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Official Review by Kevin Klott, Stadium Journey Guest Correspondent
Alaska is a land known for its wonders of the world — the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley (Denali), the 1,390-mile Alaska Highway, the 1,000-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, and the 5-foot-5 Sarah Palin. But if there’s one place the Last Frontier is certainly not famous for, it is the big block of concrete in the center of Anchorage: the George M. Sullivan Arena.
Opened in 1983 and named after a former Anchorage mayor, “The Sully” is Alaska’s largest entertainment venue but also quite possibly one of the least aesthetically pleasing venues for professional sports in the United States. However, the winters here in Alaska are long, cold and dark, which means creative architecture doesn’t matter much to Alaskans. What counts the most is what happens inside of The Sully.
In the Last Frontier, hockey is king, and these days Alaskans have gladly perched the Alaska Aces of the ECHL on the throne. The Boys in Blue have raised two Kelly Cup championship banners at Sullivan Arena since 2006, and own the second-most postseason victories (76) among the 23 teams in the league. The Aces share the facilities with the University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves of the WCHA.
In addition to sports entertainment, the Sullivan Arena is also home to annual trade shows, the state high school basketball tournament, concerts, high school and university graduations, and the occasional World Wresting Entertainment spectacle. According to SMG, the company that manages Sullivan Arena, the arena averages more than 500,000 in attendance every year.
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".
Nothing screams Alaska about the food served at Sullivan Arena's concession stands. You won't find any reindeer dogs, moose stew, or Alaska salmon here. Expect the typical array of stadium items, such as cheeseburgers, hot dogs, corn dogs, popcorn, nachos, French fries, and pizza slices. Prices range from $3.25 to $5. Bottled sodas are $3.50 and fountain sodas start at $4. The Sullivan Arena also has a variety of third-party vendors: Big Burrito, Carolyn's Caramel Apples, Gilligan's Shaved Ice, Café D'Arte Coffee, Urban Bamboo, and Corn Fritters and Candied Nuts.
As far as adult beverages, fans at Alaska Aces games thirsty for beer, wine coolers or wine, sit on the south side of the arena, otherwise known as the "wet side." Beers include Budweiser, Bud Light, Rolling Rock, Kokane, Alaskan Amber, Miller, Miller Lite, Coors Light, Molson, Blue Moon, and Mirror Pond ESB. Domestic 12-oz. beers cost $6.25, while microbrews cost $7. Wine coolers are $6.75 while wine is $6.75.
The Sullivan Arena promises fans that just about every seat in the house provides a good view for watching sporting events. I've sat way up high in the upper nose bleeds and thought it was a great vantage point. I've experienced concerts at Sullivan Arena, and like many arenas the acoustics are lousy. But the intimate atmosphere makes up for it. Perhaps my favorite part of Sullivan Arena is the mezzanine level, which provides fans tired of sitting with an option to walk around the arena and stretch their legs. Just make sure you're carrying identification before you start your stroll - Sullivan Arena employees are sticklers for checking IDs to get into the wet section.
The Sullivan Arena is designed to be a multi-use facility complete with an Olympic size ice rink, an insulated floor covering for basketball, concerts, and trade shows. Total square footage with all telescoping seats retracted is approximately 32,000 square feet. The seating is designed to give versatility to the spectator. For reserved concert seating, the maximum capacity is approximately 8,700; for basketball, approximately 7,800; and 6,500 for hockey.
With downtown Anchorage to the north and Midtown to the south, Sullivan Arena is nestled in a shallow valley otherwise known as the Chester Creek Greenbelt. To many hockey fans, Sullivan Arena's locale is often considered no-man's land. The only option for a pre-game drink and bite to eat that is within walking distance to the arena is the Crossroads Lounge. Located on the northern side of the valley, the Crossroads is a neighborhood bar that offers one of the best Alaskan atmospheres within the city limits. Its log cabin-like structure, big rectangular bar, and plethora of flat-screen televisions give ticket holders the kind of comfort they need on those bitterly cold winter evenings before they head down the hill toward the arena.
The beer is cheap (one of the few Anchorage bars that still has PBR on tap) and the service is generally great. The best part about the place: hot dogs are free and so is the Wi-Fi. Oh, and there's almost always a crockpot full of soup, chili or burger patties that are also free to customers. The Crossroads is also a go-to place for post Sullivan Arena events. There's a pool table, dartboards and late-night fried munchies that can cost anywhere between $4 and $10.
Not long before the Alaska Aces won their first Kelly Cup in 2006, the University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves were the hottest ticket in town. Back in the day, when the Aces were treading water as a professional organization, UAA was really the only credible hockey team in town worth watching. But year after year of the Seawolves finishing at or near the bottom of the WCHA, combined with the Aces' winning ways and the creation of the Cowbell Crew, the tide has slowly turned in the Aces' favor, making them the current darlings of Anchorage hockey.
Losing seasons aren't the only problems for the Seawolves - they also have trouble drawing more students than old timers to watch their games. Many have said the problem stems from the fact that the team plays three miles off campus. The Seawolves ranked among the bottom in WCHA attendance, averaging 2,729 fans during the 2012-13 season. The Aces, meanwhile, drew 4,247 per game to rank second in ECHL attendance during the 2012-13 campaign.
Located on 16th Avenue between the one-way streets of Gambell Street and A Street, Sullivan Arena and its available parking ($6) always depends on the event. Going to a Seawolves game? Expect plenty of open spots. Going to watch the Aces or a concert? Get there early, especially during the spring and fall when multiple venues in the Chester Creek Sports Complex are being utilized.
The giant parking lot that makes up the Chester Creek Sports Complex serves not only Sullivan Arena but also four other sporting venues: Ben Boeke Arena (high school/adult hockey); Mulcahy Stadium (high school baseball, Alaska Baseball League); Anchorage Football Stadium (high school sports); and Kosinski Fields (high school/adult baseball).
There are two ways to enter Sullivan Arena's parking lot: 1) Drive north on A Street and turn right onto East 16th Avenue; 2) Drive south on Gambell Street and veer to the right toward Sullivan Arena after crossing the intersection of Gambell and East 15th Avenue.
The University of Alaska-Anchorage charges between $13.25 and $18.50 for single game tickets. The cheapest way to see a game is to attend in a group of 10 or more ($6 general admission, $12 reserved). Taking six credits or more at UAA gives those students free admission and parking to all home games. UAA students are also eligible to buy a companion ticket for $5, which is arguable the best deal in town considering this is Division I hockey.
One point extra goes to sitting high in the top row of the balcony section. There is something spectacular about taking in the venue from every possible angle. Another point goes to NHL lockouts, which have been known to temporarily boost the Aces' roster with Anchorage NHLers such as Joey Crabb of the Washington Capitals, Nate Thompson of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Scott Gomez of the Montreal Canadians.
There's no getting around the fact that Sullivan Arena is old and in need of upgrades. But living in a state that supports just one professional sports franchise - the Aces - we know that beggars can't be choosers. Whether it's an eyesore or not, Sullivan Arena is an ideal place to break a cabin fever or get some relief when it's just too cold to play outside.
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1402 Gambell St
Anchorage, AK 99501
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