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Official Review by Andrew Kulyk, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The Tri City Americans, representing the adjoining cities of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland in the State of Washington, are one of the flagship original franchises of the Western Hockey League. Its origins began in Calgary, before city hopping to several locations throughout British Columbia, with a 5-year stop in Billings, Montana along the way. They have been located in Tri Cities since 1988, and have played in the Toyota Center in the bedroom community of Kennewick since the arena opened that same year. The facility also doubles as a theatre, offering a season of Broadway musicals and other stage shows.
The team has had a colorful history in the community, having experienced numerous ownership changes and various attempts to move the franchise out of the region despite robust fan support. For the past decade and more the team has been co owned and run by former NHL stars Olaf Kolzig and Stu Barnes, both of whom played for Tri Cities and have deep ties to the franchise and the community. The team has never won a league championship, its closes brush with glory coming in the 2009-10 season when they lost in the WHL finals.
Their biggest rival is from across the state. The Spokane Chiefs are just a two hour drive from Kennewick. Both fan bases travel well, and games featuring these two teams are often exciting and heated both on the ice and in the stands. A New Year's Eve clash has become an annual tradition.
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".
Quite honestly, the vast selection and presentation of the concession fare is quite astonishing for a team at this level. The food at Toyota Center is amazing. The beer is amazing. Concession stands and vending carts are everywhere, and the smart fan visiting for the first time should do a 360 around the concourse before deciding what to eat because the choices are so many.
Choices include Coke products and bottled water ($3) and popcorn helmets ($8, with $4.50 to refill). The Mexican stand offers two enchiladas or two tacos for $8.50, along with burritos, taco salad or chips salad. There is actually a coffee barista stand offering various lattes and cappuccinos along with Americano coffee in all sorts of flavors ($3-$7). Another stand offers gourmet sausages with a basket of fries ($8). A Baskin Robbins ice cream stand has a single scoop ($4), and a double ($6). A hand carved NY Strip sandwich comes with chips ($10) or potatoes ($12) and looks amazing. Papa Johns sells pizza in oversized slices ($4). They fry up bags of mini donuts in all sorts of flavors ($5/dozen). Poutine, a dish consisting of fries, gravy and cheese curds can be purchased for $6. Arena standards such as burgers, chicken strips and chicken sandwich baskets with fries are available for $8. A Chinese stand offers sweet and sour chicken, General Tso chicken or teriyaki chicken complete with chopsticks ($8). Local craft brews are sold throughout the facility, including a special brewed Americans Amber, made especially for the team.
On the suite level is a large seating area with tables, open to any ticket holder, offering a concession stand and bar service for fans wishing to dine in prior to the game.
The portions are huge, the service friendly, the choices almost endless. Outstanding.
You'd think with such mediocre on ice results all these years, and a team tucked into an American corner of a league which has a massive Canadian footprint, that things would be pretty sedate here in Tri City. Not so. There are fans clanging cow bells, a mascot named Winger who works the crowd and exhorts the loud support, a game night presentation which is light on kiss cams, electronic cheer sequences and canned music, instead letting the fans own the cheers. One super fan, a guy named Scott, is dressed in Ams gear and a kilt, waving an oversized flag of the State of Texas for some inexplicable reason, and dons a helmet which lights up and flashes every time the home team scores a goal. He tosses confetti and the fans eat it up. It's a fun building to watch a game.
Think of Kennewick as one big sprawl suburb, a big bedroom community with no real downtown to speak of. The Toyota Center is tucked behind a large boulevard of strip plazas and malls. Drive behind this cluster of retail, and you'll find yourself in this large mixed use office, hotel and apartment district with windy single lane streets and roundabouts. Much of the development is new and there are acres and acres of vacant land just east of the area ripe for new development. It's not exactly a quaint walkable neighborhood, and the arena itself is surrounded by ample, well groomed and landscaped parking lots.
The locals recommend a few good sports hangouts not too far from the Toyota Center, including Kimo's Sports Bar and Brewpub, Ivar's Seafood Bar and Uncle Sam's Saloon.
These aren't your average, minor league, come for the cotton candy and beer type of fans. They understand the game and have a real passion for their team. The Tri City Americans enjoy pretty large support from the community, and the team engages that community in many ways, mostly through its superior customer service platform. Walk anywhere in the arena and it feels like one huge local family. Out of towners are easily spotted, and concession workers, ushers and game day staff go out of their way to make you feel welcome and at home.
On the night we visited, they were offering professional photo ops with a former Ams star, complete with a portable studio and backdrop. The line snaked its way around the concourse for a chance to snag a photo with the player. Nobody complained. The fans were eating it up. It's a love affair between the Ams and this community.
Getting in and out of the neighborhood surrounding the Toyota Center is really easy. Enter from the west at the marquee along North Columbia Center Boulevard and it takes you right into the arena neighborhood. There are also access points from the south and the north. There are multiple parking lots surrounding the venue and ingress and egress is a snap. Parking is shared with the nearby Three Rivers Convention Center. There are no public transportation options, so car it is.
Adult tickets run $20, except for select premium games where the price goes to $23. There are discounts given to seniors, teens, and youths. Check out the team website and you might find some geared promotions, including a two for one Tuesday special and some four pack deals. Parking at the arena is free. We already raved about the concessions and the prices won't kill the wallet.
We will award one star for Stu Barnes and Olaf Kolzig, who have stepped in to give this franchise stable ownership and a consistent product. Their banners hang proudly from the rafters. And why not!
Two stars go to the game day staff. We can't emphasize enough how important it is for arena staff to treat their guests and fans with respect and courtesy. The Tri City Americans go the extra mile to make their fans feel welcome. The one thing they police very carefully? They stringently guard the alcoves to make sure fans don't walk up and down the aisles while play is in progress. But do so in a very polite and upbeat way. Interestingly, we saw most fans in their seats stay put until a break in the action, leaving the aisles unobstructed. They take their hockey seriously here.
Add one star for the one goofy media timeout fan participation thing, where the PA announcer asked all the "men" to step forward to do the dance off. What that meant was time for the youngsters to take their shirts off and wave them up above their heads. Never saw so many shirtless kids at one time in one place other than the beach.
The WHL is one of those vast Canadian based leagues with but a small footprint in the United States, mostly here in Washington. The Tri City Americans don't try to emulate their Canadian counterparts - other than a Canadian flag in the rafters and poutine on the menu, their whole mojo, logo, colors, event presentation, exudes "Americans." Don't underestimate the Tri City Americans. It is a super hockey experience, played in a fairly middle aged arena which has the look and feel of an old hockey barn. Make your way there and take part in the fun.
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