- Dave Cottenie
Dow Event Center - Saginaw Spirit
Photos by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.00
Wendler Arena at Dow Event Center 303 Johnson St Saginaw, MI 48601
Year Opened: 1972
Michigan’s Hockey Spirit
The failure of the North Bay Centennials in 2002 brought a third Ontario Hockey League team from Canada to the United States. Keeping a team in Michigan secures draft rights for all Michigan players entering the Canadian Hockey League to an OHL team, so keeping a team in Michigan is strategically solid move. The Centennials would move to Saginaw, Michigan, who had been without a team since the departure of the Saginaw Gears of the UHL. The newly minted Saginaw Spirit franchise would carry with it some degree of OHL history. Originally the St. Catharines Falcons, the franchise was founded in 1943 and would feature players such as Bobby Hull in their early days. Moves to Niagara Falls, Ontario in 1976 and North Bay in 1982 would eventually lead to the team landing in Saginaw.
Home for the Spirit would be the Wendler Arena at The Dow Event Center. Built in 1972, the arena is now part of a larger events center which includes the Atrium, The Garden Room, The Theatre, The Red Room and Huntington Event Park. The events center was brought back to prominence in Saginaw with a naming rights deal with the Midland based Dow Chemical Company. Owned by Saginaw County, Wendler Arena is named after the former mayor of Saginaw, Paul Wendler, who was instrumental in bringing hockey to the Central Michigan city.
When owner Richard Garber brought the Centennials to Saginaw, it took them some time to get their feet under them as they did not make the playoffs their first three years in Michigan. Success for the Spirit would be challenging as they would boast one lowly division title in their 25 years in Saginaw. Garber would bring in additional ownership including Brandon Bordeaux, Jimmy Devellano and former Red Wing, Chris Osgood. With a small city population of under 50,000, currently a poor team on the ice and economic challenges in Central Michigan, the Spirit are having a bit of a rough go. That being said, there is still hope that Michigan’s hockey spirit can continue to thrive in the OHL.
Food & Beverage 3
Concession options at Wendler Arena are decent enough. There are four main concession areas within the outer concourse of the arena and offer a small variety of food options. In what seems to be a staple of junior hockey facilities, the distinct smell of beer nuts wafts throughout the concourse giving fans a reason to take notice. All of the expected arena fare is available including hot dogs ($3), pizza ($4), popcorn ($4), chicken fingers, fries, candy and chips. Soda options are Pepsi products ($2.50/$4) and can be found throughout the arena. Bottled water and Tim Hortons coffee can also be found all over the arena. Options that fans should consider include Olvera’s BBQ, which features brisket, pulled pork or chicken fajitas, or Jet’s Pizza, which is excellent. Alcohol is available in Wendler Arena. The adjoining Red Room offers a full-service bar for patrons before and during the game. It is a great spot to meet with other fans during intermissions.
Also available in the concourse are Sam Adams beers and Angry Orchard.
Saginaw provides a decent hockey experience for Junior Hockey. The Dow Event Center is one of the nicer OHL venues from the exterior. The Atrium can be found on the north side of Johnson Street and offers a warm, welcoming feeling for fans coming out of the cold, Central Michigan winter. Glassed in and spacious, the Atrium is a great place to meet friends before the game and also houses security and the ticketing windows. The upper rotunda features hanging banners of significant, former Saginaw Spirit players. These include Ryan McDonough, Jack Combs, Josh Shalla, Vince Trocheck, Dylan Sadowy, Brandon Saad, T.J. Brodie, Tom Pyatt, Eric Locke, Brad Walch, Patrick McNiell and Jake Paterson.
Upon entering the Wendler Arena, fans are welcomed to the outer concourse. Unfortunately, the outer concourse, which houses all of the concessions, is horseshoe shaped and does not offer fans the ability to travel all the way around the arena. The outer concourse does show its age with brown brick which screams seventies and eighties. Entering the inner concourse, which basically runs 360 degrees around the ice surface, fans are greeted with the three-tiered seating system the Spirit runs. There are nine rows of seating above the outer concourse, four below the outer concourse and another four that are at ice level. The age of the building has forced the team to come up with creative solutions for luxury boxes. One box sits above the arena on the end and others are at ice level, in the corners. The ice surface runs from east to west and that perfect picture with the center ice logo will come from the south end stands. There are only a couple of banners that hang from the rafters at the north end. The lone OHL banner for the 2011 West Division Champions hangs beside the Saginaw Gears banner which also commemorates the 1977 and 1982 Turner Cups the team brought back to Michigan. The retired number 89 of Vince Trocheck hangs with the other banners. Center ice features a very nice, three-tiered videoboard. The Spirit also have traditional simple scoreclocks in the northeast and southwest corners of the arena.
