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  • Writer's pictureDave Cottenie

FirstOntario Centre - Toronto Rock

Photos by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.86

FirstOntario Centre 101 York Blvd Hamilton, ON L8R 3L4

Toronto Rock website

FirstOntario Centre website

Year Opened: 1985

Capacity: 17,383

Back to the Rock Roots

Like many other leagues, the National Lacrosse League has struggled through the pandemic. The 2019-2020 season was abandoned a couple of months in, before the playoffs could begin and the 2020-2021 season did not happen at all. There is great hope for the 2021-2022 season as box lacrosse makes its triumphant return. One of the changes for the new season is found in one of its cornerstone franchises.

Beginning in 2021, the Toronto Rock are returning to Hamilton, Ontario, where it all began. The Toronto Rock date back to 1998 when their existence began as the Ontario Raiders. After one season, the future Toronto Rock were purchased by Bill Watters, Paul Beeston, Tie Domi and Bobby Orr and moved to Maple Leaf Gardens for a rebranding. Two immensely successful seasons at the Gardens saw the Rock close down the iconic arena before moving to the Air Canada Centre, which eventually became Scotiabank Arena. The Rock were sold to Oakville, Ontario businessman Jamie Dawick in 2009. Playing third fiddle in Scotiabank Arena for significant rent became unpalatable for the Rock and the move up the Queen Elizabeth Way to Hamilton was on the menu, back to where it all started. The Rock are retaining not only the Rock moniker for 2021 but will continue to be referred to as the Toronto Rock.

The new home for the Toronto Rock is the FirstOntario Centre in Honour of Victor K. Copps. Built in 1985 with an NHL expansion team in mind, the former Copps Coliseum has seen a number of different tenants over its 35-year lifespan, with the NHL not being one of them. In 2014, FirstOntario Credit Union purchased naming rights for the building which was once named for longtime Hamilton Mayor Victor Copps. FirstOntario Centre has been the centre of attention for a number of years in Hamilton as demands for a newer, more appropriately sized building have grown. However, to date, the City of Hamilton, owners of the FirstOntario Centre have not had what could be considered serious discussions for a replacement building and the Rock are expected to play in downtown Hamilton for the duration of their newly signed five-year lease.

Food & Beverage 5

The culinary scene at FirstOntario Centre is surprisingly strong. For a venue that has been primarily a home for junior hockey, the variety of concession options is a refreshing surprise. All of the expected arena favourites can be found including hot dogs, popcorn, nachos, pretzels and peanuts. Pizza Pizza provides pizza options and soft drink options are Pepsi products. Some other options include Twizzlers, Miss Vickies Chips, cotton candy and chocolate bars. Poutine, pulled pork walking tacos, cauliflower bites, pulled pork sandwiches and a variety of paninis and specialty hot dogs are unexpected, yet welcome surprises on the menu.

There are also a wide variety of alcoholic beverages including Budweiser, Bud Light, Mill Street, Stella Artois and Goose Island beers. A variety of wines, seltzers, ciders and spirits are also available at the Corby stand. The Hammer Hideaway Bar is an alternative spot within the arena to grab a pregame or intermission drink as well. The prices are not spectacular, but they are not at the level you would expect from some of the major sports experiences in Toronto.

Atmosphere 3

The FirstOntario Centre is definitely not the right venue for Hamilton. Oversized and outdated, it is not exactly controversial to state that a replacement is needed. The exterior of FirstOntario Centre looks like a building that was built in the eighties. Light coloured siding dominates the exterior facade. The main entrance on Bay St. has a bit of a Montreal Forum look with the obvious look of escalators that travel up to the main concourse level from street level. The Bay Street entrance has a bit of a main atrium with plenty of street level windows.

However, the atrium is not very large and with all of the new health protocols, provides some challenges upon entry. The box office is also found adjacent to that Bay Street entrance.

