January 27, 2012 - Alexandria Bay, New York
We love small market teams here at RTR. The 1000 Islands Privateers (spelling the region with the numerals 1000 is the team's idea, not mine) are a small market team in the truest sense of the term. Alexandria Bay is likely the smallest market in all of pro hockey. This vacation town on the banks of the St. Lawrence is actually a bustling tourist town full of fun and relaxing activities... in the summer. When I heard they were putting a team in Alex Bay a couple years ago I questioned where the fans would come from. Not only does the town only have a population of only about 1,100 people, it borders Ontario to the north, thus making it unlikely many Canadian fans would make the cross border trek to see single A level hockey when they have the OHL a half hour away in Kingston. There is a good size population base in Watertown, only 20 or so miles to the south. The stretch of Route 81 which connects Watertown to Alex Bay is among the most treacherous and snowy roads in the region. Nonetheless the fans of the North Country have supported the Privateers pretty well, drawing decently despite the obvious hurdles. I was glad I could take in a game here to get a real small town pro hockey experience.
The Bonnie Castle Recreation Center sits in the shadow of the Thousand Islands Bridge, and is on the grounds of an adjacent harness racing track, Bonnie Castle Downs. There is a sign with a horse statue which leads to the driveway and the arena itself. The facility sits up on a hill overlooking Route 12. The term "barn" is used quite frequently when discussing smaller hockey arenas, and in this case (although I am not 100% certain) it appears that the facility was quite literally a barn at one time, with the horse stables for the racetrack connected to the arena. I am not sure how old the arena is, but it is weathered and has the look of a worn out resort building from the 1970's. There is a large sign on the end of the building, and there is a restaurant on the front of the building as well. Make no mistake about it, this is not a shiny new cookie-cutter style arena, but that's what makes this hobby so fun. There is free parking in the equally weathered gravel lots on both sides of the building, and there is a small entrance on the side of the building simply marked "arena entrance", as well as entry through the restaurant area. A week before this game occurred it was announced that the folks who were managing the arena and restaurant had given up their duties, and the owners of the Privateers had signed a lease to operate the building short term through the end of the season. The building looks small from the outside, and indeed it is, with a low roof as well.
Through the small side entry door is a lobby with a ticket sales table, and the concession area. There is a large pro shop on site as well, and they did have a good amount of Privateers merchandise. To get to the arena itself you go through a narrow door and are in the seating area. The first impression you get of the arena setup itself is "this is pretty crude". There are aluminum bleachers running down both sides of the ice which are 11 rows high. There are some makeshift 2x4 wooden railings in certain areas, and unless you sit squarely in the middle the last few rows of seats have obstructed views as the view is blocked by large support columns. The boards are also made of plywood, something you don't see that much anymore. Nonetheless this is a cozy place to see a game I would guess the overall capacity at 1,500 or so despite wikipedia's claim of 3,500. The restaurant has an upper level which is used for seating during the games, and overlooks the end of the rink. Just before the game they roll down metal gates which cover the windows in the lower level of the restaurant, and fans end up standing all along the end boards as well. The glass is very low which is always neat, but there is netting over the entire seating area except behind the benches. For such a small town rink there is an abundant amount of advertising along the boards and hanging from signs above the grandstands. The rafters are very low, thus the scoreboard is at the end of the arena opposite the restaurant. It has some burnt out bulbs and looks ancient but serves the purpose. The rafters on the scoreboard end have a painted advertisement for the Bonnie Castle Resort, an older resort in town affiliated with this facility. At $10 I thought the tickets to the game were a bargain. This is about as basic as it could possibly get when it comes to a pro hockey arena, but the thought of pro hockey in such an unlikely setting is what keeps us on the road checking out new places.
The crowd for this Friday night game was pretty good as the place seemed pretty full with a listed attendance of just under a thousand despite some slick roads and snow in the area. Despite the Federal League having the image as a low budget league, and the Privateers clearly playing in what one would hardly call a palace, I am impressed with their marketing approach. There are billboards along busy Interstate 81 a full 40 miles south of Alex Bay advertising the Privateers as "The North Country's pro hockey team". I like the regional approach and was also impressed that at both the gas station I stopped at in town before the game to fill up, and at the Jrecks Subs (local Central NY chain with good eats) the Privateers pocket schedules were available on the counter. I also read the local newspaper while eating my sandwich and read multiple articles about the team. It seems the area has embraced the Privateers despite its small size. There is a free lineup sheet available at the game, and the fans seem to be here for a good time. Most everyone stands on the bleachers as the site lines are pretty bad with the netting and beams in the way, but that almost gives it a "college game" atmosphere. There was decent music during the stoppages, including some organ tunes, and the usual minor league contests and give aways. Also I encountered something I had never seen before at this game as apparently, since the team owners just took over the arena and restaurant, the liquor license was still pending so fans were able to bring their own beer in coolers. Can't say that I have ever seen a guy standing along the end boards of a pro hockey game to watch the action while standing on his six-pack sized cooler before. The game against the first place New Jersey Outlaws was truly enjoyable. I got to see the Federal League's 3-on-3 overtime for the first time in person, saw some hard nosed hockey, and got to do it in the type of place that pro hockey is rarely played at anymore. The Outlaws took a 4-3 win, but just having hockey in such a small town is a win for the fans in the North Country. The future of the team is uncertain and they have mentioned looking for a different venue in the area, but I am glad I caught the action at the Bonnie Castle Recreation Center.
Other information about the 1000 Islands Privateers is available at: Privateers Home
Other information about Bonnie Castle Recreation Center is available at: Arena Home
More photos of Bonnie Castle Recreation Center are available Here