Budweiser Gardens - London Knights
Photos by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 4.00
Budweiser Gardens 99 Dundas St London, ON N6A 6K1
Year Opened: 2002
Knightmare to Knightsdream
It is amazing to consider where the London Knights have been versus their current standing. In 1996, the Ontario Hockey League team toiled in the decrepit London Ice House, played with the confusing and un-London “Spiderknight” jersey, and amassed a record low three wins in a season. Fast-forward to the current Knights. They are the envy of the larger Canadian Hockey League, of which the OHL is a member. The Knights have solid ownership in Dale and Mark Hunter along with Basil McRae, a beautiful, modern, trend-setting building in the Budweiser Gardens, Memorial Cup Championships in 2005 and 2016, and the best season in CHL history with 59 wins in 2005. The ownership situation has become trend setting in junior hockey with former NHL players playing owner, GM and coaching roles.
The London Knights were founded in 1965 as the London Nationals in the OHA. Their colour scheme and logo mimicked the Toronto Maple Leafs and their blue and white. In 1968 the Nationals would be reborn as the London Knights. The Hunters purchased the Knights at the perfect time as the City of London agreed to build a downtown arena to replace the London Ice House. The John Labatt Centre opened in 2002 and helped usher in a new era in the OHL of new or renovated facilities and quickly became the gold standard in arenas in the league. Since the opening of what was later renamed the Budweiser Gardens, success at the turnstile and on the ice coincided and the Knights, who were also-rans, in the OHL for years enjoyed their best seasons ever. Going from a nightmare to a dream come true has been an amazing ride for the fans in London and there are no signs of slowing down.
Food & Beverage 3
Concession options at Budweiser Gardens are fairly average for the OHL. Item variety and pricing is decent. Candy, pizza, popcorn, hot dogs, sausage and nachos are all readily available. Pepsi products are the soft drink of choice and draught beer is also available at all stands. There are other stands in Budweiser Gardens that specialize in suds. As expected, Labatt and Budweiser products are readily available with a few craft options also. A couple of bars can be found as well.
Budweiser Gardens is located in downtown London. The original name, the John Labatt Centre, had strong links to the community as Labatt Breweries was founded in London. The exterior of the building is quite attractive, fitting right into the downtown ambience. The north side of the building is a little more inconspicuous, using some of the original building as part of the facade. The main entrance and square can be found at the south, by King Street.
Inside, there is no doubt that this is the home of the Knights. The team store is pretty expansive and also features posters of a number of recent former Knights greats. The concourses are attractive and offer a clear path to the seating bowl. Unlike most junior hockey facilities, Budweiser Gardens has two levels of seating, split by luxury boxes. This gives the Gardens, one of the largest capacities in the entire Canadian Hockey League. The ice surface runs from west to east with the perfect view of the centre ice logo from the south side. The upper deck is horseshoe like, with the higher end of seating on the east end. Sight lines are terrific from pretty much everywhere.
The recent success of the Knights is evident, as the rafters are littered with banners. The retired numbers of Dino Ciccarelli, Rob Ramage, Brad Marsh, Darryl Sittler, David Bolland, Rick Nash, Brendan Shanahan and Corey Perry hang proudly on the north side of the building. The south side of the building has the division, conference and other championship banners. The highlights would include 2005, 2012, 2013 and 2016 J. Ross Robertson Cup banners as OHL Champions and the 2005 and 2016 Memorial Cup banners as Canadian Hockey League Champions.
The game day production at a Knights game is fairly simple and trends to a “hockey first” mentality. The game is not over-produced and has the right balance of music, promotions and action. Scorezy, the Knights mascot, participates in the opening of the game and can be found interacting with the crowd around the arena. A great atmosphere for hockey for sure.
Unlike many OHL venues, Budweiser Gardens is located in the downtown core. There are plenty of bars and restaurants in the immediate area to satiate the fan looking for a pre or post game experience. Right across Talbot Street from the Budweiser Gardens is the former farmers market building, which is still used for a number of different businesses. Olive R Twist, Waldo’s On King, Petit Paris Creperie, Kleiber’s Deli, The Chocolate Factory and The Salad Bowl can all be found in the Covent Garden Market building. The Squire, Abruzzi, The Works and Michael’s on the Thames are all easily within walking distance of the Gardens.
There are other sporting options in town as well. The London Lightning of the CBL also play in Budweiser Gardens. There is still baseball at the historic Labatt Memorial Park with the London Majors of the Intercounty League. Western University, formerly the University of Western Ontario, also fields a full slate of athletic programs which have a solid following. Football is played at TD Stadium, hockey is played at Thompson Arena and basketball is played in the very unique Alumni Hall. Checking out Covent Garden Market or Fanshawe Pioneer Village is also a decent idea. The London Music Hall is a couple blocks north and may have an interesting show.
For fans who wish to stay near the arena, the Delta London Armouries and Holiday Inn are both close by and good options.
Since the Knights have transitioned from the Knightmare and moved into Budweiser Gardens, fans in London have turned out in droves to support the team. The Knights enjoy some of the best support in the entire Canadian Hockey League. They average just a hair under 9,000 fans per game, which is consistently tops in the OHL. In the CHL, the only teams that enjoy a larger per game attendance are those that play in NHL sized arenas and have a larger population base. The fans that are in attendance are knowledgeable and loud. The crowd is fairly intense into the game and mature enough, with enough hockey IQ, that over-promotion is not necessary.
Budweiser Gardens is located between Dundas and King Streets at the corner of Talbot Street. This is the heart of downtown London. It is a pretty fair distance from Highway 401, which runs east-west across southern Ontario. If you are heading in from the highway, make sure that you give yourself enough time to make it downtown. For fans interested in taking public transit to the game, there are buses that run along King Street among others. Fans should check out the London Transit Commission website for fares, maps and schedules.
Conversely, after the game, getting out of downtown London can take some time as well. There is parking around downtown, but you will pay for it, which in the world junior hockey, is not a plus.
Inside, the concourses on the main floor are a pretty good size and travel is pretty good. However, the upper deck concourses are quite small and get congested easily. The washrooms are also pretty small and lineups are common during intermissions and peak times.
Return on Investment 4
Junior Hockey offers terrific value for the sporting dollar. Tickets for the Knights run between $22.50 to $36.75 for VIP seating. Parking can run between $5 and $20 which is definitely high for the OHL. Concession prices are about what one would expect for a junior hockey venue. On the flip side, the action on the ice is top notch and the Knights seem to be competitive every single season. The experience is a solid one for hockey veterans and is definitely not over-produced.
An extra mark for the unprecedented success that the Knights have enjoyed since moving to the Budweiser Gardens.
An extra mark for the Hunters’ ownership of the Knights, which has become the gold standard in the OHL and CHL.
An extra mark for London hosting the 2014 Memorial Cup Tournament.
An extra mark for London incorporating the existing architecture on the north side of the building on Dundas Street.
The London Knights are one of the elite junior hockey programs in all of the Canadian Hockey League. Mark and Dale Hunter have forged a program that is the envy of many markets. Budweiser Gardens is among the best venues there is and London is one of the best markets in the league. A trip to see the London Knights is well worth the trip and should be on the bucket list for all.
Follow all of Dave’s sporting adventures on Twitter @profan9 and on Instagram.