The main concourse of the FirstOntario Centre is above street level, one escalator ride up from ground level. It serves as the concourse for both the upper and lower decks. Exposed concrete and a lack of natural light remind the patron that the venue is of an eighties vintage. Immediately at the Bay Street entrance on the upper level are the team stores. Pretty much temporary setups, there are areas for both the Toronto Rock and Hamilton Bulldogs, although for the Rock games, the Bulldogs area is closed. At the west end of the arena, there is an exit to an actual smoking section, which seems like a fairly unique feature. Fans who are sensitive to cigarette smoke should keep in mind the location of the smoking section as compared to their seat selection as the smell of the smoke wafts near the intermission times.

The seating bowl in the FirstOntario Centre is a two-tiered design similar to the old Palace of Auburn Hills. The lower bowl features padded blue seats that wrap the east-west oriented playing surface. Built before luxury boxes became a huge source of revenue, the FirstOntario Centre has a few that are at the top of the lower bowl. The upper bowl features the original yellow, orange and purple kaleidoscope seats. For most events, Rock games included, the upper deck is draped off. In most cases this does little to make the venue feel less cavernous, however with a very strong attendance in the lower bowl for the Rock game that was reviewed, it seemed that the drapes really did the trick.

A huge bonus in moving to the new venue is the permanent home for the Toronto Rock banners at the east end of the arena. Retired number banners for Rock legends Jim Veltman, Colin Doyle and Bob Watson hang proudly beside the banners for former coaches and executives Les Bartley and Terry Sanderson. In a row closer to centre, the six banners commemorating the Champions’ Cup titles that the Toronto Rock have earned hang with new purpose (1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2011). At centre, a modest video scoreboard displays the score, penalties and replays but not much else. This is definitely in need of replacement.

The gameday production for the Toronto Rock is as good as it was back in the Scotiabank Arena. Music plays throughout the game non-stop along with enhanced participation by the PA announcer. Both are integral to the box lacrosse experience. Pre-game introductions feature some pyrotechnics and lasers. The Rock City Dancers take part in the pre-game entertainment and perform during some breaks in the action. The Rock’s mascot, Iggy, roams the arena and interacts with fans and kids. The goal songs are slightly curious and a little difficult to follow for the new fan. There are a number of songs which are played based on the player scoring the goal. For example, Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” is played when Tom “Captain America” Schreiber scores and Rev Theory’s “Hell Yeah” blasts when Rob Hellyer puts one past the opposing goaltender. Overall, the atmosphere at a Rock game shows that the organization is doing the best that they can with what they have.

Neighbourhood 4

The FirstOntario Centre is located in the Central Hamilton neighbourhood of the city. There are a number of good options for pre and post game fare for fans who know where to look. The best plan would be to head over to Hess Street to the famous Hess Village where some of the options include the Gown and Gavel, Electric Diner and the Lazy Flamingo. Heading in the opposite direction from the arena and hitting the Merit Brewing Company may be a good plan also. Other dining options worth checking out right near the arena include the George Hamilton Restaurant & Brewery, Earth to Table and the Anchor Bar.

Hamilton offers a number of other sporting options. The Hamilton Bulldogs of the OHL and Hamilton Honey Badgers of the CEBL also share the FirstOntario Centre. However, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL, who play at Tim Hortons Field easily lay claim to the top sporting spot in the city. Forge FC of the CPL also plays at Tim Hortons Field. In the summer the Hamilton Cardinals of the Intercounty Baseball League can be found at Bernie Arbour Memorial Stadium. Finally, McMaster University fields a host of teams on campus. The Marauders play football at Ron Joyce Stadium and basketball at Burridge Gymnasium.

Other things to do in Hamilton that fans should consider checking out include the Canadian Football Hall of Fame, which is found at Tim Hortons Field, and the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in nearby Mount Hope. There are some shopping options at Jackson Square, right beside FirstOntario Centre and there is a Landmark Cinema right there also. The Art Gallery of Hamilton is a block south for those requiring a little culture.

