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Official Review by Ryan Norris, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
In 2005, the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies moved west to the newly opened Stockton Arena to become the Thunder. The newly established Stockton franchise became the Northern-most California member of the ECHL.
The opening of the new Stockton Arena followed closely on the heels of its next door neighbor, Banner Island Ballpark, home of the Stockton Ports. It is also part of a downtown revitalization near the civic buildings, museums and parks.
The arena holds 9,737 spectators and boasts two levels along the side boards and one level at either end of the arena. Luxury suites sit high above each side of the arena, the length of the playing surface.
For this particular visit the hometown, bumblebee-clad Thunder hosted the Salmon Kings from Victoria, British Columbia for a Saturday night tilt. And just when I thought I wouldn't be any more confused than with the Thunder's mascot (Thor the Viking?) the Salmon Kings skated out with a Salmon caricature wearing you guessed it, a crown, on their sweaters. Aesthetics aside, the stands were full, the place was loud and the game did not disappoint.
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".
Like all sporting events, adult refreshments are quite the investment. A 12-ounce Sierra Nevada or Blue Moon will set you back $8.50, with the commercial domestics a dollar cheaper.
The food prices were much more reasonable when meals (fries included) ran from $8-$9.50 with options ranging from cheeseburgers to chicken strips. The typical sugary goodness can be found all around the concourse as well as a smoothie place that sells among other things, handcrafted espresso beverages and the "Blue Volcano" which has smoke billowing from its rim. Dangerously cool.
I didn't know what to expect at a minor league hockey game but the Thunder, their fans, the ECHL play and the arena did not disappoint. In fact, it was a great experience.
The sight lines were tremendous and affordable seats in the lower level allow you to be right on top of the action. The overhead screen allows for some of the replay angles you'd get at an NHL game. The energy was high without having to rely on a shtick or cheesy gimmicks to entertain the fans. The arena holds nearly 10,000 people and by my estimation it was at least 90 percent full, perhaps more.
This gets an extra point since I can see sincere improvement in the neighborhood and because I'm confident that this will continue.
The downtown Stockton neighborhood is improving with growing attractions. This all coupled with the fact that it is still an area crippled by crime. The neighborhood can change drastically from block to block so do be aware of your surroundings.
There are well-maintained parks near the arena and along the San Joaquin Delta that make for pleasant strolls during the day. At night, the light shines off the water, reflecting beautifully and fits perfectly with the cool wind against your face.
I suggest getting to the arena early if you're interested in seeing the neighborhood as late night hours are not the time to be exploring the neighborhood if you're unfamiliar.
Plenty of restaurants are nearby, including Stockton's only brewery, Valley Brewing Co. They have plenty of HD screens where you can catch a game as well as sports memorabilia from Northern California and beyond. Quick tip: $5 pitchers on Wednesday nights.
In an arena traditionally not known for hockey, the Stockton fans brought a reasonable amount of knowledge but perhaps more importantly provided passion and excitement. According to the Thunder's website they boast the highest average attendance in the ECHL, and they sure are loud.
During somewhat mundane moments in the middle of periods you could hear many fans pining for a fight. This pining turned into begging and stammering until the fans were rewarded with fistacuffs midway through the 2nd period. Boy, were they ever delighted! Even the "Season Ticket Holder of the Game" mentioned the fights when asked why he comes to and invests in the games.
Conveniently located off of I-5, Stockton Arena is only minutes away from your exit. Main roads entering the complex can be a little crowded so side roads are a good option. There are two flat rate pay for parking lots across from the arena. Metered street parking is also available within a few blocks - meters are free in the evening and on weekends.
One complaint is the layout for getting in the door where lines to buy tickets, claim will-call tickets, or simply enter the arena, turn into a confusing cluster which slows movement in any of the lines. A convenient way to avoid this issue (if you already have your ticket) is to enter from the rear of the building (side closest to the water) that no one seemed to know about. Entering was a breeze from there.
Once inside, access to your seats, concessions and restrooms were easy. I especially liked the different ways you could access your section.
This is where this venue really shines. An end-board upper seat costs a reasonable $9 and can move up as high as $30 along the sideboards. With reasonable food prices this is definitely a destination for families with children as they can enjoy a fun weekend evening together for a reasonable price.
This really works out well for an area which is somewhat new, but certainly passionate about the hockey team. This helps to develop the sport in previously untapped communities because of the accessibility of minor league game.
The level of play was interesting since no one player stood out to me. It wasn't like watching the NHL where one player can take over the game. The level of play was pretty much even throughout the lineups, creating an evenly-matching, grinding style of hockey game which was highly enjoyable.
There wasn't much in the way of extras that didn't delve into the realm of cheesy. A puck toss in which contestants threw plastic pucks onto the ice in an attempt to hit the target was the most entertaining.
Since the Thunder are a new franchise there isn't much historical value in going to their games. The Stockton Sports Hall of Fame is on display though, with many familiar faces including one of the newest members, the perfect game-throwing Oakland Athletic Dallas Braden, a Stockton native.
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