December 3, 2017 - Buffalo, New York
When we started Roaming The Rinks in 2007 we had no idea it would lead to seeing hockey at venues in the triple digits. Then, in 2013, arena #100 came along and it was not an arena at all, but rather Hersheypark Stadium for the Hershey Bears outdoor game. Fast forward to this season and we began to realize that venue #200 was in sight. The second annual Outdoor Classic for the University at Buffalo ACHA Division 1 team fell at the right time, and the game at Buffalo RiverWorks became "arena" #200 in keeping with the tradition we set for ourselves. The backstory on Buffalo RiverWorks is an interesting one indeed, as it became part of the revitalization of the city of Buffalo. On the site of a former Grange League Federation grain mill on the banks of the narrow Buffalo River, the Buffalo RiverWorks complex has come to life over the last few years, with the pair of ice pads opening in 2014, and the rest of the facility continuing to develop until recently. A pair of grain silos now painted blue and bearing the Labatt's logo bring attention to this facility, which is in a gritty industrial area next to a frequently used lift bridge, which raises up to allow barges to pass on the river. The concept of Buffalo RiverWorks is entertainment oriented as it is a space to house concerts, trade shows, a number of bars and restaurants which are on site, and a shopping area. This Sunday afternoon was busy with a Christmas craft show taking place in the main building. Parking was on site and crowded as we ended up parking in a distant lot for the $5 parking charge and driving over loosely packed stones and metal debris from the remains of this industrial site. The main entrance to the facility is just at the base of the blue grain silos, and those on hand for the hockey were directed to bypass the main entry table, where all others had to pay a fee to enter the Christmas event. Once you navigate your way to the ice rink portion of the facility you find a pair of open-air rinks sitting next to each other, with a peaked, brown metal roof covering the rinks from above. There are no walls to the facility, and the end closest to the main building features some viewing from seating on the deck of the brew pub which overlooks the ice rinks. As it was a seasonal day in early December it was cold and breezy but not unbearable. Large metal beams support the roof of the structure, and one of the 2 ice pads has a large aluminum grandstand next to it, which runs less than 30 feet from the river, and has 10 rows of benches which run the full length of the ice. Buffalo RiverWorks is a busy location all year round, as there is box lacrosse and roller derby here in the summer, and the usual ice events you would expect in the winter. Although the Buffalo Bulls campus is a good 20 minutes from this location it is good to see the idea of an outdoor game being used. As a permanent open-air facility the quality of the ice is likely better than it would be on a temporary outdoor rink at a stadium. With the roof over the rinks it has a bit of a feeling of shelter about it, but this place certainly has the charm and feel of an outdoor rink, and even has a more interesting vibe than a rink constructed in a football stadium as this venue has is owns quirks and subtleties. Outdoor games may be a bit overplayed, and do not have the same appeal as they used to, but a game at Buffalo RiverWorks has a lot of excitement going for it as the whole facility and entire complex was buzzing with activity and folks out to have a good time.
This Sunday afternoon contest between the UB Bulls and RIT was just one of several events happening at BuffaloRiverworks on this day, as there were live bands taking the stage in the Christmas vendor show, which was closed off via a railing from fans who were only there for the hockey but left the bands in full view. There was also a large peewee hockey tournament wrapping up just before and during the college games, and was taking place on the other ice pad featuring teams from Ontario. ACHA hockey is kept low key, and admission was free. The layout of Buffalo Riverworks provides for several different viewing options for those who want to watch the games. In addition to the large grandstand, which likely holds 700-800 fans, there are options to watch from ice level up against the glass. The most popular viewing option is from the catwalk area which is situated between the 2 ice pads and on the restaurant end of the rink. There is a standing rail and even some bar type seating, and most of the fans on hand chose to watch from this vantage point. With the high ceiling here and the catwalk nearly hanging over the ice, the view of the games is spectacular here. The rink which the ACHA game was played on has a simple scoreclock mounted on a fence behind the glass. There is netting in front of the entire grandstand area and there are also large beams obstructing the view a bit from that side, but we are guessing the main reason for hardly anyone sitting in the grandstand was that is was a bit chilly to sit out in the wind with your butt on an aluminum bleacher bench. The layout here is rather basic and utilitarian, and the teams enter the rink down a small flight of stairs from the locker rooms, which are part of the main building in the complex, and make their way down a series of mats to the benches. The zamboni here simply parks on the concrete floor between the 2 ice pads, and pulls onto the pad that needs resurfacing when the time comes. We don't usually remark on arena concession or food choices as the hockey is the main attraction for us, but will say that the concession stand at Buffalo Riverworks was among the best we have ever seen. Run by the main restaurant on site the food offerings are diverse, and more inline with what you would find at a trendy downtown eatery than at a hockey game. Prices are not cheap but are inline with the hip dining options in town, and being able to eat a pot roast sandwich with horseradish on sourdough bread while having some tater tot poutine was certainly memorable. We didn't get the sense that the UB game was much of an attraction here with all the other activity going on, and there was no team signage or banners, nor any programs or team gear available. Still, with free admission this was a great event that we are glad to have been able to attend. With a few small touches Buffalo Riverworks could be made to feel a bit more like the home of the Bulls rather than just having the game take place here on what felt like a borrowed space, if with some temporary signage.
The game day experience at the Buffalo Bulls Outdoor Classic was a laid back and festive one. With free admission and other events going on at the complex a number of causal fans seemed to wander over, watch the game for a while, and then return to other events. An announced crowd of over 400 was on hand, with most watching from the catwalk perched high above the ice. There were a number of hardcore fans on hand from both Buffalo and RIT who were vocal in their support, but for the most part the crowd was rather subdued. For us the game was an absolute blast. There was music played during the stoppages and PA announcements made, but otherwise there were not ancillary activities going on. During intermission most fans headed inside to warm up or grab concessions, or checked out the peewee championship game going on in plain sight in the adjacent rink. The setting of RiverWorks, within sight of downtown Buffalo, and the barge traffic on the river and the lifting of the lift bridge make for an awesome backdrop. From the grandstand you can see both the KeyBank Center and HarborCenter, which would be in use for the World Junior Championships later in the month. Watching the game as the sun began to set, and seeing birds fly in and perch on top of the glass surrounding the ice and then fly off made this feel like a true outdoor game. It was odd to look over from the catwalk and see the large grandstand completely empty at time, but there were enough people in attendance watching from the higher vantage points to make this game feel like an event. The game was fast paced and with UB taking a 7-4 win the majority of the crowd came away happy. We were pleased to get venue #200 in the books, but more than that were glad to have watched a game in such a unique setting, in a urban location, that felt like the hockey played on the ponds over 50 years ago. We would definitely consider returning to Buffalo RiverWorks for another similar game, and can imagine that if the game were promoted a bit more in the community attendance would certainly rise. Outdoor hockey in giant stadiums at overpriced events is not something we really enjoy, but a grassroots event like this, which still has quality hockey, and is played on a permanent rink with an open-air setting is so uncommon that it is hard not to have a blast while in attendance.