The Atlanta Flames relocated to Calgary in 1980 and immediately enjoyed their best season in franchise history, battling their way to the semi-finals in the playoffs. That team played in the Stampede Corral and packed the 6,500 seat stadium all season long, in spite of having the most expensive tickets in the NHL, at a whopping $25 each.
The Flames would spend their first three years playing in the Corral before moving to their brand new home, built only a few metres to the east, the Olympic Saddledome. The Saddledome was also constructed in anticipation of the 1988 Winter Olympics and was able to pack in almost three times as many fans as the old Corral.
Over the years, the Saddledome has seen a few renovations and a couple name changes and is now known as the Scotiabank Saddledome.
After three decades, the Saddledome is starting to show some signs of age, but the renovations have helped the ‘Dome age gracefully.
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There is an excellent variety of food and beverage choices around the Scotiabank Saddledome for Flames games.
The main concession stands, each named for the section in front of which they are situated, have all the garden variety options we all expect at an arena. Hot dogs, nachos, chips, pop and Budweiser on tap can all be found in these locations.
There are also numerous specialty stands throughout the concourse. The Dog House serves, you guessed it, gourmet hot dogs. There's the Flame Broiled BBQ for a little fancier burgers. At the Skyline Deli you can pick up deli-style sandwiches; my Pulled pork sandwich was delicious. And huge.
A Taste of Asia provides you with Vietnamese subs, spring rolls and other flavours of the Far East.
There are a number of specialty stops for adult beverages located around the concourse as well, so if Bud isn't your thing, you still have plenty of places to find something else.
You'll also find Pizza 73, Jugo Juice and The Good Earth Coffeehouse among the franchise locations.
Beyond all that, there are several bars and restaurants around the Saddledome. The Budweiser King Club, Dutton's Lounge, the Saddledome Restaurant, the Olympic Lounge and the Avison Young Club are all situated within the building, providing fans with a number of different dining options and experiences.
The Calgary Flames have not been terribly competitive in a number of years and have missed the playoffs several years in a row. Further, they traded away two of their best players just prior to the 2013 NHL trade deadline, making it clear they were moving into a phase of rebuilding. The fans, consequently, haven't had a lot to cheer about for quite some time.
Nevertheless, the Scotiabank Saddledome continues to be packed to the rafters night after night, game after game, so there is still considerable energy in the stands. Calgary sports fans are traditionally pretty docile, but they've become more comfortable with cheering and booing where appropriate over the years, so the place generally has a pretty fun, exciting feel to it on most nights, even if the hometown squad is struggling.
The annual Calgary Stampede is now a century old and is held on a large plot of land just southeast of Calgary's downtown core. The Saddledome is located on the northeast corner of the grounds.
The immediate vicinity, known as Victoria Park, isn't the best neighborhood in town by a long shot. However, there has been a substantial amount of gentrification in the area in the last few years and things are starting to perk up, with huge condo complexes being built to the immediate north of the Stampede Grounds as well as to the west. And most of those complexes have some kind of restaurant or bar on the ground floor.
If the community continues to gentrify at its current rate, the neighborhood could improve in pretty short order.
Loungeburger, located in one of those condo buildings to the west, right across Macleod Trail from the Stampede Grounds, is a quality purveyor of gourmet burgers. They aren't cheap, but they are usually tasty. I recommend the Black and Blu Burger.
Just a few blocks due west of the Stampede Grounds on 17th Ave you'll find a string of clubs and bars that came to be known as "The Red Mile" during the Flames' playoff run in 2004. Among the most popular is Melrose Café & Bar, right in the heart of things. You'll also find the Ship and Anchor Pub, which has been named Best Neighbourhood Pub in Calgary by the local publication "Fast Forward Weekly" on numerous occasions. My favorite local Mexican restaurant, El Sombrero, can also be found on the east end of the Red Mile.
Calgary Flames fans are a dedicated bunch who show up and cheer their team whether they're winning or not. Since the end of the lockout in the 2012-2013 season, the Flames have sold out every single game, in spite of the fact that the team has stayed right near the very bottom of the standings all year long. That says a lot about how dedicated these fans are.
There typically are quite a significant number of fans for the opposing team (whoever that might be on any given night) proudly showing up in their team's colours and cheering their faces off. On the night of my most recent visit, there seemed to be almost as many Vancouver Canucks jerseys in the stands as Flames jerseys.
But overall that makes for a fair bit of engagement in the game, and good fan noise.
Calgary has the second highest downtown parking rates in North America, behind only New York City. Parking on the grounds will cost you $15 and, depending on what other events are going on around the area, might fill up quickly. The night I went to see the Flames, Cirque Du Soleil's tents were occupying most of the south portion of the Stampede Grounds, so parking was at a real premium.
