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  • Writer's pictureDave Cottenie

Varsity Arena - Toronto Varsity Blues

Photos by Dave Cottenie, Stadium Journey

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.43

Varsity Arena

299 Bloor St W

Toronto, ON M5S 1W2

Year Opened: 1926

Capacity: 4,100

Legendary Team, Legendary Facility

King’s College was founded in 1827, making it even older than the country of Canada. It would later become the University of Toronto. The U of T is now Canada’s largest university with over 61,000 students and one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. Athletics have long been an important part of the Toronto campus. Chief among those is Toronto Varsity Blues hockey, which was founded all the way back in 1891. Not only do the Varsity Blues enjoy a plethora of accolades, but some hockey royalty has come through the doors also. Former coaches who have made their mark behind the Varsity Blues bench include Tom Watt, Mike Keenan, Ave Bailey, Conn Smythe and former Prime Minister of Canada and Nobel Prize winner Lester B. Pearson. Toronto has a laundry list of honors over the decades their team has taken the ice. The Varsity Blues have earned an astonishing 41 Queens Cups as Ontario Champions. They have earned Allan Cups in 1921 and 1927 as Senior hockey champions. They have been crowned National Champions in 1966, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1976, 1977, and 1984. Toronto can even boast an Olympic Gold Medal earned in 1928.

In 1926, Varsity Arena opened on the campus of the University of Toronto. At a current capacity of 4,100, Varsity Arena has seen plenty of accolades over the near 100 years of its existence. Much has changed, of course, since 1926, however much of that change is on the exterior. Varsity Arena is currently a part of Varsity Centre, one of the hubs for Varsity Blues athletics. No matter how you slice it, the Toronto Varsity Blues are a legendary team and Varsity Arena is a legendary facility.

Food & Beverage 2

Although heading to Varsity Arena is an excellent experience, it is not an amazing culinary experience. Outside of a few vending machines around the arena there is one concession stand. Hot dogs, chips, popcorn, chocolate bars, coffee, hot chocolate, soda and water are all available. Coca-Cola products are available for soda options. The selection is more akin to what could be found in a house league hockey arena than a pro venue. There are also some team merchandise items available at the concession stand.

Atmosphere 4

Stepping into Varsity Arena is like going through a time warp. If anything, the exterior of Varsity Arena is hidden. Varsity Centre, which includes Varsity Arena also includes Varsity Stadium. The two are nearly inseparable. Access to Varsity Centre comes from Bloor Street where the ticket office is located. To get to Varsity Arena, fans must travel underneath the grandstand of Varsity Stadium, parallel to the field. The inconspicuous entry to Varsity Arena will be on the right. The red brick exterior fits the rest of Varsity Centre and it may be possible to miss the entrance if fans are not looking for it. The Blues put a portable tent outside the arena and signage to help fans along the way.

Entry into the Arena brings fans back in time. Varsity Arena smells, sounds and feels like hockey. The concourse of Varsity Arena is fairly narrow and fairly nondescript. There is only one path and it travels around the entire arena, immediately past the Zamboni Bay, dressing rooms and mini workshop where players can work on their sticks. Close inspection will find some old pictures of great Varsity Blues teams of the past. Although they are nice touches, the University of Toronto could do so much more to recognize and celebrate their hockey history.

The seating bowl continues the travel back in time. Immediately fans will notice the seats. The entirety of the seating bowl, save for two rows in one section, are classic wooden two-for-one or love seats. There are a few singles and those two rows of more current, plastic, stadium seats. Two sections of seats across centre ice are tarped off with a large “Home of the Varsity Blues” banner. Varsity Arena itself is akin to many of the older arenas that are found in the QMJHL with a peaked, triangular roof and arched I-beams. Above centre ice is a simple digital scoreboard. That scoreboard is surrounded by a plethora of championship banners, many of which look like they were raised in the year in which they were won. Toronto does have some consolidated banners which are much newer and really give scope to the sheer volume of success the program has enjoyed. The two Allan Cup banners from the twenties appear to be new. At one point, a banner for the 1928 Olympic Gold Medal hung in Varsity Arena, however at the time of this writing it was nowhere to be found.

There is no mystery where the inspiration of the design of the Varsity Blues uniform comes from. Toronto teams are nearly always blue, and Varsity is no different. The nod to the jerseys of the Toronto Maple Leafs is obvious. The game day production at Varsity is very simple. Typical music selections and promotions do not make the experience stand out and are just sufficient not to be bothersome. The Blues mascot, True Blue, can be seen on some occasions.

