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  • Robbie Raskin

FirstOntario Centre - Hamilton Bulldogs

Photos by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.86

FirstOntario Centre 101 York Blvd Hamilton, ON L8R 3L4

Year Opened: 1985

Capacity: 17,383

Home of (Future) NHLers

Hockey in Hamilton, Ontario has a long history of clubs in leagues up and down the hockey spectrum, from the juniors to the NHL and all points in between. High-level hockey began in the city in 1920, when the Hamilton Tigers laced up in the fledgling NHL. The club took its name and colours from the popular Canadian football team that would eventually merge with their rival Wildcats to become the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The early years of the hockey side were filled with futility, with the players even going on strike in 1924.

The team got sold to New York City in 1925, when they became the Americans, and NHL hockey in Hamilton ended. However, the Ontario Hockey Association came to town in 1953 with the Tiger Cubs, who moved around the Hamilton-Niagara area under various names including, most famously, the Fincups who won the 1976 Memorial Cup – the most recent junior trophy in Hamilton until now.

But first, the team moved out and Hamilton began to pursue its NHL dream again. Building the Copps Coliseum in 1985, the Steel City grew frustrated by repeated NHL expansions to warm climates. The situation became so aggravating that Mayor Bob Morrow quipped Hamilton would get their NHL team “when Honolulu wins the Stanley Cup and two Mexican cities are in trouble because of the declining peso.”

The American Hockey League eventually opened up in Hamilton, first with Vancouver’s farm team, then Montreal’s. Finally, the Bulldogs, as they were known, won the 2007 Calder Cup. However, the carousel continued as the club moved to Laval, Quebec, to be closer to their NHL parents. Instead, the storied Belleville Bulls OHL team moved to Hamilton (itself replaced by Ottawa’s new AHL farm team, the Belleville Senators).

And once again, a championship banner will rise at the Coliseum (now named FirstOntario Centre). The Bulldogs – as an OHL club – are 2018 Ontario champions. They now compete for the Memorial Cup and a shot at national glory but as the famous black-and-yellow colours associated with the city have achieved newfound success, the hopes for some stability rise, and the dream for the eventual return of NHL hockey continues.

Food & Beverage 3

Concession items at FirstOntario Centre are about what one would expect at a junior rink, with a couple interesting items. The regular items include hot dogs, sausages, popcorn, pizza, and chicken fingers all for between $4 and $6. There is also the Candy Counter & Sweet Shop selling chocolate bars and other sweet items.

A popular stand is Lou’s BBQ, where fresh carved meats are available ranging from ribs to sandwiches. Another interesting option is Rita’s Ice Custard, with the first Canadian outpost of the American chain located just around the corner. Their stand in the rink sells gelato and other ice cream treats.

Cin City sells warm cinnamon doughnuts and the Hot Dog Hut has gourmet dogs and sausages.

The Budweiser King Club often has live bands before the game and during the intermission, and is a good place to meet for a beer. In terms of beer throughout the concourse, options are limited. On tap, there is unfortunately only Budweiser or Bud Light ($12). Tallboy can options are a little better, consisting of Alexander Keith’s and Mill Street Organic, as well as Stella Artois ($9.75-$10.50). Brickworks Cider goes for $12 with wine and coolers also available. Spirits are served too, including Wiser’s whisky, Lamb’s rum, Beefeater gin, and Absolut vodka. Soft drinks ($5) are from Pepsi.

For a more secluded spot, The Lounge and Hammer Hideaway are places to have a pint away from the crowds; a level below the concourse.

Atmosphere 4

Approaching the arena, it is obvious that FirstOntario Centre is an arena first and foremost, with the underside of the upper bowl visible extending above the concourse level. Even more obvious, though, is the fact that the arena was built in the 1980s. Both of those design ideas are true throughout the arena and the result is a uniquely large and professional-feeling arena for junior hockey, but one also lacking the modern vistas found almost everywhere else in the OHL these days.

Before and after the harsh winter weather, the exterior is enhanced by some pregame entertainment along Bay Street and some tents from the team to engage fans before entering.

Entering the arena, fans ascend escalators up to the concourse level. The concourse is wide and there are some good spots to catch a glimpse of ice level, especially in the corners. There are a couple murals commemorating big moments in the arena’s history, though Hamilton’s rich hockey heritage could be better commemorated.

Inside the seating bowl, the NHL scale of the arena becomes apparent, though the upper tier is usually curtained off to provide a more intimate experience. The open lower bowl seats are dark blue and comfortable, though the scoreboard is somewhat dated. It is used fairly effectively, and in-game promotions are actually engaging rather than distracting, however a more modern scoreboard would improve the situation. The presentation is enhanced by fire which spits from the boards as the team enter the ice and, in a rare but fantastic step, fireworks which explode following a win.

The arena can feel cavernous with the often smaller crowds for OHL hockey, though when the barn fills up for the playoffs, the atmosphere is incomparable in junior hockey.

Neighbourhood 5

FirstOntario Centre is located in the city centre, steps from much of the best of what Hamilton has to offer.

