject might be skewed.
Adding to the atmosphere are a number of touches around the arena that are already making the place feel more like a home to the Rush than it ever was when they played in Edmonton. The 2015 championship banner is hanging proudly from the rafters, a giant green Hulk statue and a giant bear statue, both wearing Rush jerseys, can be found in the concourse and are both great photo ops. The bear's paws are even designed as seats on which the fans can sit and pose.
On the downside at SaskTel Centre, if you're sitting high up in the balcony along the sides of the arena your view of the scoreboard is obstructed by the press box. TV monitors and smaller scoreboards are located in several locations to help address this issue but you'll be getting a little less detail. Views of the game don't appear to be blocked, however, so you'll still have a good look at the main event.
The location of SaskTel Centre was very controversial when the arena was announced in the late 80s. Located in the Agriplace Industrial Park north of the Saskatoon International Airport, it is a couple kilometers north of the city proper, which means anyone visiting will be in for a trip, either by car or bus.
Although there are a number of industrial businesses around SaskTel Centre, there is virtually nothing in the way of food or entertainment options in the area. A few blocks away you'll find a Tim Horton's, a Subway, a Husky House and, across Highway 11 in the Travel J truck stop, there is a Denny's.
In other words, if you'd like a bite to eat before or after the game, you'll again be going for a drive, as there really isn't much locally.
The good news is that Circle Dr. on the north end of Saskatoon is only a couple kilometres south of the rink. On the southeast corner of the intersection between Highway 11 and Circle Dr. you'll find a Tony Roma's and the dining and other entertainment choices just grow from there as you travel east, west or south.
While in Edmonton, the Rush were never really able to establish a fan base big enough to justify the cost of playing in Rexall Place, current home of the Edmonton Oilers. In 2015, the Rush were sixth in the NLL in attendance with an average crowd of 6,568 in an arena that holds 16,000.
Things are looking up for the Rush since the move, however. Four games into their first season in Saskatoon, they are averaging 9,598 fans, the fourth-best average in the league and almost a one third improvement over what they were getting in Edmonton. In fact, their fourth home game had their best attendance yet, at 11,042, so they are gaining momentum.
Just as encouraging, the fans coming out to see the Rush seem to be enthusiastically embracing their new pro team. In-game rituals are already becoming well established, such as a chest-thumping routine many fans have adopted following Rush goals, inspired by a scene from the movie "Wolf of Wall Street."
I also saw lots of people wearing Rush gear already, which bodes well for fan commitment to their squad. If they can stay on this trajectory, Saskatoon could be in the top three in fan base in no time at all.
In spite of being on the outskirts of town, access to SaskTel Centre is pretty easy. The arena is located in between Highways 11 and 16, so getting there is relatively simple, although it may be a bit of a drive from the south end of town.
There are 4,000 parking spots around the facility and they are free, so there is ample parking for those who drive. Although I was warned that getting into and out of the parking lot can be a hassle due to a limited number of entrances and exits, I actually found that traffic flowed fairly well before and after the game. I've certainly seen much worse.
There is also transit service to SaskTel Centre, making that an option as well for those who don't want to drive.
Once inside, you'll find that the almost 30-year old building struggles to accommodate big crowds. The concourse is jammed full at halftime, making walking around a real chore. I've seen worse congestion, but not by much. Washrooms-particularly the men's-are lined up out the doors even once the second half of the game got underway. I'm not sure if this is a problem that can be solved without major renovations to the facility, but I'd identify it as an issue. Pro tip: The upstairs concourse, which wraps around about half of the stadium, appears to be far less busy than the main floor. If you're looking to get away from the crush of the crowds, find your way up there.
With ticket prices as low as $25 in the Family Zone in the balcony and the best seats in the house a bargain at $59 apiece (and seats in the Co-Op Section available for $22 per seat at local Co-Op stores), attending a Rush game is a terrific value. Seats are available at all price levels, although the lower bowl seems to be filling up pretty quickly, so plan accordingly.
The seats themselves are comfortable and provide a great view of the floor regardless of location, so there really isn't a bad seat in the house. If you sit high enough you'll lose your view of the scoreboard, but you won't lose sight of the game itself.
The Rush provide a solid product over and above the game itself.
There is a stand set up in the concourse for souvenir collectors, for all your Rush hat, shirt and knick-knack needs. The downside of these tables is that it chews up some of the concourse, which is tight to begin with, but it has tons of stuff and looks to me to be an upgrade in size and scope from the stand the Rush had back in Edmonton.
The team's mascot, Bruiser the Bulldog, keeps the kids entertained with his antics on the floor during breaks in the action and touring the stands.
The Rush have a dance team, the Crush, who help out with giveaways and maintain a presence around SaskTel Centre throughout the game. They perform several routines on the floor during breaks in the action to help keep the audience fired up.
You'll see the Rush's 2015 Champion's Cup banner hanging in the SaskTel rafters, helping to make the place look more like home. Also, SaskTel Centre lights the exterior of the building in Rush green so there's no doubt who is playing on game day.
The Rush have also been good at running special game day promotions thus far. For instance, they held an 80s Night early in the season where fans were encouraged to dress in their Breakfast Club finest attire; the night I attended they had the Seattle Sea Gals cheerleaders on hand as special guests to entertain the audience.
After games, the Rush and Crush come out onto the floor for an autograph session with any fans who want to hang around for a bit. This is a great feature of the NLL and gives fans a chance to meet the team.
The inner walls of the concourse near the J.P. Wisers Highball Bar feature banks of TVs allowing people to check out what else is happening in the sports world.
I'm always happy to see recycling bins at the stadiums I visit and SaskTel Centre does a nice job of providing them throughout the concourse.
As an added bonus, you'll also find a cell phone charging station in the concourse for SaskTel customers with low batteries and there is also free Wi-Fi for SaskTel customers.
I'm really happy to see the Rush getting such a positive reception in their new home. The lacrosse community in the province is still relatively small, so seeing people with little knowledge of the game come out and have a great time is gratifying for me.
Box lacrosse truly is nothing short of excellent. As fans become more familiar with their team and the managers of SaskTel Centre get more comfortable with handling the crowds and fine tuning the fan experience, this should be an event that just gets better and better. Expect a good time and a great game.
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