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  • Writer's pictureDave Cottenie

FirstOntario Centre - Toronto Rock

Photos by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.41

FirstOntario Centre 101 York Blvd Hamilton, ON L8R 3L4

Year Opened: 1985

Capacity: 17,383

Rock City

In Hamilton, Ontario in 1985, Victor K. Copps Coliseum opened to welcome the National Hockey League.  They never came.  Over three decades later and still no NHL, Copps Coliseum is due for a massive renovation.  To say that this process has been smooth sailing in Hamilton would be a stretch at the very least.  Renamed the FirstOntario Centre in Honour of Victor K. Copps in 2014, the arena is set to close its doors for two years at minimum in a huge overhaul of the venue.  What it will reopen to is a bit of a question.  Three main tenants called FirstOntario Centre home.  The Hamilton Honey Badgers of the CEBL, the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs and the Toronto Rock of the NLL.  The Honey Badgers permanently bolted for Brampton, while an expected new building in Brantford is expected to make the rebranding of the Brantford Bulldogs, a permanent one.  Only the Rock remain, and the 2024 season will be the final one in Hamilton before they make a temporary move to Mississauga.  It is fully expected that the Rock will return to the FirstOntario Centre.  The much needed renovation of FirstOntario Centre will feature a reimagining of the exterior, more premium seating, a higher capacity and more creative use of space for social areas.

Founded in Hamilton in 1998 as the Ontario Raiders, the Toronto Rock were purchased by a group consisting of former Toronto Maple Leafs Assistant General Manager, Bill Watters, Tie Domi, Bobby Orr and former President of the Toronto Blue Jays, Paul Beeston, and moved to Maple Leaf Gardens in 1999.  Rebranded as the Toronto Rock, lacrosse in Toronto was brilliantly marketed and became an instant hit, while simultaneously becoming one of the most important and influential franchises in the league.  The Rock enjoyed unprecedented success, winning the Champions’ Cup four of their first five seasons in Toronto, and a total of six championships.  The Rock were sold to Oakville businessman Jamie Dawick in 2009.  In an effort to control costs and have better control of home dates, the Rock moved down the Queen Elizabeth Way and made a return to Hamilton in 2021.  The move has been a good one for the Rock and they prepare to embark on another new chapter in team history.

Food & Beverage 4

The concessions at FirstOntario Centre are solid.  Hot dogs, poutine, fries, chicken fingers, onion rings, popcorn and nachos are all on the menu.  Some specific stands that may peak interest include the Canadian favourite, Pizza Pizza.  Franks & Suds offers a variety of gourmet hot dogs and the Mill Street Brewery stand offers a few deli and artisan sandwiches.  Pepsi products are the soft drink of choice at FirstOntario Centre.  Beer options include Budweiser, Bud Light, Stella Artois, Corona, Mill Street, and Goose Island IPA.  A full bar with wine and spirits can also be found.

Atmosphere 3

FirstOntario Centre is in definite need of some TLC and a renovation is definitely needed.  The exterior features what used to be white siding with markings for the arena name.  Plenty of old Hamilton Bulldogs markings can be found around the exterior and interior.  A large sign at the corner of York and Bay is also not really functioning and full of rust.  

At the entry points on York Street, fans are greeted with some large staircases in the eighties style that would be avoided today as much as possible.  The use of concrete throughout FirstOntario Centre is evident.  Fans ascend to the main concourse, which services both the upper and lower seating areas in the style of the old Palace of Auburn Hills.  A “pop-up” merchandise area is found in the concourse along with concession stands.  Some markings for the Rock can be found also, but nothing overly interesting.

The seating bowl is a simple two tier design with a small number of suites separating the upper and lower bowls.  Seats in the lower bowl have been replaced in a previous renovation, however the upper bowl has the original, multi coloured seats from 1985.  Some sections in the upper bowl are curtained off for Rock games depending on the size of the crowd to increase the feeling of intimacy of the venue.  A large crowd for the game that was reviewed meant a number of upper bowl sections were open.  The floor runs from east to west with the best picture of the centre floor logo from the north.  A simple, four-sided video board hangs in the centre of the area.  The Bill Sturrup Memorial Media Gondola hangs from the north side of the arena and the banners are on the east side.  Along with the Championship banners from 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2011 are the three retired numbers of Colin Doyle, Jim Veltman and Bob Watson and banners honouring coaches Les Bartley and Terry Sanderson who have passed away.  It definitely feels like the home of the Rock inside.

