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Official Review by Scott Montesano, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
With arguably the deepest tradition of hockey in the state, Waterloo could make a case for being the center for hockey in Iowa. Most of that history revolves around the Waterloo Blackhawks franchise that has been a part of various incarnations of the United States Hockey League dating back to the 1960s. First as a professional franchise and then as a junior club, the Blackhawks have gone through glorious times and survived through the turmoil of lackluster ownership, dismal crowds and a local economy hurt hard by the loss of manufacturing jobs. At present (2012-2013 season), the Blackhawks are at one of the strongest points in the team’s history both on the ice and in fan support and much of that turnaround can be pointed to their facility, Young Arena, which was opened in 1995 and was built specifically for them to replace the aging McElroy Auditorium. Since moving into Young Arena, the Blackhawks have routinely filled the building that seats roughly 3,300 and have been a playoff team nearly every season for the last decade.
At the time it was built, Waterloo and Young Arena provided an abnormality in junior hockey in the United States. It was the first time a community had built a modern, professional style arena specifically for a USHL franchise and though the building has hosted a few other events, its low roof and overall layout makes it clear the city knew hockey was going to be the main focus here.
The building has a horseshoe shaped seating design with 20 rows of individual plastic seats except where there is bleacher seating behind one of the goals. All fans walk down to their seats and the concourse is open. In fact, the squared off section of the horseshoe is a popular place for fans to stand and watch the game.
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".
Young Arena offers the standard arena fare from pizza to hot dogs to walking tacos and of course beer. Prices are comparable to any facility with a soda and a hot dog costing about $5 depending on the size of the beverage selected. Beer prices are around $6 depending on whether it's an import or domestic though the option to have a Molson is unusual in Iowa and welcomed by many hockey fans. Concession stands are plentiful for a building of its size with two main stands located on each side of the facility.
With other options around Young Arena, if possible eat before the game. There is nothing wrong with Young Arena, but the other options nearby are worth it.
Young Arena provides a fantastic atmosphere which is enhanced by very competitive Blackhawk teams in recent years. The fans know their hockey and know their team and are into the game from beginning to end. With the building featuring a low roof, sound has nowhere to go and even a smaller crowd of around 1,800 will still feel full. The team thankfully discarded the use of techno music for its pregame warm-up a few years ago and now feature the standard arena rock classics and that only makes the game that much more enjoyable. The building itself is less than 20 years old and has a modern, sleek feel with concrete and glass but there is still something "old-school" (in a good way) about the place that you can't quite put your finger on.
The only drawback is the prevalence of cowbells which many of the diehard fans use with liberalness. The cowbells are only magnified by the low hanging metal roof which bounces the sound back and forth off your eardrums for three straight hours. Without the cowbells, the building would still be the loudest in the entire USHL as the fans know their hockey and don't rely entirely on the cowbells to make noise as they do in some other arenas.
This said, those who do like the use of cowbells and believe they are an excellent noisemaker will love this place with no reservations at all.
The arena is located in downtown and Waterloo, IA is the kind of small town one would imagine. This isn't midtown Manhattan but at the same time there is plenty of parking in lots around the arena and a few worthwhile destinations before or after the game. Many people coming to games choose to stay at the Ramada Inn which is just two short blocks away and the local hangouts the Penalty Box and Doughy Joey's are close by. The Penalty Box is where most longtime fans enjoy a burger or beer before or after the game while Doughy Joey's is a good pizza place located next to the Ramada Inn.
Loyal and passionate, few fan bases in the country can match the Waterloo Blackhawks' supporters. Some of these fans have been attending games since the 1960s and 1970s and can remember when the franchise had annual thoughts of folding each spring. They remember games at the old McElroy Auditorium, but are quick to say how thankful the whole community was for Young Arena.
Games against Cedar Rapids are almost always sold out, while the team averages around 2,500 yearly so tickets are usually available at the door.
Downtown Waterloo is located off I-380 which splits off from I-80 roughly 90 minutes to the southeast in Iowa City. Once around Young Arena, parking is plentiful and free despite being in a downtown setting. Traveling to Waterloo can be difficult as only county and state roads provide access from the north, west and southwest and the community features just a tiny regional airport. The airport in Cedar Rapids, which is 45 minutes away has a few more flight options but not many.
Waterloo is a good hockey market with a good fan base and team. Seeing a game in Waterloo is watching hockey in a classic small-city setting where a junior team is viewed with the same passion of any pro team in a larger market.
McElroy Auditorium, which used to house the Blackhawks, still stands and continues to serve as the home of the National Cattle Congress each year and a few other events. Located near Young Arena is the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum which honors the region's soldiers in a number of conflicts, but centers on the Sullivan Brothers whom the movie "Saving Private Ryan" was loosely based on.
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118 Commercial St
Waterloo, IA 50701