November 12, 2015 - Saint John, New Brunswick
We love the Q here at Roaming The Rinks. Our first venture into the Maritimes found us taking in a Thursday night Sea Dogs contest at this sharp looking arena in Saint John. Having opened in 1993 Harbour Station sits not far from the Harbor and the Bay of Fundy, and sits along a heavily used rail yard corridor, down a steep hill from the main part of the city. The arena can be accessed via an enclosed pedestrian bridge, and features a stately brick and light concrete exterior, and looks quite large from the outside. Blue accents adorn the exterior and a large blue glass facade marks the main entrance and box office area to the building. A large digital marquee signs sits along the street in front of the arena as well. Folks have been enjoying hockey at Harbour Station since its opening when the AHL's Flames came to town, and had a brief period without a team after the Flames left in 2003, but the QMJHL arrived in Saint John in 2005, and the local fans have had a successful and winning team to root for ever since, with the Sea Dogs making a couple of Memorial Cup appearances, and even capturing the trophy in 2011. Just inside the entrance is a simple box office area where we secured a $19 ticket for this game against nearby rival Moncton. The lobby also features a small team store which is open on game nights, and a tasteful, yet simple Saint John Sports Hall of Fame, with drawings of local sports heroes in the lobby. The fans in Saint John have a great venue to host their team,and the arena looks like a big-time facility that you would find in a much larger city, and not the type of arena you would find in a city of 70,000 such as Saint John.
Although Harbour Station looks large from the outside, it is actually built into a hill, and when entering from the box office lobby you find yourself on the main concourse which runs in between the lower seating bowl and underneath the upper seating level. From the street level the arena is actually sunk into the ground a bit. The layout is quite impressive, and despite having a capacity of only 6307 the arena looks like a mini-NHL arena with upper level seating in addition to the lower seating bowl. The lower bowl is made up of 12 rows of blue plastic seats, and the upper level, which is accessed by a number of stairways extending up from the concourse, is also made up of 12 rows, with the lower rows made of blue seats and the upper seats being green. The concourse is wide, and is also open, allowing a view of the ice while grabbing a hotdog or purchasing a 50/50 ticket. The 50/50 setup here is rather elaborate, with the ticket sellers printing out a receipt from a digital electronic machine, and the pot being listed on a number of screens throughout the concourse. A nice video board hangs above center ice, and the sight lines are excellent. The upper level designed in a U-shape as the one end of the upper level is made up of suites, and there are also suites along one side above the upper level seats. The ceiling is made up of silver tin and is rather flat, and has exposed metal rafters in plain view. A variety of concessions sit on the concourse, and the venue has a truly big event feel to it. There is standing along the rail above the lower seating bowl, but with the design of the stairways leading to the upper bowl standing spots are a bit limited as the stairs extend down parallel with the concourse itself. While strolling the concourse between period pay attention and keep you eyes out of your phone as it you walk too far to the side of the concourse you are liable to knock you head off of the underside of a stairway. Although the average Canadian hockey fan is certainly educated about the game enough for this not to be a major issue, the top of the aisle to each section of the lower bowl has a sign on the floor that states "Do not walk in aisle during play". We wish more venues would enforce this simple courtesy. The layout and design of Harbour Station is certainly among the best we have encountered for a major junior arena, and offers viewing from a lower level, the added excellent view from the upper deck, and still maintains an open upper concourse where fans can keep an eye on the ice while grabbing a snack or simply walking around the concourse.
The gameday presentation and experience at a Sea Dogs game is certainly professional and also based on fun activities aside from the game. This however, does not detract from the fact that fans are here to see hockey, and the team and arena do a great job recognizing and celebrating the team's and area's hockey history, while doing so in a building that still looks virtually new. The concourse has "Columns of Fame" featuring photos of Sea Dogs players who have been selected in the NHL draft which adorn the columns that support the upper seating structure. They look like they will be running out of columns soon as there have been quite a few players selected despite the Sea Dogs only being around for 10 seasons or so. The concourse also features a cool, old-school standing boards with standing from the QMJHL listed and updated daily with movable numbers and team nameplates. This is something you would expect at an arena from the 1970's, but that we now truly appreciated at an arena in this new millennium. Banners hang from the rafters, including a Calder Cup banner garnered by the Flames, and multiple Sea Dogs banners. They do a great job here keeping the fans involved in the game as there are player interviews shown on the video board during intermission, and the intermissions are also full of multiple on-ice activities including minor hockey and several fan contests as well as a chuck-a-puck. This being a Thursday night game the crowd was rather small at 2700. The fans also had very little to cheer about as Moncton took a 5-0 win. A couple of fights kept things interesting, but we did not even get to hear the goal horn. The fans in Saint John were clearly frustrated by the Sea Dogs performance, and they seemingly expect success as the team has delivered on that over its history. Those in attendance did seem very supportive and vocal despite there being limited opportunities to get loud based on the game outcome. As expected at a QMJHL arena, all PA announcements are bilingual. We did find it a bit of a different vibe than the Quebec based teams in the Q as the music selection for warmups and stoppages was not the traditional techno mix that is so common in Quebec, and classic rock and country seem to be the music genres of choice here. Harbour Station is certainly an excellent place to watch a game. With its 2 level design, open concourse, and attention to history and tradition it is a great representation of how an arena can have creature comforts and quality fan amenities, yet not feel sterile or cookie-cutter and maintain a sense of history. This combination is something very rare in an arena that has been constructed in the last 25 years, and is a welcome and refreshing change. We can only imagine how fun this place is during a late season playoff run. Atlantic Canada seems far away, distant, and away from the mainstream to most Americans,and many Canadians for that matter, but they have a great venue in Saint John for hockey, and are certainly continuing to build on a winning tradition here, whether fans in the rest of the hockey world are paying attention or not.
A box score of the game can be found Here
Other information about the Saint John Sea Dogs can be found at: Sea Dogs Home
Other information about Harbour Station can be found at: Arena Home
More photos of Harbour Station can be found Here