The gameday production of a Rock game is high energy and excitement throughout.  The Rock City Dancers perform before the game and during some breaks and mascot Iggy participates in the pregame ceremonies and promotions.  PA announcer Mike Hancock has a low-key, fan friendly approach where he is more conversing with the fans than making announcements.  Anthem singer Scotty Newlands is among the best, and his renditions of the national anthems will give fans goosebumps.  Players are introduced through pyro and smoke.  Music is played throughout the game, even during play, and is far better than what would be played during an NBA game, focusing on classic rock.  The Rock feature individualized goal songs, which isn’t bad, considering the volume of goals that box lacrosse tends to produce.

Neighbourhood 2

FirstOntario Centre is located in Central Hamilton, a fairly depressed neighbourhood that could use a bit of revitalization.  There are some spots for pre and post game fairs.  Merit Brewing, Stonewalls and George Hamilton are all close.  Leaving the immediate area and heading to Hess Village might be the best idea.  Some of the restaurants on Hess Street include the Gown and Gavel and Electric Diner.

Fans looking for other sporting options in town should consider the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL and the Hamilton Cardinals of Intercounty Baseball.  McMaster University fields a number of athletic teams, most notably the Marauder football and basketball teams.  Also, visiting the Canadian Football Hall of Fame at Tim Hortons Field is a great idea.  Other tourist options include the Farmers Market, FirstOntario Concert Hall, Art Gallery of Hamilton and Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.  The Sheraton and Homewood Suites are in Central Hamilton and options for fans who wish to stay close to the arena.

Fans 4

At one point, the Toronto Rock were the toast of the league and dominated with regards to fan support.  Support has plateaued a bit and the Rock find themselves in the middle of the NLL according to average attendance.  In the 2024 season, the Rock averaged over 8,600 fans per game, good for 5th in the NLL.  In 2023, the Rock averaged over 9,400 fans per game and were 4th in the league.  Rock fans are loud and knowledgeable.  Their fanbase would fall more into the “die-hard” category.  It would benefit the Rock if they could attract more casual fans going forward.  However, moving to Paramount Fine Foods Centre in Mississauga for the 2024 season will see a drop in fans per game, but a huge increase in capacity filled with a much smaller building.


Access 3

The FirstOntario Centre is located in Central Hamilton at the corner of York Blvd. and Bay Street North.  Getting there is not too difficult from the west.  It is only a couple of kilometers from Highway 403.  However, from the east, fans will have to traverse a significant portion of Hamilton.  There are a few surface lots near the arena and a couple of parking garages.  Scouting out parking before heading out is a good plan as a number of spots close to the arena are expensive at $30 for a spot.  There are bus stops along York Blvd. for fans who wish to take public transit.  Fans should consult the HSR website for fares, maps and schedules.

Getting around the FirstOntario Centre is not the easiest.  There are plenty of stairs from street level to the concourse level, especially at the York Street entrances.  With a large crowd, the single concourse can get pretty crowded.  Washroom facilities are adequate for the venue.

With security protocols and procedures in constant flux, Stadium Journey strongly suggests visiting the Toronto Rock and FirstOntario Centre websites for the most up-to-date security information before heading to the arena.

Return on Investment 4

NLL lacrosse provides a good return on investment.  Tickets run from $43 to $76.  The opportunity to get close to the action for a decent price is far better in the NLL than in other professional sports leagues.  Concession prices are what one would expect.  Parking can be expensive, but cheap parking is available for those willing to look for it. The atmosphere at a Rock game is amazing and fans will definitely have a great time.  All for much cheaper than one would spend at an NHL game.

Extras 4

An extra mark for the return of nicknames to the Toronto Rock.  A staple of the early Rock teams, every player had a nickname that was part of their introduction, a tradition that has returned to the team.

An extra mark for the Toronto Rock closing Maple Leaf Gardens.  The final event at the venerable arena before renovation and rebranding by Toronto Metropolitan University was the Rock’s NLL Championship in 2000.

An extra mark for the NLL everyman image.  The majority of the players in the league have other full time jobs and are lacrosse “weekend warriors.”

An extra mark for the impact of the Toronto Rock on the lacrosse community in Southern Ontario.  With the building of the Toronto Rock Athletic Centre in Oakville, Jamie Dawick and the Rock have done a great job promoting lacrosse at a wide variety of levels, including the OJLL Oakville Buzz.

Final Thoughts

The Toronto Rock have arrived at a bit of a transition point in their successful existence.  After making a relatively successful transition to Hamilton, the Rock now face a few uncertain years as they temporarily move to a smaller facility in Mississauga awaiting the much needed renovation to the FirstOntario Centre.  Lacrosse fans will be anxiously awaiting the return of the Rock to Hamilton, hopefully sooner than later.

Follow all of Dave’s sporting adventures on YouTube, Twitter, Threads and Instagram @profan9.

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