The gameday experience is about what you would expect from an OHL club. The players enter the ice through the high-five alley and through a gate with multiple flood lights. The Spirit make good use of their mascots including Sammy Spirit, who lead the players on the ice with flags that they skate around the ice with. The Wendler Arena has a solid LED lighting system, which the Spirit make good use of during the pre-game.
Although there are a few spots of interest in the greater Saginaw area, the immediate area around the arena does not offer a ton. Fans who are looking for something before the game are wisest to consider heading south of The Dow. There fans can find a couple of spots to eat including Rally’s, Savoy Bar & Grill and Bradley’s Bistro.
There are definitely some key attractions in the greater Saginaw area.Just south of Saginaw is Frankenmuth, where tourists come from far and wide to experience Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland.It is open all year round and offers a near infinite number of Christmas items for sale.In nearby Birch Run is one of the best spots for outlet shopping with the Premium Outlets at Birch Run.Other sporting options in the area include the Midwest League’s Great Lakes Loons who play in Midland at theDow Diamond. The closest rival of the Spirit is the Flint Firebirds, who play at the Dort Federal Credit Union Center.For some NCAA action, fans can take a short jaunt to Mount Pleasant where the Central Michigan Chippewas play football atKelly/Shorts Stadiumand basketball at McGuirk Arena.
For fans who need a place to stay, the Ramada Saginaw Hotel and Suites is not far from the arena. Another option is the Best Western at Birch Run, which is right by the Premium Outlets.
In recent years, the Saginaw Spirit have struggled at the gate. A team that hasn’t been great on the ice and some difficult economic times are definitely culprits in the challenges the Spirit have faced. The 2017-2018 season has seen the Spirit average less than 3,000 fans per game, which puts them in 16th place in the 20 team OHL. This figure has fallen from the previous few years where the spirit averaged over 3,300 and found themselves at the bottom of the middle third of the league in attendance. A number of sections in Wendler Arena were tarped off with advertising, which was disappointing to see and a little depressing. At one point, Wendler Arena was rocking and the support in Saginaw was very strong. Obviously, support has fallen off from that point. The fans that are in attendance are pretty quiet and reserved, but the game that was reviewed was a bit of a blowout, so apathy is understandable.
The Dow Event Center is located one block east of the Saginaw River and immediately south of I-675. Getting to the arena is not difficult at all, especially with consideration to the lower attendance figure the Spirit have experienced. Parking can be found immediately south of the arena as well as to the west. Finding parking should not be an issue and is $6, which is not out of line for OHL hockey.
For fans who wish to take public transit, the bus terminal is just east of the arena. Fans can check the Saginaw Transit Authority Regional services website for fares, schedules and maps.
The ticketing windows are open inside the Atrium and offer quick service out of the cold winter elements. The will-call desk is uniquely on the other side of the security, which is what you would expect to find in most major arenas, including metal detectors.
With the two concourses, getting around Wendler Arena is no problem at all. The washroom facilities are also adequate for the arena, especially with the reduced attendance.
Return on Investment 4
Ontario Hockey League games continue to offer some of the best value for the sporting dollar. Spirit tickets go for $19, $17 or $15 depending on the location of the seat. There are also discounts for children, students and seniors. Parking can be found for $6 and the concession prices are good. The product on the ice is excellent with the OHL and the ability to bring the family out to a Spirit game is far greater than at a major league experience.
An extra point for stickers identifying season ticket holders on seats in the Wendler Arena
An extra point for a budding rivalry with the nearby Flint Firebirds
Michigan’s Hockey Spirit may be on the downside in Saginaw. That being said, the Spirit have brought the fans in from the cold in droves in the past and have the ability to do so again in the future. Perhaps a better team on the ice will help rekindle interest in the OHL club and the Saginaw Spirit will once again take their place among the elite level programs in the OHL.
Follow all of Dave’s sporting adventures on Twitter @profan9 and on Instagram.