Soo


Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds

Arena Name: Essar Centre
Capacity: 5,000 (4,600 seated)
Built: 2006
Address: 269 Queen Street East, Sault Ste. Marie, ON, P6A 1Y9
Telephone No: (705) 759-5251
Ice Surface Size: Regulation
Franchise Date: 1972-73
OHL Championships: 3, Most Recently in 1991-92
Memorial Cup Championships: 1, in 1992-93
Colours: Red, Grey, Black & White
Official Web Site: http://www.soogreyhounds.com/
Venue Website: EssarCentre.ca
Unofficial Site: Soo Hounds Message Board
Google Satellite: Click Here
Former Arena: Sault Memorial Gardens
Occasional Second Home: Norris Center

OHL
Essar Centre
Essar Centre
What's the Arena Like?
When the art moderne masterpiece Sault Memorial Gardens was demolished over the summer of 2006, one of Ontario's most unique and beautiful arenas was lost. However, the building's signature Memorial Tower, built to commemorate the dead of past wars, was saved and refurbished, and its beacon still is lit on gamenights, shining blood red in the winter night. Instead of overlooking the arena to which it was originally connected, though, it now overlooks a plaza and a parking lot. Mere feet away next door, the new Essar Centre stands, resplendent and shiny and new in bright silver cladding, brown brick, and dark windows.

The short walk from car to lobby is one of the OHL's coldest, and on January gamenights the lobby's warmth can't come quickly enough. Once finally inside, there are a few ticket booths along one wall and the old plaques commemorating the war dead, saved from the Memorial Gardens, are hung proudly on the opposite wall. The main entrance is beyond the ticket booths, and much like in Sarnia, there is little separating ticket windows from arena concourse. You are in the heart of the rink before you know it, in the middle of a wide, sweeping concourse overlooking a sea of bright red seats.

At first glance the Gardens looks much like the standard generic "new OHL rink", with little to make it stand out between its clones in Sarnia and Guelph. All three arenas feature a similar number of seats, an open concourse overlooking the seating bowl, and a layout so similar that you could walk it with your eyes shut and not bump into anything. However, there are forces at work in the Sault that make the Essar Centre stand out. There is no restaurant - where the restaurant is in Sarnia and Guelph, there instead is a long souvenir booth, the Hound Pound. The Pound sells lots of interesting-looking souvenirs and is one of the league's best in terms of quality of merchandise, along with Kitchener. The Hounds have taken the old-school concept of the souvenir stand but made it huge and filled it with team store-quality merchandise, which is a huge plus. There are also, refreshingly, enough washrooms for a new building and the other facilities seem to be more than adequate.

Once you find your seats and take a look around, a few more things stand out. The moderne angel sculpture, stained glass windows, and war flags from the Memorial Gardens that overlooked the ice have been saved and hung in a corresponding place in the new building. The city deserves major points for saving them. In addition, windows are everywhere in the concourse - most hockey rinks are dark and shut the outside out, but in the Sault, it would appear that a day game would be lit by sunlight as much as by arena lights. Along another concourse, there is a long wall with pictures of the Sault Sports Hall of Fame hung; an exhibit that is worth viewing.

The game presentation is good too - the announcer is very good and the sound isn't too loud. Sault fans haven't changed either, they are still among the league's smartest and most knowledgeable; supportive of their team and welcoming of visitors from the far south. The scoreboard is huge and there is a rough-in for video boards eventually, but they weren't in place yet when I visited so the holes were covered by signs with the arena logos. I am told that since my visit the video boards have been installed. Like most new arenas, the Essar Centre will need time to be really finally "finished" - and even then, plans are in place to expand it. The construction company that built the place wasn't able to complete all of the suites in time, so I'm told that the suite level will be expanded from its current place running down one side of the ice into a "J" shape, and it is further expandable into a "U" should demand warrant it in the future. One hopes that the press box will be expanded then as well - it looks pretty cramped up there.

