First Visit: January 20, 2007
CHL Arena: 29
OHL Arena: 24
While the Ontario Hockey League can't claim to hold a candle to the WHL or QMJHL in terms of the distances travelled during a season by its teams, there are still some remote frontiers in the league, and from my home in London, no team is farther away than Sault Ste. Marie. The Greyhounds are a three hour drive from their nearest rivals in Sudbury, and have some truly epic travels during a season, including a nine-plus hour trek to Ottawa on mostly two-lane highways, or a nine-plus hour trek to Erie passing through three US states. For most of the teams in the Sault's division, getting up there involves a trip through Michigan up I-75, driving up through endless forest and crossing over the mighty Mackinac Bridge.
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 GFL Memorial Gardens 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 the ticket windows from the 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 OHL clone rink, with little to make it stand out from its brothers in Sarnia, Guelph, and so on. All three arenas feature a similar number of seats, an open top concourse overlooking the seating bowl, and layout so similar that a Guelph native could walk it with his eyes shut on first visit and not bump into anything. However, there are forces at work in the Sault that make the GFL Memorial Gardens 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. The Hounds have taken the old-school concept of the souvenir stand but run with it, making it huge and filling it with 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 art 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.
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. Like most new arenas, the GFL Memorial Gardens 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 GFL Memorial Gardens so different from its clones, and I finally figured it out near the end of the game. Whereas the others tend to be managed by facility management companies that give it the same, generic feel as anywhere else, the GFL Memorial Gardens is still, just like the Gardens, a city-run building. That shows through. Ushers are fewer in number, but they aren't police academy rejects 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, but I saw no evidence of it - the GFL Memorial Gardens was clean enough for me.
Were it not for junior hockey, I might never have made a trip to Sault Ste. Marie, let alone two, to see my team play at their old and new arenas. But I'm glad I went. The Sault is a city of heavy industry, of steel-making and shipping, and it's not a pretty town, but it's a grittily authentic one, and given hockey's lunch-bucket, blue-collar roots, the Greyhounds fit the city like few other teams. 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 GFL Memorial Gardens 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.