To make matters worse, a new pavilion being built on the Stampede Grounds, just southwest of the Saddledome, has chewed up quite a number of those precious parking spots.
There are also choices offsite for slightly less expensive parking. A few local residents rent out yard space for parking and there is some metered street parking in the vicinity for people willing to do a little walking.
The good news is that being centrally located means the Saddledome is fairly easy to get to from all directions. The bad news is that getting away after the game can be frustratingly slow. You can expect on nights where there is a full house to spend half an hour just to get out of the parking lot after the game.
Another option is taking Calgary's Light Rail Transit system to the game. The "C-Train" has two stops on the west side of the Stampede Grounds, one to the south and one on the north end which has a connecting walkway that will take you directly to the Saddledome.
The LRT tracks cover a significant amount of the city running north and south, and the newly open West Leg has made traveling east-to-west much better as well. So it can be a more convenient option for fans not wanting the hassle of driving downtown, although the trains can get very crowded after events.
City Transit is continuing C-Train expansion, however, with plans to go to four-car trains in just a couple years. An adult fare for Calgary Transit is $2.75, youths are $1.75.
Prices for Flames tickets range from $45 per seat up in the nose bleeds up to $320 per seat in the Avison Young section of the lower bowl. With an average price of $68.18 for the 2011-2012 season, that made the Saddledome the sixth most expensive venue in the NHL.
Clearly, if the Flames are able to sell the place out every night, the demand is there, even if they're in the top third for ticket prices. This is a hockey-first market where fans eat, sleep and breathe the sport and will fork out big bucks to pay for the privilege of attending a game. From my perspective, however, paying top dollar to see a team that hasn't made the playoffs in several years seems a little steep. For the price of an average Flames ticket, I can go see the WHL's Calgary Hitmen play four games in the same venue. And they make the playoffs more often than not. But maybe I'm just a cheapskate.
There are a number of added extras when you come see the Scotiabank Saddledome.
The walls of the building are lined with memorabilia, photos and trophies commemorating great teams and events from years past in the Calgary area. Wherever there is a space that doesn't have a concession stand in it, you can find a display.
There is an exhibit remembering the 1988 Winter Olympics, a wall dedicated to Calgary's hockey heritage, plaques for the Alberta Hockey Hall of Fame, and so forth.
You'll also find a couple locations of Flames Fan Attic for all your souvenir needs.
Harvey the Hound keeps the kids amused in the stands during the game with his antics.
Looking up into the south rafters, you'll see the large row of banners earned by the Flames in their time in the NHL.
The music played during stoppages in the action on the ice is a nice combination of current hits, classic rock, some country and some good ol' fashioned stadium organ music which adds some nice flavour to the 'Dome's atmosphere.
One other nice touch which I appreciate is that there are now recycling bins located throughout the concourse so environmentally conscious fans can ensure their garbage doesn't just wind up in a landfill.
I have enjoyed some fantastic memories while attending Flames games over the years. Whether it was seeing the Flames pull off the dramatic overtime win against the Vancouver Canucks in Game Seven of the first round of the 1989 playoffs or hanging out with my friends in the nose bleed seats back when they used to play the Montreal Canadiens every New Year's Eve, it was always a great time. And although the Flames aren't quite the dynasty they used to be in the late 80s and early 90s, going to the Saddledome to take in a Flames game is still always a good time.
One of the oldest and by far the most unique buildings in the NHL, construction on the then Olympic Saddledome, designed to reflect Calgary's Western heritage, began in 1980 with the arrival of the Calgary Flames and the city's victorious bid for the 1988 Winter Olympic Games. The Flames moved into their new digs in 1983 after spending the first few years of their existence across the parking lot, under the roof of the Stampede Corral. The original seating capacity was 16,605 until 2,600 additional seats were added to accommodate the Olympic crowds, and the building reached its peak capacity at 20,016 patrons, making it the largest arena ever to host the Winter Olympic Games.
Major renovations totaling approximately $37 million in the mid-nineties and amidst threats of team relocation saw the Saddledome receive 41 luxury boxes, a club section that seats over 1700 people, and a new restaurant, amongst other upgrades. The Scotiabank Saddledome became one of the most well known and easily recognizable NHL arenas during the Flames' 2004 run to the Stanley Cup Finals, and despite even more recent additions like the high-definition score board raised above centre ice, talk of a new arena up North (Edmonton) has spurred similar discussions here in Calgary. Construction on a new building to house the Flames, along with the WHL's Calgary Hitmen and the Calgary Roughnecks of the National Lacrosse League, will likely begin when the Flames' current lease expires in 2014.
Hayley Mutch is the managing editor at Matchsticks and Gasoline.
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