It took me a long time to really figure out what the difference was that made the Essar Centre so different from its clones in Sarnia and Guelph, and I finally figured it out near the end of the game. Whereas the SSEC and GSEC are both managed by facility management companies that give it the same, generic feel as anywhere else, the Essar Centre is still, just like the Gardens, a city-run building. That shows through. Ushers are fewer in number, but they aren't "sphincter police" enforcing the rules vigilantly either. A more laid-back atmosphere pervades through the building. I mean that in a good way - it's refreshing. Much like at the old Gardens, the arena's concourse is still used by the community as a running track. The rink isn't locked up on non-event days; it's open to the people whose tax dollars paid for it. I had also heard stories that the building's maintenance was poor in the first few months of operation (including the fan review below), but I saw no evidence of it - the Essar Centre was clean enough for me.

Sault Ste. Marie has historically been one of junior hockey's great cities, with players up to and including Wayne Gretzky wearing the red and white. The loss of the old Memorial Gardens is tough to swallow, especially since art moderne is my favourite style of architecture, but the Essar Centre is a fitting heir to the Greyhounds tradition. It may be a new rink, but it still is city-owned and city-ran, the fans are still as knowledgeable and welcoming, and the atmosphere, while still settling in, isn't as quiet as some new arenas. (The foghorn-voiced "Come on Hounds" guy is still there too!) Meanwhile, the same Memorial Tower still shines on gamenights as it has for over half a century, brightening the northern sky and beckoning all within sight to come and partake in the continuing tradition.

Adam says: The Essar Centre is a good arena, and a huge upgrade over the Gardens (not that it's really saying much, with all due respect), but nowhere near in the same class that includes London, Kitchener, Ottawa, and Saginaw (my personal top 4 in no particular order). Basically, it's a carbon-copy of Sarnia and Guelph. It's divided into 2 levels: the event level, with about 4,400 seats or so, and then the suite level up above. There is a concourse that circles the event level, much like that of Sarnia and Guelph. The walkway isn't very big, so it can get quite congested. Currently, there are 13 suites, with 11 more suites being added for the 2007-08 season. I also heard from a Soo fan that somewhere down the line, they will add an additional 12 suites if the attendance is strong enough. There are already some apparent problems in the Essar Centre: its maintenence! Hockey season has only been going on for a month and a half or so, and the seating area is already dirty. There's pop spills/stains everywhere, old ticket stubs and popcorn laying around, and dusty seats. I really hope the SBC staff doesn't let the building turn into a dump so early. Speaking of the seats, they're comfy enough with good leg room. Pretty much every seat has a good view with no obstruction. But there's another problem with the SBC: there's already cracks in the cement floor! And they're pretty nasty looking, too.

While it seems like this review has mostly been negative, there are some positives to the SBC. The scoreboard is one of the best in the OHL, although it has the most annoying buzzer in probably all of hockey (it's seriously almost 6-7 seconds long). The scoreboard is entirely computer-generated, so they can type the nicknames of both teams instead of the standard "home" and "guest." The scoreboard also has video boards on them, but according to the Soo fans, they are currently on order and won't be installed until sometime in December. It doesn't look like the screens will be very big (nowhere near the size of London, Kitchener, or Saginaw), but it should still be decent. Basically the only downfall is there's no "shots on goal" counter on the actual scoreboard, but they're on 2 small boards located elsewhere in the arena (much like at the Soo Gardens). The sound system in the arena is loud, clear, and very nice, but there are still a few kinks to be worked out in it. Every now and then, it seemed like there was a humming noise coming from the speakers when no music was playing. They might have a problem with their feedback, but it's no major issue.

Some of the objects from the Soo Gardens have been incorporated into the SBC, such as the stainless steel glass with the angel on one of the ends. With all things considered, it doesn't come close to having the same atmosphere as the Soo Gardens, obviously, but it is still a very nice improvement. I really hope the workers there can keep it in good shape, because so far they're not doing a good job of it. I give it a C+ to a B-.
Future Developments
The people running the Essar Centre were planning on doubling the number of suites during the 2007 off-season, but it never happened. The building had a small number due to it not being finished on time for the 2006-07 season, and so new suites are in demand. The renovations will finally be completed over the summer of 2008, and when they're done, suite level will be J-shaped. The arena is also further expandable with more suites into a U-shape should demand warrant it. The Hounds are also planning on installing electronic marquee signs and roll-out seating in the corners.
What Is It Like For Away Fans?
For a city as isolated as Sault Ste. Marie, visiting fans are a seldom-seen rarity. Whenever I've made the trip (twice now, once to each of the old and new arenas) I've felt welcomed with open arms by knowledgeable fans. If you're a fan of a rival team like Sudbury you may encounter some problems, but if you're making the trek from the south you shouldn't have any difficulty.

