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Official Review by Robbie Raskin, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The University of Toronto is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in Canada, consistently ranked among the top 20 in the world in academics, but there is also a wealth of tradition at ‘Big Blue’ that should send shivers down the spine of any hockey fan.
Varsity Arena is the centre of a history so rich that it exceeds the vast majority of professional and amateur clubs around the world. Established in 1891, the University of Toronto Varsity Blues hockey team have captured an enormous amount of silverware over their more than a century of history including almost countless trophies at different levels of junior and amateur hockey, ten Canadian Interuniversity Sport championships, and even the 1928 Olympic Gold Medal from St. Moritz.
The oldest continuously operating hockey team in Toronto, the Blues are said to have inspired the iconic colours of the Maple Leafs and today the team’s uniforms keep the famous striping pattern of the Leafs, albeit with the historic ‘T-Leaf’ logo of the Blues. The team’s esteemed alumni list is very long too, with a number of famous early Leafs having played for Varsity. Most famously, early Leafs owner and hockey legend Conn Smythe coached the Blues for a long time.
Varsity Arena itself is no slouch for history buffs either. It was one of the very first indoor arenas to be constructed without pillars obstructing the seating area when it was built in the 1920's. Today it is still host to the Blues hockey teams and the history is very much alive and on display at the arena where so many incredible hockey players have played.
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 concessions are not one of the very high points of the arena, but are not far off what one might reasonably expect. Hot food is limited to pizza, hot dogs, and popcorn. There are plenty of snacks and chocolate bars available, and various pops to drink. Prices are pretty cheap; pizza is $3/slice. Alcohol is not sold here so popping over to one of the neighbourhood pubs is the best choice for that.
There are also a handful of vending machines throughout the concourse if a sweet snack or pop is all you need. Otherwise, there are numerous options in the neighbourhood that will satisfy any hungry hockey fan before or after the game.
Varsity Arena is accessed off the concourse of the also fabulously historic Varsity Stadium and is located under the seating terrace and extending off the west side of the ground. Entering through the automatic double doors, one finds themselves in the narrow old concourse, brightened up with fresh paint, but not without the charm of an old barn befitting the legendary rink and scores of old team photos.
Entering the steep seating bowl, one finds the classic wooden tandem benches of vintage hockey arenas and excellent sightlines. A large tarp with the team logo stretches over some often-empty seats above the team benches and below the old windows looking out on beautiful Philosopher's Walk. It is the wooden rafters of the arena that will draw your attention, though.
The roof is absolutely littered with banners spanning 120 years of hockey. There are two Allen Cups (Canada's amateur hockey trophy), 10 national university championships, the 1928 gold medal, and an astounding 41 Queen's Cups as Ontario university champions! Those are all just for the men's team, the women's team have contributed numerous banners of their own, including an unprecedented stretch of fifteen years from the late '70s when the Lady Blues won 13 Ontario championships. All told, one can easily spend the entire game's duration admiring the banners and never lose interest.
The scoreboard is perfectly adequate, showing the stats you need to know. But what is most striking about the arena is that the history is presented authentically. The Blues could certainly stand to show off some of their famous alumni and history prominently in the concourses, but they don't. There should be more displays - the arena could be an excellent museum, but instead fans are forced to walk the concourses and find photos themselves, forgetting about memorabilia. Still, the quantity of banners and championships is beyond awe-inspiring, and the classic nature of the arena has been preserved.
The criss-crossed steel girders and wood still give off the feeling of being in a truly classic arena, the blue and white bunting under the press box a reminder of the colours that are so well known in hockey.
It's tough to beat a location like this one. Varsity Arena is located alongside Varsity Stadium and the Goldring Centre at the north end of UofT's downtown St. George campus. The arena is situated in an enclave surrounded on two sides by the Royal Conservatory of Music and its beautiful Koerner Hall, a great spot for live performance. The Royal Ontario Museum is also next door, just across the tree-lined Philosopher's Walk. If you choose to go down this path you head toward the heart of St. George campus, an architectural experience that has been the setting for dozens of films. Saunter through Trinity College's gothic wings and quads or examine Soldiers' Tower a little further south. Queen's Park, the site of Ontario's provincial legislature is nearby too and is a fascinating tour.
