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  • Writer's pictureJim Flannery

1st Choice Savings Centre - Lethbridge Pronghorns

Photos Courtesy of Lethbridge Pronghorns Athletics

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.57

1st Choice Savings Centre 4401 University Drive W Lethbridge, AB T1K 6T5 Canada

Year Opened: 2007

Capacity: 2,000

U of L Hoops

The University of Lethbridge opened its doors in 1967. Its athletic program, competing in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) league, were originally known as the Chinooks; the teams are now known as the Pronghorns.

In spite of being a fairly small campus, with around 8,500 students, the sports tradition runs deep at the U of L. Among the most popular teams are the men’s and women’s basketball teams. Southern Alberta is a hotbed for basketball fandom in Canada and so the Pronghorns draw consistently good crowds, as good or better than what comes out to watch the game at Canadian universities much larger than this one.

1st Choice Savings Centre began operations in January, 2007 at a cost of $31 million. The building is still shiny and modern inside and makes for a nice place to visit.

Food & Beverage 2

In the lobby outside of the gymnasium you’ll find a Tim Hortons, which is your only option for real food at 1st Choice Savings Centre. Of course, you can also load up on famous Timmy’s coffee and donuts, but they also make a pretty decent sandwich and their soup is also usually pretty tasty. If you’re looking for something a little less ordinary, however, you’ll be out of luck.

Through the glass doors that lead into the gym you’ll find yourself on an indoor running track. To your right, on the far north end, is a long row of tables set up as a concession stand full of your garden variety treats. Pop, chips, and candy bars are all available for a couple bucks each.

On the other end of the running track, in the far southwest corner, is a podium selling adult beverages. Cash only, this stand has a surprisingly good selection—better even than some bigger, fancier stadiums I’ve been in. For $6 you can choose from Kokanee, Bud Light, Big Rock Traditional, Coors Banquet, Palm Bay Key Lime Cherry, and a couple more options as well if you’re looking to get your drink on.

Atmosphere 3

In an arena that holds 2,000 people, the Pronghorns typically draw about 800 fans, which is a decent turnout for CIS basketball.

Typically in the CIS, both the women and the men play in back-to-back games, so you’re getting two games for the price of your game ticket. People tend to file in over the course of the women’s game, so the early game tends to be quieter than the late game.

There isn’t a lot of energy in the stands in either the women’s or men’s game, with people content to sit back, relax, and enjoy the action on the floor. Eyes tend to be on the game, though, so people appear engaged and there are appropriate cheers and boos for big plays.

Because 1st Choice Savings Centre is such a new building it looks beautiful and clean inside. Clusters of lights near the rafters keep the court area brightly lit without being intrusive. Also up near the rafters, on the east and west ends of the court, are the championship banners the Pronghorns have earned over the years, including the Canada West Division championship banners won by the men’s basketball team (1985-86) and the women’s team (1992-93). The retired jersey number of local great Danny Balderson is also hanging alongside the banners.

The seating area features comfortable plastic seats and plenty of leg room, making this quite a pleasant place to watch a game.

Neighbourhood 3

West Lethbridge is mostly a residential area, with a smattering of commercial buildings, especially to the north end, and the University campus situated at about the midpoint and overlooking the coulees that separate West Lethbridge from the rest of the city.

You are probably out of luck if you are looking for some entertainment options on campus. There is a single campus bar, The Zoo, located upstairs in the Students Union Building. The Zoo is open before and after Friday games (until 11:00 pm), but it is closed on Saturdays. You have no better than a 50/50 shot of visiting this place as a result of the conservative hours of operation.

A better bet is the West Village Mall which is about two blocks west of the U of L campus and features several spots where you can grab some food before or after the game. For conventional fare, there’s a joint KFC/Taco Bell on one corner and a Dairy Queen on the other. There are also two pubs in the mall: Pop’s Taphouse and Backstreet Pub and Pizza. I recommend trying the Jamie Sandwich at the Backstreet; it’s a sandwich made of pizza fixin’s, and delicious.