How To Get There

From US/Canada Bridge: Bridge ends into Huron St. South (right) on Huron to Bay Street. Then left onto Bay Street. Follow Bay St. to the back entrance (Bay Street Entrance) to the arena. Arena will be on the North (left) side of the street.

From Hwy. 17 Westbound: Hwy-17 to Trunk Rd. exit. South on Trunk to Wellington. West (right) on Wellington to Bruce St. Turn left (south) on Bruce St. Go 2 blocks to Queen St. West. Essar Centre is on the east (right) side of the street.

From Hwy. 17 Eastbound (south): Hwy 17 to Great Northern Road exit. South on Great Northern Rd. (turns into Elm) to Wellington St. West (right) on Wellington to Bruce St. South (left) on Bruce 2 blocks to Queen St. West. Essar Centre is on the east (right) side of the street.

There is a small lot on-site, but most patrons park in the massive Station Mall parking lot across the street.
Another shot of the Essar Centre
Essar Centre
Franchise History
The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds have existed in one form or another dating back to the immediate aftermath of the First World War. The team played in the Northern Ontario Hockey Association and won the Allan Cup in 1924. That original Greyhound team ultimately folded in the 1950's, but was reborn as a junior team in 1962. That team was promoted from the NOHA to the OHL in 1972-73, where it has been ever since.
Retired Numbers
1 John Vanbiesbrouck
4 Craig Hartsburgh
10 Ron Francis
99 Wayne Gretzky
Local Rivals
There aren't really any teams that could be considered "local" to the Sault, so the Hounds' main rivalries are with divisional foes. The closest team to the Sault is their Northern Ontario brothers the Sudbury Wolves, and the teams play each other six times annually in spite of being in different conferences. Other teams that are rival to the Hounds are the rest of the West Division, due to familiarity more than anything else.

About the City

By Saultite Brad Coccimiglio:

A blue-collar city of roughly 70,000 people, Sault Ste. Marie's history dates back over 5,000 years to when it was the ancient gathering place of the Ojibwas. The natives first settled in the area around 3,000 BC and were attracted to the area to fish, trade and exchange ideas. The area was named Pauwating, or Bawating which means "shallow water rushing over stones." French adventurer Etienne Brulé was the first European to visit the area in 1622 and named the area Sault de Gaston, which was changed to Sault de Ste. Marie 46 years later by the Jesuits. "Sault" is an old French word meaning "rapids"; "Sault Ste. Marie" can be translated as St. Mary's Rapids. The city has a mix of races as the area was a hot spot for Italian immigrants as the steel plant began to grow.

The city is an industrial area as their two major employers include Algoma Steel and St. Mary's Paper Mill. The GP Flakeboard Plant also houses a number of workers. The boardwalk built by the city along the St. Mary's River has a perfect view of the International Bridge, which links Sault, Ontario to its smaller Michigan counterpart. The boardwalk stretched from the locks all the way to city hall and is expected to be extended even farther in the future. The area is a popular destination during the summer for fishermen and people looking to take a stroll on a warm summer night. In fact, the St. Mary's River was fished by Ernest Hemingway, who called Sault Ste. Marie the "best place for rainbow trout in the world." The main downfall of the city is the fact that young university grads have a very tough time finding employment in their field in the city. In most cases, students are forced to leave the city in order to find work. Sault Ste. Marie is home to some well-known Canadian athletes - former Hamilton Tiger-Cats receiver Rocky DiPitro as well as NHL stars Ron Francis and Phil and Tony Esposito are all Sault natives. The city is also home to Greig Nori, a member of the Canadian band treble charger, as well as astronaut Roberta Bondar.

For more information about Sault Ste. Marie please visit Sault Tourism's website.

Feedback

If anything is incorrect or you have something to add, please e-mail me at Email and I'll update the guide.


 

 


Copyright © Kevin Jordan 2002-07.
All rights reserved.
Last Revised: October 7, 2007