Fans wishing to stay in downtown Hamilton have a couple of options that will not require any other transportation to the arena. The Sheraton Hamilton is found just south of the arena on King Street and Homewood Suites Hamilton is another half block south at Bay Street and George Street.

Fans 4

Evaluating the fans category for the Toronto Rock is extremely difficult. Before the pandemic, the Rock were averaging between 8,000 and 12,000 fans per game. The game that is the focus of this review was the first game for the Toronto Rock after the pandemic shutdown and the first game for the Rock at the FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton. The crowd was strong and the lower bowl was over 8,000. This was a good showing for the first opportunity and not far off the league average and the previous season’s team average. The important days are still ahead and it remains to be seen if the crowds will remain steady or improve. The opportunity to raise this to a perfect score is definitely a possibility, but more time needs to go by until that possibility can become reality.

Access 3

FirstOntario Centre is located in Central Hamilton, which is essentially downtown, at the southeast corner of York Boulevard and Bay Street North. The main downtown, one-way arteries of Main and King Streets are just south of the arena location. Getting to downtown Hamilton is not terribly difficult from west and east locations outside of Hamilton, taking Highway 6 and Highway 403. Plodding through the city can be an unenviable task, however, King and Main Streets travel fairly well being one-way arteries. The western neighbouring areas of Oakville, Burlington and the Niagara Region are better served by the move by the Rock to Hamilton. However, the trip from the Eastern cities on the other side of Toronto are pretty much cut off from the lacrosse experience without a major effort to get to the Hammer. GO Train service to Hamilton from Toronto and points further east is a possibility and may be the ticket for diehard lacrosse fans. There are HSR stops near the FirstOntario Centre for locals who wish to take public transportation to the game. Fans should check the HSR website for fares, maps and schedules.

Parking can be a bit of a challenge in downtown Hamilton. There are surface lots around the venue as well as parking at the arena. Fans should be wary of parking lots that block in other cars which could make the evening take a long time to complete after the game.

Unfortunately, the FirstOntario Centre is not the most accessible building around. It is definitely a product of its time and there are plenty of stairs around the building, including stairs that are fairly steep from the York Boulevard entrance. The concourses are fairly wide and traversing them before and after the game is not that difficult. This could be another story if crowd sizes increase necessitating the opening of the upper bowl.

Return on Investment 4

Ticket prices for the Toronto Rock run from $30 up to $80. Parking and concessions prices are about what one would expect for National Lacrosse League games. The gameday experience that the Rock put on is highly entertaining and it is difficult to say that a good time would not be had taking the family to the game. This score could be even better if the Rock were able to be a part of a better venue, but for now, a great return on investment is provided by the Rock.

Extras 4

An extra mark for the nature of the NLL and its “everyman” image. Players for the Toronto Rock and other NLL teams are not high priced athletes. The majority of players hold regular five day a week jobs and are members of the community like everyone else.

An extra mark for the Toronto Rock closing down the legendary Maple Leaf Gardens in style. The Rock defeated the Rochester Knighthawks on a last second goal by Kaleb Toth to win the 2000 Champions’ Cup.

An extra mark for the Iroquois Lacrosse Program which had a display in the FirstOntario Centre complete with original lacrosse sticks from various locations in Canada. The opportunity to learn a little more about the sport and even handle some original, hand-made lacrosse sticks is worthy.

An extra mark for the best name in professional sports. The Rock have built a brand with a seemingly unending number of great songs that can be played during the game.

Final Thoughts

Time will tell if the move to Hamilton was the right one for the Toronto Rock. It is clear, however, that the status quo was not going to work for the team. Although the FirstOntario Centre is on the big side and ready for replacement, the Toronto Rock are doing an excellent job in the short term to bring fans into the area and provide them the best possible experience. The Toronto Rock are well worth the time and sporting dollar and the experience will be fun.

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

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