First Visit: October 23, 2021
CHL Arena: 58
WHL Arena: 6
In the years following the Second World War, cities across Canada built civic arenas as war memorials. The trend started about as soon as the war ended and continued well into the 1950's. Victoria, British Columbia was an early adopter, with the Victoria Memorial Arena opening at the corner of Blanshard and Caledonia in 1949 and serving as Victoria's main arena for over fifty years. The Memorial Arena was, among other things, the home of the WHL's Victoria Cougars between 1971 and 1994 before that team moved to Prince George.
In 2003, Victoria Memorial Arena closed and was demolished owing to high maintenance costs. But the location of the arena, both on a transit route and a major highway and on the fringe of downtown, was perfect, and so when it came time to build a replacement, the new arena was built on the exact footprint of the old one. One imagines that, like so many other places, the city would have preferred to have built something new entirely from scratch and sold the naming rights to the highest bidder. But the site's history as a war memorial also was worth preserving, so they decided to combine them, which is how the silliest-named arena in the CHL got its name - the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.
The (sigh) Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre opened in 2005, still on the edge of downtown Victoria and within a reasonable walk of bars and restaurants. It's set back somewhat from the street corner with a plaza in front of it, and is an inoffensive-enough building in red and white cladding, neither architecturally interesting nor ugly. Fans converge on the rink from all directions on gamenights, and the arena's lobby facing the street corner welcomes you. Ticket windows were all outside from what I saw, which always seems like a mistake in a Canadian winter, though it's possible Victoria's mild winters save it from the worst parts of standing in a ticket line on a cold January night.
The Memorial Centre comes by the latter half of its name honestly - a black and white marble memorial to the glorious dead going back as far as the Boer War still sits in the lobby. I'm told that it's the same war memorial as used to stand in the old Memorial Arena, and I'm really glad they saved it. There's unfortunately not much in the way of other signs of the old arena on the site of the new one, but the war memorial is beautiful, tasteful and moving.
The Memorial Centre is on the larger side for junior hockey arenas with a capacity just over 7,000, and it's built on ground level, which means it's a tall building. The seats, all royal blue except the padded club seats, surround the ice all on one level. The rise of the seats is fairly steep and view of the ice are excellent. Suites appeared to only exist on one side of the ice, with the area behind the net in one end being taken up by a restaurant where the Victoria Cougars' Stanley Cup banner from 1925 is on display. I noticed that the centre scoreboard is still without a video board - the old board from the arena's opening is flanked by projection screens hanging above it.
The wide main concourse sits under the seating area, and it goes 360 degrees around the building. Oddly for such a new arena, there's no segregation in the concourse, and both teams have to cross the concourse in the open to get to their dressing rooms. In addition, the Zamboni garage also crosses the concourse to get outside the building. It's not uncommon in older arenas to have crush barriers in the concourse to allow teams and equipment to cross over, but I don't recall ever having seen it in a newer one before.
A lot of the Memorial Centre was like that - decor around the arena is very local, with interpretive displays of the city's sporting history everywhere. Again, in an old-school context this all makes perfect sense, it's just in the corporate CHL of today that it seems unusual. But Victoria was not Moose Jaw, a new building run by amateurs. Victoria's game presentation was perfectly professional without standing out - music was blandly inoffensive and played at a normal volume, and the video screens were used to good effect. It's a professional show in the ways that matter, and a charming throwback in others.
The name of the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre took a lot of deserved flak when it was announced, and even to this day it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. But if the name of your rink is the worst thing about it, you're doing well. I enjoyed Victoria - the arena is comfortable and homey and fully belongs to the lively, wonderful city in which it sits. Getting out to Victoria by ferry, as most visitors do, feels like quite the undertaking, and with St. John's no longer having a team, it remains the only city in the CHL best reached by sea. It's also the farthest CHL arena from my home in Ontario, so getting to cross it off my checklist was a major tick in my quest to getting to all sixty someday.
In a CHL where a lot of new arenas are so similar that you'd never know the difference between them, Victoria has a new rink that belongs entirely to them. It remains a war memorial, a repository of local sporting history, and a true throwback to an earlier age in the best possible way.