First Visit: December 31, 2014
CHL Arena: 40
OHL Arena: 28
In retrospect, it's hard to believe it took this long. The Niagara Region of Ontario has a long history with junior hockey, with producing quality players for professional careers, and for supporting hockey at the grass roots. In addition, the region also has nearly half a million people, with more close by in Hamilton and Western New York. Yet up until 2007, the region had been without an OHL team for a decade. The reasons were complicated, but the biggest one was the fact that Niagara Region doesn't have one defining city, but rather two rival ones. Back in those crazy days when the IceDogs were a new team and I was still pretending to update this website semi-regularly, I wrote in my 2007 review of the old Garden City Arena that in the dying days of the Niagara Falls Thunder, "no St. Catharines newspaper would cover a Niagara Falls team, and very few fans from the Garden City made the short trip to watch hockey in the Falls. And vice versa. This indirectly contributed to the last failure of the OHL in the region, as the Thunder refused to advertise to St. Catharines until their last, desperate season, and St. Catharines fans largely ignored the Thunder in return. But all that is in the past now. In 2007, for the first time in history, the two cities are working together under a common regional name, and the results so far look promising for the future of the OHL on the peninsula."
Well, not to toot my own horn too much, but it worked spectacularly. On New Year's Eve 2014 I took in a game at the sold-out new Meridian Centre, a new building as spotless, bright and airy as the old pre-war arena was... well, none of those things. The Niagara Region finally has a team and a building and a future, and has properly re-joined the 21st century of the OHL in a way that they really never should have left. (And, it's also worth noting, the IceDogs franchise finally has put its dysfuncional history behind it and has stable ownership and fans who care, neither of which existed in Mississauga.)
Anyway, the cranks who still read this Web 1.0 relic are probably interested in the building itself. Allow me not to disappoint. The arena sits in a valley between downtown St. Catharines and the 406 expressway. The setting of the arena is striking - passing by on the 406, it feels tall and handsome, but as you exit, circle around, and try to find the front side, it's hidden up the hill behind the facades of downtown buildings. In fact, because of the valley layout of the land, the two downtown entrances to the arena are from concrete footbridges that transverse high above the valley and into building entrances on the top floor. It is the only arena I've ever been to where you enter from the very top and have to walk down to get to the concourse, let alone the arena floor which is five storeys below downtown street level. Parking on gameday is just as challenging as it was in the days of the Jack Gatecliff Arena, but the new arena's downtown location at least opens up the downtown surface lots as options.
The team still seems to be working out kinks in the new building's daily operations. We entered from the the "Rankin Gateway" bridge and immediately found ourselves in a long line - the concourse entry is on level three, with building entrances at valley street (1) and downtown street (5), but rather than scanning tickets at both doors, the stairs were backed up royally from the scanners at level three - three people for two entrances' worth of people. In addition, there's no box office on level five, so if you need to access will-call, you need to somehow fight through the lined-up crowds from 5 down to three, and then against the tide down to level one to get your tickets. The arena set-up is cool, but it needs a re-think on the ticket scanning operations.
But no matter. Once you're finally in, the Meridian Centre, at least on the surface, is pretty similar to all of the other new arenas built since the mid 1990's - one top-level concourse, 5,000 seats on one level, suites above, local sports hall of fame; if you've been to Guelph, Mississauga, Sault Ste. Marie, Sarnia, Oshawa, or anywhere else built since the Grapes of Wrath were Canada's hottest band, you've got the idea. But there are definite nice touches. I loved the colour in the Meridian Centre - blue seats complimented with orange, lime green wayfinding signs, lemon yellow, teal, and blue walls. If I'm making the Meridian Centre sound tacky, I don't intend it - the colour works and gives the place a sparkle and life that duller new arenas like Kingston lack.
The place is professionally-run, with a good-quality sound system and HD video board and all the other toys the modern, expensive OHL requires. I only noticed a few things that seemed more in line with the OHL's amateur league status - the team store, for example, resembled a Soviet-era department store with acres of empty space - but overall it's a good place to see a game. My single biggest complaint was with some of the seats. Because I am a cheap son of a bitch and OHL tickets now average more than double what they were when I first had Knights season tickets, we elected to sit in the "family zone" behind one net that's $5 cheaper than the tickets everywhere else. And we quickly found out why they were so cheap. Most arenas these days have temporary seating in one end, to accommodate trade shows, concerts, and other functions. It comes with the territory, and most hockey fans are used to sitting on metal risers in some buildings instead of concrete. But the riser the Meridian Centre bought is the cheapest, worst, most unsafe-feeling I've ever been on. An average adult walking down the aisle was enough to shake and sway an entire section's worth of people, and my poor, motion sickness-prone wife finally had to give up midway through the third period. We spent the rest of the game in standing room to get away from the rocking and shaking. I'm no engineer, so I can't speak to whether the end sections are actually unsafe or just feel like it, but suffice to say there are no other seats in the OHL where I'd rather sit less. Don't buy tickets there.
Overall, though, the new arena is lovely, and by new building standards the atmosphere is outstanding. I can't imagine I'll need to come back annually, but I'm thrilled for the people of Niagara region that the future of their team is secure, that they have a new arena to be proud of, and that the biggest obvious hole in the OHL's league footprint is permanently filled.