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In Windsor, fans had best beware of getting what they wish for

They are about to get an up-to-date, 21st-century hockey arena in Windsor, Ontario. It is currently being raised on the city’s east side as part of a three-building complex that will cost around $65 million. If all goes well, it will be ready in December 2008. After spending a night at what is soon to be their old rink — Windsor Arena — one has to wonder if the locals know what they are getting into.By Dave Wright

They are about to get an up-to-date, 21st-century hockey arena in Windsor, Ontario. It is currently being raised on the city’s east side as part of a three-building complex that will cost around $65 million. If all goes well, it will be ready in December 2008.

There is little question the want for such a rink had been present for many residents in this town of 216,000 in southern Ontario for some time. If it hadn’t happened, there was the real chance the city would have lost their Ontario Hockey League team. So, there is also little doubt the need was there as well.

Still, after spending a night at what is soon to be their old rink — Windsor Arena — one has to wonder if the locals know what they are getting into.

A quick history lesson first: Windsor Arena has been in business since 1926, when it served as the home for the Detroit Cougars (who later became the Red Wings). With the exception of a couple of paint jobs and a few mini-boxes stuck in the corners and rafters, it’s the same old rink today. For example, the parking isn’t much better now than it was in 1926. There is one big lot across the street from the Arena and a little (very little) on-street parking.

The Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League call it home now. Last Friday, they opened their last complete season at the Barn, running over Erie, 10-3, before a near full house of 3,800 happy folks. At times, it was uncomfortable and hot in the old place. In the third period, it got so foggy that the Erie goalies almost disappeared into the night. (As it developed, the goalies might have chosen that option. The Otters gave up six third-period goals.) The corridors under the stands were crowded and the lines for the concession stands and bathroom were long. Not everything west as planned. As a reward for scoring eight goals in a game, one section was chosen to get tickets good for free spaghetti at a local bistro. Good idea, great promotion. Unfortunately, they ran out of the slips and only made it about half the way up the section before the young kid ran down the stairs.

One other thing. It was also about as much fun as a person can have at a hockey game.

Some places just have that effect.

Normally, a fun night starts when you walk in the building where the sporting activity is scheduled. Great baseball parks have a smell to it, an air pungent with hot dogs and peanuts. Hockey arenas don’t get that luxury but the good ones have an aura, a feel that smells of the game. As you walk around this place, you begin to understand why the locals, while comprehending the need to improve their home facility, are reluctant to leave. After all, there aren’t many places left where ushers have to slide portable walls into place to let the visitors walk from their dressing room to the ice.

Anaheim coach Randy Carlyle thought so much of Windsor Arena that he brought his team to practice there when they had a game in Detroit.

Outside of a paint job, this is the same basic seating arrangement the building has had since 1926. (Photo by Dave Wright.)

On this night, the ambience started several hours before the game. As part of the hoopla surrounding the first home game of the season, the Spits threw a pre-game party in the parking lot. There was a dunk tank, souvenirs, food and, of course, beer. If one didn’t know better, you might have thought you were in the parking lot at a college football game.

Because the old rink doesn’t have much room in the press box (it was, after all, Opening Night), Spitfires media-relations director Rob Gagnon suggested it would be better if I sat in the stands to take notes. So, he gave me a seat seven rows from the ice just behind the penalty box. As it turned out, it was in the middle of an area where several season-ticket holders sit and everybody knows everybody. Phil, Tina and their daughter Kim sat to my left and allowed me to crash their party.

The Spitfires were coming off a very rough season (19-43-2-5) last year. Because many of the players on last year’s team were young and bound to get better, there was considerable enthusiasm for the new campaign. As it develops, just about everybody has a favorite player (Kim, for example, was partial to Josh Bailey. “He plays hard,” she explained. A young girl behind me declared Mickey Renaud, who had been named captain the day before, was dreamy. She also said he was a good skater.)

This kind of enthusiasm can’t be faked, and it is possible it will carry over to the new rink as well. At the same time, it seems very clear the Spitfires and the old rink as it is currently constructed blend in well together.

For example, with no video board serving as a distraction, one could easily ignore the roving PA announcer doing what roving PA announcers do. On this night, several people took that option. Many of those who did engaged in thoughtful discussion on topics like the wisdom of the home team playing Taylor Hall, who won’t be 16 until December, on a regular basis. (This conversation stopped, by the way, when Hall bulldozed his way in for a rebound goal that broke a 3-all tie and started the Spits on their way to victory.)

The crowd blew into their air horns (sold inside the building) to get their favorites motivated. They cheered accordingly when the Spits scored goals and stood up enthusiastically when the obligatory fights broke out. They offered good-natured criticism of calls they didn’t like. When the game got out of hand in the final period, the section behind the Erie bench started that old reliable cheer "Warm up the bus."

The sense is some of this improvisation will stop when they get to the new building. When there is a picture of somebody on a screen over the ice, it is almost mandatory to look at it, see what is happening and react accordingly. If you miss a goal, you can always go to the scoreboard to see the replay. Currently, fans have to watch the game to see the goals — and they seem to like it that way.

The new arena is coming and people in Windsor understand this needed to happen. It certainly will be a classier place to play. All the seats will have backs on them and most (if not all) of them will have armrests. There will be considerably more parking. Concessions will be better and more varied. This is progress and even a city like Windsor, a town steeped in tradition (the city dates back to 1748), has embraced the concept.

But OHL games at Windsor Arena are a lot of fun and there aren’t many of them left. And one can’t help but feel a little bad about that.

Dave Wright is senior editor at August Publications.

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