Hamilton itself is known as the Steel City, and is primarily a working class, blue collar town on the western edge of the Golden Horseshoe metropolis. It is one of the larger cities in Canada, although it is sometimes subsumed as part of Toronto’s circle of gravity. It has historically been known both for its massive steel plants along the harbor and its abundant nature, with the Niagara Escarpment running through the middle of town (locally known as ‘the Mountain’). Today, the exploding housing prices in Toronto have meant artists and young people are gentrifying Hamilton very quickly and the city is undergoing a massive growth spurt and culture change.

Within an easy walk of FirstOntario Centre, Hamilton’s attractions unveil themselves. Within a five-minute walk is the main throughfare, James Street, with many new cafes, pubs, and art galleries. King Street, also nearby, is the central business district. Also just around the corner is the Hamilton Art Gallery, historic Dundurn Castle, and a handful of hotels including the Sheraton, the new HomeWood Suites, and the Staybridge.

Not far away is Hamilton’s Bayfront area, with museums and parkland. Cootes Paradise is a beautiful natural sanctuary, near McMaster University, at the western edge of Lake Ontario.

For good eats and drinks, King William Street is a block away, with various restaurants and drinking holes. Also around the corner is Hamilton’s party quarter, Hess Village, with bars and nightclubs. For other sporting options, the CFL’s storied Hamilton Tiger-Cats play in new Tim Hortons Field. Though outside of hockey season, seeing them play their archrivals Toronto Argonauts over Labour Day Weekend is a near-religious experience. McMaster University is nearby as well, with various athletic teams and a pretty home field for football, soccer, and other sports at Ron Joyce Stadium.

The transit hub, Hamilton GO Centre is also nearby, as is the West Harbour train station. Both stations provide convenient bus and train service to Toronto and its suburbs.

Fans 3

It is difficult to give an accurate rating to the fans of the Bulldogs this 2018 season. For much of the year, fans seemed to stay away, perhaps wanting higher-level hockey in their large city. However, as the playoffs rolled around, the fans filled the lower bowl, and even some of the upper bowl, and created an atmosphere unmatched in the OHL.

Hamilton fans do seem to be louder and more boisterous than many of their counterparts in usually-staid Southern Ontario. Perhaps it stems from the blue collar nature of the city or perhaps from the leadership of the prolific supporters’ group, Golden City Brigade. They lead the chanting in their corner section, 118, and that is the place to sit for the most engaged experience year-round. Armed with a drum and flashcards for upcoming chants, the energy emanates from 118 throughout the rink. The supporters and players have a good relationship, as the players saluted 118 specifically after their championship win.

In the playoffs, the energetic fan base reached their most vibrant. Flags, horns, cowbells, and chanting abounded and, even from the press box, it can be difficult to even hear yourself think at times. Fans were on their feet frequently and the energy was irresistible. This year’s OHL championship was certainly brought about in large part by the vocal support during the playoffs.

Access 5

Getting in and around FirstOntario Centre is perfectly easy for anyone. Within the arena, the concourses and washrooms are easily adequate for the normal crowds well under capacity. Even with larger crowds, the circulation is acceptable for arena standards.

Getting to the arena is even better, no matter how you arrive. By car, the rink is a short drive down York Boulevard from the east-west Highway 403 and not far from the urban expressway network of the city. There is lots of parking nearby, though it can be expensive, ranging from $10 to $20.

Arriving by public transportation is a more cost-effective, and equally straightforward idea, with the Hamilton Street Railway operating frequent bus services to the rink, and the central McNab Transit Terminal a block away.

Additionally, arriving by bike is a good idea if possible, with high-quality, segregated bike lanes leading to the rink from all directions and plenty of bicycle parking in front.

Coming from out of town is also exceptionally simple, with two GO Train stations nearby. Hamilton GO Centre is a couple blocks away and has service on the Lakeshore West train line, as well as buses to numerous Toronto suburbs such as Mississauga (home of the OHL Steelheads) and York Region, and other cities like Guelph, Brantford, and the Niagara Region.

The West Harbour train station, also nearby, is on the Lakeshore West line as well and is newly-opened. Aldershot train station, a short bus ride north, is the hub for intercity VIA trains and express GO trains to Toronto’s Union Station.

Return on Investment 3

In general, OHL hockey is tremendous value and Hamilton is no different. Tickets go for between $20-$30 and concession prices are decent for a big-city venue. Parking is a little more expensive than in smaller OHL cities, but that is a function of Hamilton’s size. The product on the ice has been fantastic and when the rink is full, the atmosphere itself is intoxicating enough to be worth the price of admission.

Extras 4

An extra mark for the Golden City Brigade leading section 118 in chanting, the ‘viking clap’ and other exciting support. They have played a part in an atmosphere better than anywhere else in the OHL when full.

An extra mark for the acknowledgement of interns from Mohawk College who assist with game day production. They are saluted and given a rousing ovation each game.

An extra mark for the use of fireworks celebrating wins, which is rare at indoor arenas.

A final extra mark is deserved for the incredible atmosphere created by the fans in the playoffs, which is truly second-to-none. If they can continue to show up in large numbers year-round in the future, the fan score will rise substantially.

Final Thoughts

When the arena isn’t full, the FirstOntario Centre is a decent place to watch very, very good hockey being played in the centre of a lively and growing city. When full, the atmosphere is unsurpassed and will sweep any casual fan up in it. The proximity to both Toronto and the American border, combined with plenty to do, make Hamilton a great stop on the sporting calendar and continued success might make the Bulldogs the stable hockey team the city has wanted for so long.

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