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Official Review by Paul Derrick, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
There is a buzz and aura around the Toyota Center right now as the Houston Aeros are just a series away from being the 2011 Calder Cup Champions. The Aeros haven't drunk from that illustrious cup since the 2003 season, but are in high hopes of changing that soon.
The Houston Aeros were an expansion team in the now defunct International Hockey League back in 1994. The team's name is in homage to the Houston Aeros of the World Hockey Association of the 1970s, and is one of the teams the famous Gordie Howe played for. The Aeros joined the AHL in 2001 after the IHL folded. They are the affiliate of the Minnesota Wild and have nicely made their home at the Toyota Center in downtown Houston.
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".
The Aeros carry about fifty percent of the concessions that are carried at Houston Rockets games at the Toyota Center, unfortunately not at fifty percent of the price. I found my favorite selection to be Rocket Tacos which offers tasty fajita nachos available in either beef or chicken. I found the beef ones to be quite delightful, but I am not sure if they were worth the $12 price tag.
Also you will find hot dogs, popcorn, pizza and pretzels all available for moderate stadium prices. Many different beers are available on tap including Budweiser, Bud Light and one of my favorites ZiegenBock all for around $7, a tad too pricey for minor league hockey I think. Overall the Toyota Center has plenty of options, but just a tad overpriced I think.
Well this is going to be a tad bit tough to judge as the game I attended was Game 7 of the AHL Western Conference Finals. With that said, I have seen a rowdy atmosphere at many of Rockets games before, but the way the fans erupted after Houston scored the game winning goal was absolutely amazing. I truly thought the roof might come down, as the fans were jumping up and down making it absolutely impossible to hear yourself think. I loved it.
Walking through the concourses you will see that there are not a lot of posters, banners or such to let you know you're there for a hockey game and not a Rockets game. However, inside the concourse there are a few banners hanging from the ceiling commemorating some of the past championships as well as Gordie Howe's retired number.
Downtown Houston doesn't make for a much better atmosphere for pre or post game activities. If you're like most hockey fans, who love a good brewski, I would recommend the Flying Saucer. They carry over 150 beers on tap, which means if you are a beer lover like me you're in heaven. Carrying everything from 512 IPA to Young's Double Chocolate Stout, you are sure to find a beer you will enjoy.
Another great place that I have found to mingle with Aeros and Astros fans is the Home Plate Bar & Grill located right next to Minute Maid Park. It's a great place to grab a sandwich and a beer and chat it up with fellow fans before any Astros or Aeros game.
Another fixture I like before or after the game is the House of Blues, which always has great entertainment. You should definitely make sure to check out their schedule to see when you can catch one of your favorite bands live.
Overall, no matter what you want to eat or do, it can probably be found in downtown Houston.
This is another section that is a tad difficult to judge due to the magnitude of the game that I went to. The attendance was about what one would suspect for a Game 7, and the fans that were there were definitely not disappointing. The Aeros unfortunately had one of my least favorite promotions that night (Thunder Sticks Night), but it definitely made for a super loud arena. The fans were all donned in a variety of Aeros, Wild and a slew of other NHL apparel. Most of the fans seemed very knowledgeable of the game and made their presence well known, giving the Aeros a significant home ice advantage.
The fans made timely chants and cheers to keep the Aeros spirits up throughout the game and at the end made it well known just how happy they were with the Aeros victory. The fans definitely made this Game 7 one that will stay on my mind for quite some time.
With any downtown arena, parking and getting to the game can always be treacherous. The Aeros definitely are not exempt from this. Parking can range anywhere from $5-$10 depending on just how close you want to be to the stadium. The concourses are definitely wide enough, especially for a minor league hockey team in an NBA arena. Bathrooms were easily accessible even during peak times.
Tickets range anywhere from $11-$25 during the season, and the Aeros are always having great deals and promotions especially for the kids. The food and beverages are a tad on the expensive side so I wouldn't say an Aeros game would be a great family night out every night, but once a week or month would definitely be feasible. I will say the fans and atmosphere definitely make the Aeros stand out in the AHL, they are ready for great success and the fans are hoping that Calder Cup is coming to Houston.
I have to give one extra point to the absolute greatness of the atmosphere the Aeros had for Game 7. It was the first ever hockey game for my boys and I will be very hard up to overdo this experience.
Secondly I have to give an extra point to the retired number 9 of old Gordie Howe. The banner looks great hanging from the ceiling of the Toyota Center.
My last extra point goes to Chilly the K9 mascot, he is great. The kids love him and he keeps all the fans entertained during every intermission.
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