If you’re willing to take a bit of a drive, there are a number of other dining options to the north along University Dr. My favourite is Mojo’s Pub and Grill, which has more of a family-friendly atmosphere than Pop’s or Backstreet. The burgers there are very good and the sports pub atmosphere is comfortable and pleasant.

Overall, there’s probably enough local entertainment to meet the needs of the few hundred people in attendance at Pronghorns games. But ultimately, if you’re looking for the heart of Lethbridge’s entertainment scene, you’ll be taking a drive down Whoop-Up Dr. to either the downtown core or all the way out to Mayor Magrath Dr. S. While this actually isn’t that long a drive in the grand scheme of things (10-15 minutes), it does mean that you’ll be crossing the city to get to other interesting places.

Fans 3

A crowd of 800 to a Canadian university basketball game is a pretty good turnout so that’s pretty encouraging. On the other hand, in a venue with more than double that capacity it still seems somewhat sparsely populated. A fairly sedate crowd adds to this sense that the place is on the empty side.

Nevertheless, looking around the stands, it is clear that the audience is engaged with the action on the floor, even if they aren’t as demonstrative as I would like. Folks in southern Alberta are basketball fans; they understand the game, they enjoy the game, and it isn’t just a handful of friends and family of the players, as you sometimes see at CIS events.

While I would love there to be a little more energy in the stands, it is nice to see a healthy-sized crowd in attendance that cares about their team.

Access 5

West Lethbridge is a bit of a drive away from the rest of the city, separated as it is by a deep valley of coulees and the Oldman River, but in a city of about 100,000, nothing is really that far away from anything else. I guess it’s all relative.

Parking in Lot E is your best bet. Situated right next to 1st Choice Savings Centre, parking here after business hours and on weekends is free. Lethbridge Transit also has a stop to the immediate south of the building, so a $3 bus fare can get you right to the door of the facility from just about anywhere in the city.

Inside, the facility’s main concourse is clean and spacious and features a glass wall looking through to the campus climbing wall. Passing through the glass doors into the running track above the court area puts you in a very roomy area, with a significant number of fans staying up top around the perimeter of the seating area to watch the game from that higher vantage point.

Getting in and out of the building and the parking lot take no time at all as there is ample space to move around and get to where you’re going.

Return on Investment 5

Tickets for all Pronghorns games are $12 for adults, $9 for seniors, $7 for youths, and free for kids under four years of age. University students can get in for $3. Considering that your price of admission gets you in to see both the women’s and men’s games, that’s great value for your entertainment dollar.

Pronghorns basketball, with the possible exception of the Lethbridge College Kodiaks, is the highest-calibre basketball in southern Alberta. Getting to take in two games for the price of one at this level is pretty much the best deal in town.

Extras 4

The U of L has its championship banners hanging above the gymnasium, reminding fans and players alike of the team’s proud history. The concourse of 1st Choice Centre also features display cabinets with photos and memorabilia from Pronghorn’s history, adding to the sense of history in the building.

Just inside the gym doors is a Pronghorns gazebo setup where tickets are taken and where you can grab a selection of Pronghorns souvenirs. Shirts, sweatshirts, stadium clappers and a few other items can be picked up here.

At halftime there are a few audience participation activities to keep the crowd’s interest and entertain the youngsters. At the game I attended there was also a big bouncy castle in the north west corner of the running track up top for kids who are a little too young to stay focused on the game for that long.

The Pronghorns also have a cheerleader squad that performs routines on the sidelines during stoppages in game action and that comes out onto the floor to do a few routines over the course of the evening as well.

I’m always happy to see recycling bins at a stadium and 1st Choice Savings Centre does. You’ll find bottle and can recycling in several locations, keeping the world a little cleaner and tidier.

Final Thoughts

Overall, this is a pretty nice atmosphere to watch some quality basketball. The Centre itself is a lovely building, the competition on the floor is great, and the audience is pleasant to be around. If you enjoy getting out to see the kids toss the rock around, as I do, this is a solid, cost-effective option.

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