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Official Review by Chris Patton, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The U.S. Cellular Coliseum in downtown Bloomington, Illinois opened April 1, 2006. That October, the building hosted its first minor league hockey contest. While the building has continually housed the sport, the tenants and team ownership has not been stable over the first eight years.
The Coliseum is home to the Bloomington Thunder. During the 2013-14 season, the Thunder competed in the Southern Professional Hockey League (SPHL). Under different ownership, the team was known as the Bloomington Blaze and played two seasons in the Central Hockey League (CHL). The longest lasting and most successful hockey team at the Coliseum was the first. The Bloomington PrairieThunder played four seasons in the International Hockey League (IHL) and one season in a merged IHL-CHL.
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".
While U.S. Cellular Coliseum features several concession stands and carts, only one stand on each side of the arena was open during my visit. This led to long lines early in the game and then long waits as many of the speciality items were being made when ordered. If you don't want to miss any of the action, hit the stands well before the game starts or right at the start of an intermission.
The main course fare includes the traditional stadium favorites like hot dogs and sandwiches ranging from $2.50 for the value dog to $5.50 for the double cheeseburger. More exotic choices include a pork tenderloin for $5, and popcorn chicken $5.50. Most items can be part of a combo meal with chips and a drink for less than $10.
Local favorites consist of a cold cut sandwich on Italian bread and pizza from Bloomington-Normal institution, Avanti's. Those looking for something sweet will enjoy frozen selections from Carl's Ice Cream for $3.25.
The main concession stands feature 20 oz. draft Budweiser and Bud Light for $6. The Madison Street Pub cart branches out with cocktails for $9, a selection of wine for $7.50, and a small range of bottled beers for $5.75. Be warned that unlike the main concession stands, the Pub location only accepts cash.
The Thunder features several, season long specials depending on the day of the week. Tuesday and Thursday night games have hot dogs, popcorn, beer and soda on sale for only $2. On Saturday nights, kids 12 and under eat free from 6:05 PM (an hour before puck drop) until the first Thunder goal of the game. Kids can choose from hot dogs, corn dogs, popcorn, nachos and fries. The fine print says there is a limit of two items per trip and a child must be present at the concession stand when picking up the food. Sundays are kids days, with kids meals (consisting of a hot dog or corn dog, popcorn and a soft drink) available for only $3.
Behind the south goal and under the video board is The Club. Open to the public, The Club is a full-service bar that provides a unique view of the action. Directly underneath The Club are tables that are used for birthday parties, or other gatherings.
For the hardcore hockey fan, the atmosphere at U.S. Cellular Coliseum leaves a lot to be desired. For families that aren't well versed in the sport, the atmosphere is fun and light. On the day we attended, the Coliseum was approximately one-third full. The majority of the adults in attendance were there because at least one of their children had raised money for the American Heart Association. The kids made noise and cheered when they were supposed to, but the crowd really began to dwindle late in the game, even though the home team was clinging to a tight lead.
The crowd gets into the between periods entertainment. Musical chairs on ice and the chuck-a-puck contest are crowd pleasers.
A previous review of the U.S. Cellular Coliseum and the Bloomington Blaze mentioned a very rowdy crowd and the ejection of some fans. I saw absolutely no sign of any trouble with unruly fans.
U.S. Cellular Coliseum is along South Madison Street in Bloomington, just a block west of the downtown area. There are more than a handful of bars and clubs within walking distance of the arena. If you go to a Saturday night game and then head downtown looking for a drink, you will run into a lot of college students. There are plenty of bars where you'll be able to grab a drink and relax, but there are also a few bars where buses full of college kids will be dropped off and not picked up until closing time.
If you are in town on a Sunday afternoon, the atmosphere will be much more relaxed and you should not have any problems finding a place to catch up on any other sporting events. Elroy's is a staple of downtown Bloomington and just two blocks east of the arena. Elroy's has plenty of TVs, drink specials every day of the week and you can't go wrong with their McRoy Burger (bacon, American cheese, 1000 island dressing, lettuce and tomato) for $6.99.
The fans have a good time, but the hockey appears to be secondary to the experience. The biggest cheers during the game are for contests, items on the video board and the team's mascot, Scorch.
The fans will also chant along when "Chelsea Dagger" is played after the home team scores.
Interstates 39, 55 and 74 all go around Bloomington-Normal and Madison Street goes right through the two towns.
Parking is available in a garage right next to the arena for a small fee, but on weekends, free parking can be found in a downtown Bloomington garage only a block away from the building.
The concourse is wide enough to handle small crowds, but the halls get tight for a big crowd. The bathrooms are tucked in underneath the stands and much like the concourses, are big enough for the current crowds, but can be a problem if the team ever plays to capacity.
Thunder tickets range in price from $8 for the upper seats behind the north goal to $25 for on the glass seating. While there are so many empty seats, there are not any ushers checking ticket stubs. So, if you want to buy the $8 tickets for the upper end seats, there most likely will not be anyone to stop you from getting a closer look at the action.
With nearby free parking and the season long specials on food, especially for kids, if you want to attend the game on a budget, it's possible. If you want to splurge and sit on the glass, park next to the building and have your pick of food and drink at the concession stands, that's possible too.
An extra point is awarded for the banners in the concourse honoring some of the most successful teams from local schools, Illinois State University and Illinois Wesleyan University.
Beginning in the 2014-15 season, Bloomington's hockey club will play as an expansion franchise in the junior-level United States Hockey League (USHL). The USHL players are all 16-20 years old and most will move on to play at NCAA Division I programs. The Bloomington USHL franchise will retain the Thunder name, but will be a brand new entity. The SPHL club will no longer exist.
Hockey in Bloomington needs some consistency. It's hard to blame the fans for not coming out in droves when the team's identity and levels of play are constantly changing. Hopefully, the switch to junior hockey will stick and fans in the Bloomington-Normal area will hop on board.
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102 W Washington St
Bloomington, IL 61701
407 S Main St
Normal, IL 61761
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