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Official Review by Ryan Norris, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
Stockton and minor league hockey have had a great relationship over the last decade. The Stockton Thunder played in the Stockton Arena from 2005-2015 after the franchise made stops in Cincinnati, Birmingham and Atlantic City. From the moment they arrived in Northern California, the Thunder enjoyed success at the box office as well as some success on the ice; winning ECHL’s Western Conference Championship during the 2012-13 season.
At first glance, Stockton and hockey seem an unlikely couple. However, the fast-paced game and the low ticket prices, combined with the interest level in the NHL’s San Jose Sharks, made for a perfect marriage. The city of Stockton looks to continue this relationship as they welcome a new AHL for the 2015 season as the Adirondack Flames move west to become the Stockton Heat. The Thunder franchise in turn will be moving west and becoming the Adirondack Thunder.
During their short time as the Stockton Thunder, nine former players reached the NHL and they enjoyed a streak of eight consecutive seasons in the Kelly Cup Playoffs. Their longtime affiliate was the Edmonton Oilers before short stints affiliated with the San Jose Sharks and New York Islanders.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The concessions at Stockton Arena are run by a company called SAVOR and this venue is its only in the region. It is perhaps because of this that I'm quite impressed with the selection (most of the Northern California venues are run by Ovations or Aramark). Perhaps the differences make me more intrigued by the options.
There is a multitude of options that is quite impressive for a minor league stadium. The two main seating areas is the Coors Light Lounge that has a full bar and a few grill options like hot dogs, hamburgers and tri-tip sandwiches, and an upstairs concourse that includes the Blue Moon Bar and an outdoor patio that overlooks Banner Island Ballpark. Here you can also find a carvery for some fresh sandwiches.
It seems the two favorites for food are the super nachos and the basket of chicken fingers and fries. The quality here is what sets it apart from other venues.
A café location serves up coffee, espresso drinks and hot chocolate as well as smoothies and other sweet or healthy options.
Overall, the quality and selection at Stockton Arena far out-performs what I would expect from it.
My only experience at minor league hockey prior to the Stockton Arena was seeing the now defunct Fresno Falcons back in the early 2000s. It may be because of this lackluster game environment that my expectations were far exceeded here in Stockton.
The experience begins as you approach the arena. The impressively designed and lit up building is flanked by Banner Island Ballpark on side and the Waterfront Hotel and Weber Point Park on the other. Behind the arena is McLeod Lake which leads into the San Joaquin River.
Once inside, the blue lights from outside are mirrored in a way inside as they light your way around the concourse. It almost feels like you are headed to a concert as the show is seemingly about to begin.
The arena is split down the middle from goal to goal in a near-mirror image way. Both sides of the rink have two tiers of seats as well as a level of luxury suites. One end of the rink has twice as many seats as the other. The end with just the lower seats has an additional open concourse that allows you to catch the action as you fetch food or souvenirs that line that end. Presumably, they could enclose this area above the seats should they need more capacity down the road.
Though the music could be considered a tad loud, the sightlines, lighting and scoreboard make for a top notch viewing experience. The scoreboard isn't huge but it does provide the necessary stats as well as replays on its four-sided display.
The live game action is displayed on the flat screen monitors throughout the concourse as well so you won't miss any action while grabbing food and drink.
Thunder mascot, Thor, and the ice girls do a good job of keeping the fans entertained as well.
For the most part, if you're in this part of Stockton it is for a Thunder or Ports game or to go to an event at the Waterfront Hotel. Beyond that, the immediate neighborhood is made up of shuttered business or businesses that close in the evenings and low income residential.
Beyond the Weber Point Event Center, you'll find a few restaurants and a Regal Cinemas. Nearby is French 25 with food inspired by the French Quarter in New Orleans and Tio Pepe's for Mexican. Also in the immediate area you'll find a Starbucks Coffee and Cold Stone Creamery. This area around the movie theater is safe but the immediate neighborhood across the street from the arena is not as desirable.
Just a few miles away is Stockton's Miracle Mile which is a stretch of Pacific Ave. It is a strip of shops and restaurants that are more suited to before or after game time food and drink. Weeknights and Saturdays are great times to visit but many of the spots are closed on Sundays.
Two great spots for craft beer are Abbey Trappist Pub and Valley Brew. Abbey has about six beers on tap and many, many more in bottles. Valley Brew no longer brews their own beer but does have an impressive 30 beers on tap, most of them from California. They also have a full menu that includes sandwiches, pizza, salads, etc.
Empresso Coffee House is a coffee shop in an old movie theater. They serve coffee, tea, beer, wine, and assorted pastries and small plates.
Other options on the Miracle Mile include La Palma Mexican Cuisine, Cocoro Sushi, Centrale Kitchen and AVE on the Mile.
The Stockton hockey fans really welcomed the Thunder to the Central Valley, staying near the top of the attendance rankings in the ECHL for nearly a decade. In recent years, attendance has fallen off a bit but they remain in the top half league-wide.
Stockton hockey fans are a rowdy and engaged bunch and have always packed the house when I've attended. Being the only hockey option in the region, it is the place to be on a Saturday night in Stockton.
One thing about minor league fans is that they might be showing up for other reasons beside the game on the ice. Many fans don't root for the Thunder as much as the ability to see a fight.
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.
For public transportation, the 60 bus runs down West Fremont Street and the Stockton Amtrak station is about a mile and a half from the ballpark.
One issue is getting to and from the box office while trying to fight through crowd of people trying to get through the main entrance. This can be alleviated by opening up the walkway to the box office to create two separate lines or have some ticket-holding fans enter from the other entrance on the water side of the arena.
Flow inside the arena is great on the wide concourses with plenty of access to the detached Coors Light Lounge, concession stands and restrooms.
This is where this venue really shines. An end-board upper seat costs a reasonable $11 and can move up as high as $30 for glass or club seats. 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. From economical to premium, it is an affordable experience.
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 the minor league game.
The level of play was interesting since no one player stands out. It isn't like watching the NHL where one player can take over the game. The level of play is pretty much even throughout the lineups, creating an evenly-matching, grinding style of hockey game which is highly enjoyable.
Extras at the Stockton Arena include the Stockton Athletic Hall of Fame portraits (including perfect game pitcher Dallas Braden), the locale along the water and the upstairs patio overlooking beautiful Banner Island Ballpark. The arena will continue to make improvements as a history is developed between the community and the sports happening within it.
I look forward to the continued growth of hockey in the Stockton area as a higher level of minor league hockey moves to the area. The Stockton Heat will begin play in the AHL during the 2015-16 season.
Member Review by ryannorris
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.
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