Coca-Cola Coliseum – Toronto Marlies
Photos by Robbie Raskin, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 4.43
Coca-Cola Coliseum 45 Manitoba Dr Toronto, ON M6K 3C3 Canada
Year Opened: 1921
After a century, the Coliseum has never looked better
The economics of hockey mean that all too few historic arenas remain active, with clubs of all levels moving into modern new homes and old ‘barns’ left to the past. Unlike outdoor stadiums, indoor arenas often can’t be expanded and professional clubs tend to simply build new ones when they’re ready. Thank heaven the Toronto Marlies took a different approach.
The Marlies have a storied history stretching back to the late-1800s, when the Toronto Marlborough Athletic Club was formed, with the patronage of the Dukes of Marlborough, an English noble family. Fascinatingly, the hockey club won the Stanley Cup in 1902, back when that iconic trophy was awarded to the champions of the Ontario Hockey Association. By 1927, legendary Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe purchased the team, recognising the need to develop young players ‘in house.’ Over the years, the team moved through different leagues, locations, and names, finally ending up in St. John’s, Newfoundland. In 2005, the Leafs brought the club back home to Toronto (though the Leafs’ relationship with St. John’s has continued at the ECHL level). Upon their return, the team regained the original identity bestowed upon them by the Dukes of Marlborough, but under the shortened ‘Marlies’ moniker (likely to avoid association with the Marlboro cigarette brand).
As a development team owned by the immensely wealthy Maple Leafs, when the Marlies needed a new home they chose to resurrect a classic arena, applying a world class renovation to the historic Coliseum of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. When opened in 1921, the Coliseum was the largest building of its type in the world, primarily used for equestrian events and athletics. By the 1960s, renovations had covered up historic facades and the iconic copper-domed towers at the ends of the arena with grey siding. In the 1990’s this unfortunate modern facelift was removed as the arena was incorporated into a modern convention and events venue.
Finally, in 2002, the arena was rebuilt top-to-bottom to restore its classic design, increase capacity, and incorporate the hockey rink. Matching the long history of the hockey team, the arena combines charm with the best of modern luxuries,. Now celebrating the beginning of its second century, the Coliseum has grown into one of the finest small arenas in the world.
Food & Beverage 5
In many ways, the Coliseum is a miniature version of the Leafs’ Scotiabank Arena nearby, and one of the clearest examples of this is through AHL-leading concessions. The staples of pizza, sausage, Tim Hortons, and sweets are present, with a pizza slice going for $5.50. The more unique items are where Coca-Cola Coliseum excels, including freshly shaved corned beef at The Deli as well as gourmet burgers at St. Patties (paying homage to the Toronto St. Pats, forebears of the Maple Leafs). A very popular choice is poutine from Smoke’s, with long lineups during intermissions. If you’d rather spend the intermission with a cold one, there is a Molson Canadian ‘Hockey House’ pub, cheekily named Lord Stanley’s Mug. Here, standup tables and TVs, along with murals of frozen ponds provide a nice respite from the bustling concourse.
In terms of drink pricing, ‘medium’ Molson Canadian pours go for $10, with a full pint for $14. The slightly elevated option, pub staple Rickards, is fifty cents more. Caesars go for $9.75 and Strongbow cider for $10.25. Vodka coolers, wine, and mixed drinks vary from $8.50 to $15. Non-alcoholic drinks are, of course, from Coca-Cola. All told, concessions aren’t particularly cheap, but they are absolutely top-notch in quality and choice.
Here is where, more than anywhere else, Coca-Cola Coliseum leaves an impression. At 100 years old, the arena oozes history, and the architectural details have been restored with obvious care. At the same time, fans can enjoy a slick, modern feel that beats most other AHL arenas.
Approaching from the outside, the most visible element of the Coliseum is its twin, copper-topped cupola towers and gorgeous brown brick. Fans enter from a modern plaza at the south end of the rink, through a monumental doorway and into a wide concourse ringed with old photos, primarily of the Maple Leafs. The concourse makes a U-shape, but is supplemented by full rings above and in the middle of the seating bowl. Throughout, there are TVs showing the broadcast, with the commentary piped in so fans won’t miss a thing if they leave their seats. Inside the bowl, attractive seats in blue and silver are surmounted by a top-notch video scoreboard – the former NHL scoreboard used by the Maple Leafs. The crisp displays are used to excellent effect with classy and professional presentation, and no gimmickry or gratuitous advertising.
At the north end of the bowl, dark curtains are the backdrop to three banners, including the 2018 Calder Cup championship won by the Marlies. The one drawback is that these curtains cover an historic arched window which, though beautiful, caused glare issues on the ice. The showstopper for the Marlies is a ring of names atop the seating bowl showing every Marlborough who has ‘graduated’ to the Maple Leafs, organised through the years. There are plenty of Hall of Famers on that ring, and its worth coming early to take in the history.
One result of the arena’s history is the unique walk Marlies’ players take from their bench to change room. It involves a segment of the concourse being briefly roped off so the players can pass across it, to the delight of young fans who reach out for a first bump from the players. Also for young fans, Marlies Alley is a family-friendly area off the concourse with interactive games, open before puckdrop. Finally, Duke the Dog (named in homage to the Dukes of Marlborough), is extremely active and is a common sight in the community as well as on matchdays.