Food and drink options are equally plentiful. Cross Bloor Street right out the front door and head one block north to Prince Arthur Avenue, to the popular Duke of York Pub. It is a little pricey but there are Varsity Blues specials and the pub is particularly popular with alumni. Otherwise, head west on Bloor into the vibrant Annex student quarter, home to a wide variety of cheap eats, student pubs, and quirky shops. Initial options are the Beagle or the Fox, both fine establishments, but the Madison House is one of the most popular student hangouts, complete with one of the city's best rooftop patios for a warm day. Mackenzie's just a little further down Bloor is another good option.
To eat, try Smoke's Poutinerie or Poutineville for takes on the classic Canadian comfort food of French fries, cheese curds, gravy, and whatever else can be thrown on. On a winter's day it doesn't get much better. Alternately, head east into posh Yorkville and grab a table at La Societe bistro or the nearby Museum Tavern.
Here is the major stumbling point preventing Varsity Arena from being the very best. Unlike American college sports, university sport in Canada is not a quasi-religious experience. At hockey, attendance generally hovers around a couple hundred, truly a shame considering the good hockey being played and the beautiful building. In general, fans are very knowledgeable about hockey and are typically quite vocal and involved in the game. Some chanting can be heard and fans are usually more engaged at the hockey than at other university sports like basketball or football. The supporters group, 'Varsity Ultras' often make it to hockey games and bring with them their banners and songs to enliven the crowd. General fans at these games also do have strong banner action and individual players are often highlighted with banners rolled out along the corner glass. Still, there really could stand to be more people at these games.
The one exception every year is the School Day game, held during a weekday and open to public schools in the city. Although the crowd is considerably younger, the arena always sells out and becomes an incredibly boisterous place to watch hockey.
The only possible complaint here is that there is only one washroom for each gender. These washrooms are large and certainly able to handle the typical modestly sized crowds but getting to the men's room entails a walk around the concourse from the entrance door.
Otherwise, getting to the arena is easy as can be by public transit, with the bustling St. George station immediately north of the arena. The station is an interchange between the two main lines into or out of downtown in all directions. If you intend to take the car, know that driving and especially parking in Toronto are very difficult to do, especially in winter. There is limited Green P municipal parking just north on Bedford Rd. across from the entrance to the subway, as well as some on-campus parking to the south. If the weather permits, it is an easy walk from most points in downtown or an even easier cycle using Toronto's Bike Share.
Tickets are affordable at just $10 when purchased online, with kids and students admitted free. Seniors also get discounts. Concessions within the arena are inexpensive, and combined with good hockey and an amazing arena, it makes for a good value evening.
An extra point is awarded for the unparalleled success at the university level and across junior and amateur competition over the years.
Another extra has to be awarded for the Olympic gold banner. How many other teams have that?
An extra point for the amazing historical features still preserved like the wooden roof, steel trussing, wooden benches, and brick walls, not to mention the classic uniforms of the team on-ice.
An extra point for the Blues constantly icing competitive sides in both mens' and womens' hockey, coached by the illustrious Darren Lowe and Vicky Sunohara respectively.
Varsity Arena is a living tribute to the numerous legends of the sport. It is also a place where the most storied university hockey club can still take the ice and play with a good deal of success year after year. In a city with so many hockey sites to visit, Varsity Arena must be on the list for any historian or fan of the game.
Member Review by profan9 on Nov 07, 2012
Established in 1827, the University of Toronto is one of the oldest universities in Canada. It was founded 40 years before Canada was even a country. The Varsity Blues hockey team was established in 1891 and have a long and illustrious history in Toronto. The coaching ranks alone feature legendary names including Ace Bailey, Conn Smythe, Mike Keenan, Tom Watt and Lester B. Pearson, who would later go on to be the 14th Prime Minister of Canada.
The Varsity Blues play in legendary Varsity Arena, which is part of the University of Toronto Varsity Centre complex. It is adjacent to the football field and shares an address with the Toronto Varsity Blues football team.
Upon entering Varsity Arena, you are immediately brought back to a time and place of youth hockey in arenas that now seemed to be closed. A trip to Varsity is a trip back in time, where history has a certain smell to it.
208 Bloor St. West
Toronto, ON M5S 3B4
4 Avenue Rd
Toronto, ON M5S 2C7
36 Prince Arthur Ave
Toronto, ON M5R 2J9
4 Avenue Rd
Toronto, ON M5S 2C7