Neighbourhood 5

The neighbourhood surrounding Varsity Centre is excellent. Varsity is on the University of Toronto’s St. George Campus in the University neighbourhood of Downtown Toronto. Varsity sits in the shadows of Toronto’s iconic CN Tower, which can be seen across the stadium from Bloor Street. There are plenty of spots along Bloor for pre and post game food and libations. The Duke of York, Bedford Academy, Hemingway’s, the Museum Tavern and Proof are all options within a two minute walk. Favorites like Tim Hortons and Starbucks are also right there among other chains.

Among the other University buildings, the Royal Conservatory of Music is right next door to Varsity Centre and the Royal Ontario Museum is on the same block. Queen’s Park and the Ontario Legislature are not far off and heading toward the lake will bring patrons through Toronto’s theatre district. The iconic Eaton Centre is not far off for shoppers and Harbourfront has a plethora of other entertainment options. Not to be missed would be the Hockey Hall of Fame.

For fans looking for other sporting options, there are a multitude. The Toronto Varsity Blues field a full range of athletic teams and football is found right in Varsity Centre at Varsity Stadium. Across Devonshire Road is the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport which is the home for Varsity Blues basketball. A twenty minute walk will bring fans to the Mattamy Athletic Centre which is the home of the Ryerson Rams and the former Maple Leaf Gardens. Rams basketball is played inside at Coca-Cola Court while hockey is played above at Mattamy Home Ice. Toronto’s third university, York University is located at the north end of Toronto. York Stadium is home for York Lions football, the Tait McKenzie Centre is home for basketball and Canlan Ice Sports York is the home for hockey. There are, of course, a multitude of professional sports options in Toronto also. The Scotiabank Arena is home for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and Toronto Rock. The Rogers Centre is home to the Toronto Blue Jays. Over at Exhibition Place, BMO Field is shared by the Toronto Argonauts and Toronto FC, while across the parking lot, the Coca-Cola Coliseum is home for the Toronto Marlies.

There are also a ton of accommodation options for fans wishing to stay in Toronto. Some of the closest to Varsity Centre include the InterContinental Toronto Yorkville and The Windsor Arms Hotel.

Fans 2

USports hockey does not have a massive following. Also, due to the expense of living in Toronto, University of Toronto students are scattered all over the city. The Varsity Blues usually average 100 to 150 fans per game, which is not abnormal for most of the teams in the OUA. The fans that are in attendance are very supportive of the Blues. The game that was reviewed did have a published crowd of over 200 fans. The building rivalry with the Ryerson Rams also brings a strong turnout to Varsity Arena.

Access 4

The St. George Campus of the University of Toronto is located in the University neighbourhood of Downtown Toronto. It is north of the Gardiner Expressway, west of the Don Valley Parkway and quite significantly south of Highway 401. Getting to this part of Toronto by car can be a little tricky. Traffic is always an issue. There are a number of surface lots that surround the university and parking can be found at a reasonable rate. Probably the best way to get to this part of Toronto would be the subway. There are two subway stops within a block of Varsity Centre and they are connected to both main subway lines. Buses and streetcars are also not too far away from Varsity Centre. Fans interested in public transit can check out the Toronto Transit Commission website for maps, schedules and fares.

The ticketing window is on Bloor Street, right at the entrance of Varsity Centre. Lineups are not an issue. Due to a low number of fans, getting around Varsity Arena is pretty easy. The age of the building can be noticed in the washrooms, but the small crowds make heading to the washroom not much of a hinderance.

Return on Investment 4

USports hockey remains a fantastic value for the entertainment dollar. The Toronto Varsity Blues are no exception. Adult tickets for a Varsity game run $8. Staff, seniors, youth and students are a mere $5. Children under 9 get the big discount and are free. Although getting to Varsity Arena can be a little pricey compared to other USports hockey experiences, Toronto hockey does provide a solid return for the investment. With better crowd support an even greater return would be had, raising the return on investment score.

Extras 3

An extra mark for the growing rivalry with the Ryerson Rams, which has seen some much larger than average crowds for their rivalry games.

An extra mark for the deep history of the university, arena and Toronto Varsity Blues.

An extra mark for the 1928 University of Toronto Grads, the only university team to win an Olympic Gold Medal. Their coach was the legendary Conn Smythe and they did not give up a goal in the tournament.

Final Thoughts

A great use of an evening in Toronto is hitting the time warp that is Varsity Arena. The Toronto Varsity Blues provide a truly historical venue and the opportunity to check out some great hockey. It is well worth it to check out this legendary team in their legendary venue.

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

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