It should be noted that there are no home games for two weeks each November. During this stretch, the arena reverts to its historic role as a riding ring for the Royal Winter Fair. And fascinatingly, the arena also closes to hockey for a week in January; the rink is flooded and becomes an artificial lake for the Toronto Boat Show. This is a sight that must be seen to be believed!
Coca-Cola Coliseum is located on the Exhibition Grounds, immediately to the west of Toronto’s downtown neighbourhoods. The immediate vicinity is mostly large buildings for special events during the Canadian National Exhibition, Royal Winter Fair, and other events. For sporting fans, BMO Field is just across the street, home to Toronto FC and the CFL’s Argonauts. Aside from this venue, much of the area is closed off for construction, as a revitalisation campaign has taken over the Ex and the neighbouring Ontario Place theme park.
Still, there are fantastic neighbourhoods within easy walking distance. Immediately north, Liberty Village is known for its pubs, frequented by soccer, football, and rugby (Wolfpack and Arrows) fans. To the east is the Harbourfront; glorious in warm weather though it can be windswept during most of the hockey season. During the depths of winter, brave the cold and skate on one of the many artificial rinks along the lake, or better yet on the lake itself. If you’re walking along the Harbourfront, be sure to pass under the grandiose Princes’ Gates to enter the Exhibition Grounds.
In the years before Covid, the Marlies drew in the top quartile of the AHL, and the fans have begun to come back as restrictions ease in Ontario. Though the Marlies have been successful at the gate, you can’t help but feel there is room for improvement. Despite infamously grotesque ticket prices, the Leafs have sold out virtually every match they’ve played since World War Two. And though the Marlies are often overshadowed in the media by their big brothers, the affordability of tickets here mean they should also be selling out nightly.
That’s not to say they don’t have strong support. A largely young audience, with plenty of hockey teams and school groups, means the volume of the arena is often deafening. You tend not to hear creative insults hurled at opponents, witty chants, or knowledgeable opinions from this crowd, but do get a solid wall of noise from the energetic children who come with their parents, teammates, or classmates. This noise is marshalled by Duke the Dog into ‘Let’s go Marlies’ chants that ring out constantly.
Supplementing this crowd are two supporters groups created by the most dedicated fans; Duke’s Dog Pound in section 116, and the Marlies Army in 114.
Getting to Coca-Cola Coliseum by public transportation is the best option, given the central location, and it could not be easier from anywhere in the region. The Coliseum is located directly adjacent to Exhibition Station, a major interchange between regional trains and local services. There are two good options for travellers coming from the central Union Station; either a ten-minute tram ride or a very quick express train. Firstly, the 509 Harbourfront streetcar runs constantly between Union and Exhibition, with the arena being the last stop. This is a popular choice, as your ride is free when transferring from the subway or local buses. The other option is a quick one-stop ride on the GO Train’s Lakeshore West line. Frequent departures leave Union, and the line reaches as far as Niagara Falls, making it a good option for American visitors looking to ditch their cars before entering the crowded city streets. Check www.triplinx.ca for route planning within the Greater Toronto Area.
A note, though, Exhibition Station is about to undergo a massive, multi-year expansion. As with seemingly everything in Toronto, it will be incredible when complete but first it will be a mess of construction.
If you choose to drive, there is limited onsite parking. Pricing is generally $16, but fluctuates based on demand. Within the arena, washrooms are amply provided and the concourses are wide. However, there can be some crowds in front of concession stands during intermissions.
Return on Investment 4
It’s hard to believe you can see a Toronto hockey team with a maple leaf on their chests at a price tag below three digits. But the Marlies are happy to oblige with tickets often available from $15-$20 for end seats. Platinum seats can go for upwards of $50, which still represents great value. The Marlies are frequently competitive, having won the Calder Cup in 2018.
Coupled with the possibility of cheap public transportation options and relatively reasonable food and drink, a Marlies game makes for a great experience that won’t break the bank, in a city where that’s far from expected.
An extra point for the world class reuse of such an historic arena, infused with history but thoroughly modern in amenities.
An extra point for the tremendous effort the Marlies put into engaging young fans and families, who make up the majority of the crowd on most days.
An extra point for the resurrection of the Marlies name and crest, with the iconic ‘maple leaf and crown’ carrying great significance in Canadian history.
An extra point is deserved for the recent successes of the Marlies, coming off conference championships and the recent Calder Cup win, and the many top-billed Leafs prospects currently playing at the Coliseum.
Though its history as a hockey arena is relatively short, Coca-Cola Coliseum has grown into that role in style. Now into its second century, the historic venue is one of the best and most modern small arenas in the world – it just happens to be a century old at the same time. The Marlies provide attractive hockey that is accessible, compared with the virtual impossibility of seeing the deified Maple Leafs play nearby. The Coliseum is a must for stadium enthusiasts, history buffs, and indeed hockey fans, and is poised to continue that role for the next century and beyond.