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  • Jared Goodman

Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex - Carolina Thunderbirds

Photos by Jared Goodman, Stadium Journey

Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.29

Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex 414 Deacon Blvd. Winston-Salem, NC 27105

Year Opened: 1989

Capacity: 4,000


Federal in Flight

The Federal Prospects Hockey League is an independent professional league composed of 10 teams scattered across the Eastern seaboard. In 2017, the Carolina Thunderbirds joined the fray as an expansion franchise in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Named after a former ECHL team that played in Winston, the Thunderbirds have made their nest at the city’s Fairgrounds Annex. Completed in 1989, the Annex has hosted hockey on and off since its inception, staging teams in various independent and affiliated leagues.

Food & Beverage 4

For such a small venue, the Annex has some amazing food options.

You'll find a variety of items in the main lobby, including hot coffee, Orangeade, popcorn, Dippin' Dots, shaved ice, many different types of beers, and even fresh pork skins. Polish sausage is the one fairly unique option and is available for $7. There's also a Farm Made Ice Cream stand that scoops out rotating flavors into a cup or cone for $5.

Labatt Blue Beer and Bud Light are the primary alcoholic beverages on tap, but a local brewery called Fiddlin' Fish also has a stand where they offer up some of their craft beer. The national beers are available for $7.50 in cans or bottles. Pepsi is served throughout the complex.

You can even grab some Chick-fil-A at the rink, as popular menu selections such as the Original Chicken Sandwich are available for $6.25.

Atmosphere 3

"The prescription" is prevalent at the Fairgrounds, as it is in most hockey arenas in the South, meaning you'll be hearing more cowbell all night long. You’ll also likely hear the Thunderbirds' goal horn a lot; it sounds similar to a loud diesel engine, echoing throughout the rink.

Overall, most of the game day atmosphere is created by the fans in the stands. The environment that the Thunderbirds organization tries to create just seems stale. The PA announcer is more casual than at most arenas, acting more like a radio broadcaster than anything else. The music played during stoppages in play appears to be picked at random and is generally poorly timed, ending a dozen seconds or so after puck drop. If these small annoyances can be ignored, you’ll have a great time watching quality hockey.

The Fairgrounds Annex itself is a decent barn with an overtly ‘80s feel. The building resembles a local skating rink and the aging facility looks like it belongs at a middle school. The main concourse in particular appears to have not changed since it was built in 1989. If the Thunderbirds, as a winning franchise on the ice, want to remain in Winston-Salem long-term, the Annex might need some upgrades.

Neighborhood 2

The Annex is located in an athletic complex that’s home to three of Wake Forest University’s stadiums. Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, home to Demon Deacons basketball, is next door. BB&T Field, Wake’s football venue, is diagonally from the Annex, while Couch Ballpark, home to the Deacs’ baseball program, is right across the road. Outside of the athletic facilities nearby, there isn’t anything in the area worth seeing. In fact, the surrounding neighborhoods are fairly run-down. Anything of interest is going to be several miles away in either downtown Winston-Salem or the suburban retail spots.

Fans 4

The Thunderbirds have produced a very good brand of hockey since joining the league, culminating in a Commissioner's Cup win during the 2018-19 season. In addition to being crowned champions of the league, Carolina also set a lofty league record of 24 consecutive wins that season. This success has translated to the gate, where the T-Birds have set multiple single-game and single-season attendance records. The team continues to pack The Annex each home game, resulting in an electric game day atmosphere.

In addition to horns and cowbells, fans in Winston were quick to adopt the famous “you suck!” chants made popular by some NHL fan bases. All told, a night at the Fairgrounds is going to be crowded and LOUD.

Access 4

The Fairgrounds Annex is located near the athletic facilities of Wake Forest University on Deacon Boulevard just north of downtown Winston-Salem. The city is reachable from the east and west off of Interstate 40 and its business spur, though the latter has been closed in many spots for construction. Avoid this road if you can. Interstate 74 is also expected to pass through the area once it's completed in the near future. US-52 is the proposed path of I-74 and will likely be your main pathway to the Fairgrounds if you’re coming from the north or south.

There’s ample parking in the massive lots next to the Annex and the adjoining LJVM Coliseum. For the 2019-20 season, parking is free.

Return on Investment 3

Single-game tickets for Thunderbirds home games start at $9. They can be purchased in advance on Ticketmaster, but you’ll wind up forking over another $6 in fees. Your best bet is to just get your tickets on game day at the box office to avoid extra charges.

Parking is free and the food items at The Annex are fairly priced. Game programs are $5, which is pretty steep for an independent hockey team. If you’re not a program collector, skip them entirely.

A family of four could easily enjoy a hockey night in Winston for around $80.

Extras 3

The Annex has a little merchandise stand in the corner of the main lobby, a nice touch.

The hallways of the concourse are also adorned with Winston-Salem hockey history, dating as far back as the sport’s beginnings in the region in 1973.

Finally, the team’s mascot (appropriately named Winston) is frequently seen roaming the concourse and stands.

Final Thoughts

While The Annex isn’t the most desirable place to watch a game, the product on display each and every night outweighs the venue’s shortcomings. If you like hockey, you’ll like hockey in Winston-Salem.

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