Lake Superior State University, located in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, has an enrollment of about 3,000 students. They are one of the smaller schools in Division I hockey, and in 1988, they did the impossible. That Lakers team, led by the goaltending of Bruce Hoffort, became the smallest school to win the NCAA hockey championship. Even more remarkably, the school was able to win championships again in 1992 and 1994.
Those banners hang proudly in Taffy Abel Arena alongside two NAIA championship banners (1972 and 1974), but the program has lost some of its success in recent years. However, hockey still very much in the blood of this town and the university’s students.
Taffy Abel Arena, named for Sault Ste. Marie native Clarence “Taffy” Abel, is a part of the larger James Norris Physical Education Center. The Center also includes the basketball arena, the Ronald “Bud” Cooper Gymnasium.
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".
It's a pretty basic menu at Lakers games with a few sweet surprises. I really love that they have Rice Krispie Treats ($2) on the menu, and the cotton candy is made right in front of you ($1). Fresh cotton candy really makes a big difference.
Otherwise, there's not too much to get excited about. Sub sandwiches ($4.75-$5), and pizza make up the "entrée" portion of the menu. The 6-inch pizza is frozen and then warmed up, and was rather disappointing ($2.75), as mine was not warmed through.
Hot dog ($2.25), nachos ($3.50), popcorn ($2), and soft pretzels ($2) round out the menu.
Coca-Cola is the soft drink provider with fountain drinks available ($2), as well as energy drinks ($2.75), water ($2.25) and juice. Coffee, hot chocolate, and hot cider ($1.50) are on hand if you want to warm up. The cider was a nice surprise.
I am always amazed when teams don't weave local items into their concession offerings. In this case, a smoked whitefish sandwich would be fantastic at a LSSU game. A pasty, which is basically personal-sized meat and vegetable pie, would be perfect while watching hockey in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
My first impression of the seating area is that it looked a little bit like it was sponsored by IKEA. The bright royal blue and "gold" (which is really yellow) conjured up my own aversions to shopping. That impression aside, it really is a comfortable little arena.
Fans will find comfortable blue plastic seats with above average legroom, although there are no cupholders. Because of the fact that this is a border town with Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario you will hear O Canada and the Star Spangled Banner before every home game, something I really enjoy.
The team benches are on opposite sides of the ice, something that is fairly common in college hockey. If you want to sit behind the visiting team, then section D will be where you want to aim, or section P to sit behind the home side. A small pep band does its best from one corner of the arena to interject some energy into the game, but they end up being just a little too small to make a real noticeable difference in the atmosphere.
The scoreboard is small and basic, with only essential information and no video capabilities. Overall, it is a no frills presentation when you go to a Lake Superior State hockey game. That can either be a huge plus, or a slight drawback depending on how much the hockey purity appeals to you as a fan.
With a population of just over 14,000 (2010 census), Sault Ste. Marie is certainly a small town, but there are a few places worth checking out while in downtown, which is about a five minute drive from the LSSU campus.
Huge ships pass through the Soo Locks, the busiest canal in the world as far as the weight that passes through it. It is an amazing sight to see a 1,000-foot long boat pass by the town of mostly two story buildings.
The main downtown drag is Portage Avenue. I was pleased to find the Soo Brewery, with 10 locally made beers on tap ($3.50 a pint). Next door is Maloney's, where you can find a sandwich, burgers, some fish & chips, or the odd Mexican dish. There are several TVs and a pool table here as well, and 10 beers on tap.
Further down the street is The Alpha, a slightly more divey bar, with $2 drafts if you're merely looking to belly up to the bar before or after a game.
The Ramada Plaza Hotel Ojibway is located on the same downtown stretch, and has reasonable rates of about $100 a night in a perfect location for fans who may be coming in for a weekend of hockey.
I attended on a night where they either sold out, or were very close to it as most of the seats were filled. The last few years, attendance has averaged somewhere in the low 2,000's for LSSU games at Taffy Abel Arena, ranking the school just below average compared with other Division I hockey programs. The student section was small, but fairly animated, with some students choosing to paint their chests or bellies in support of their team. Like the pep band however, the truly fervent students were just too few to have a noticeable impact on the game.
Fans no doubt love hockey in this area, and they are a knowledgeable bunch, but they are lacking that extra level which could make this arena a tough place to play.
Parking will cost you just $2, and getting in or out of the arena is really no trouble at all, as there are plenty of personnel to guide you to your parking space, and to ease the egress of traffic afterwards.
Inside the arena, it is a little tricky. A walk around the entire arena will take you up and down as you alternate between walking beneath the stands or around the seats. In some places the concourse can be rather narrow, and if it is a full house, then the lines for the concessions can obstruct the walkways during intermissions.
Restrooms are of an adequate size and clean.
Single game tickets are only $12 for adults, or $6 for all of those aged 18 or under. Students can purchase a full season ticket for $98, while non-students will pay $216 for a full slate of games. With few other sports options, I would think that anyone who could afford it would spring for a season ticket, although single games are certainly reasonably priced. Add in $2 parking, a drink, and a hot dog, and you'll still spend less than $20 on a Division I hockey game. It really is a great bargain.
The chance to sit beneath three championship banners certainly adds to the experience and is worth an extra point.
Seamore the Sea Duck, makes his rounds throughout the crowd. I was impressed with how much territory he covered during the contest, seemingly giving every fan a chance to interact with this big blue bird.
One final extra point for all of the displays of the hockey past of Lake Superior State. There is also a jersey of every former player to have made it to the NHL, a chance for fans to reminisce about former players and dream of current players making their way to the top level of hockey.
Just an hour north of the iconic Mackinac Bridge, Lake Superior State is the most accessible of the Upper Peninsula college hockey venues for hockey fans in the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. I combined my trip to LSSU with a stop on historic Mackinac Island, something I would highly recommend to other fans during the early part of the season (October). For residents of the Upper Peninsula or across the International Bridge to Ontario, you will certainly get your money's worth if you go to see a game at Taffy Abel Arena.
Taffy Abel is really a nice venue for college hockey. For the smallest school in their league, and state, they draw pretty well. There is so much competition with the Sault Greyhounds (OHL), Soo Eagle (NAHL), high school, and all the kids hockey leagues. It's the best arena in the CCHA that I've been too, but that's only compared to Ferris, Western, MSU, Northern, and Notre Dame. It lacks a bit of the character of the old Norris Center, but makes up for it with the skyboxes and great seating. There are also improvement being made that will be ready for the 2014 season when they join the WCHA. I'm disappointed with the student section, but things haven't been the same since the teams success in the 80's and 90's.
223 W Portage Ave
Sault Ste Marie, MI 49783
227 W Portage Ave
Sault Ste Marie, MI 49783
105 W Portage Ave
Sault Ste Marie, MI 49783
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240 W Portage Ave
Sault Ste Marie, MI 49783