October 8, 2017 - Port Dover, Ontario
Port Dover, Ontario is not the kind of place that most hockey fans would purposely head to. It is also a town that your are more likely to pass through by accident in the summer time while heading to the lake, than you would be during hockey season. Nonetheless, this quaint beach town on the North shore of Lake Erie is a fun hockey destination full of tradition and local pride. Not far from the town's lighthouse and locally owned shops and restaurants, which attract many tourists during the summer months, sits Port Dover Area Arena. This modest building sits next to the town school, sports fields and skatepark. Having opened in 1987, this square looking arena is a hub of activity for local hockey players, and also is home of the Port Dover Sailors, one of the better supported Junior C teams in Ontario. This nearly windowless building has a brown brick exterior and a small metal awning at the corner of one end designating the main entrance. Modern looking gray trim accents the exterior of the arena and the Norfolk County logo is affixed to the main entrance exterior wall, as is a simple raised-letter sign. The building itself blends into its residential surroundings, and could easily be mistaking for a part of the adjacent school campus. Fans arriving on game day to Port Dover will see a simple sandwich board sign at the main intersection in town indicating that the Sailors are playing that day. Local pride in the team is evident this small community, as junior hockey has been a staple here since the arena's opening in the 1980's. Sunday afternoon games are common for the Sailors, and this game against the Niagara RiverHawks was also the teams Pink in the Rink game to raise money for breast cancer. The arena itself does not look like much, as its simple rectangular structure almost seems too small from the outside to be properly outfitted to host a hockey rink, but the grounds are well kept and this little bandbox is a throwback to small town hockey arenas of the past. Port Dover Arena Arena is informally referred to as "The Shipyard" paying tribute to the area's nautical heritage and lakefront location, and is a suitable home for the Sailors and their fans.
Upon entering Port Dover Area Arena on game day you find yourself in the small lobby at the end of the rink, where a Sailors ticket and merchandise table is set up. Tickets for the games are $7, programs and team gear is also available at the table. The rest of the lobby is typical of a small community arena, complete with trophy cases and memorabilia, including photos of Port Dover and Norfolk County natives who have gone on to win the Stanley Cup including Rick Wamsley and the legendary Red Kelly. The lobby also has seating which allows for a view of the ice through the glass, and contains the lone concession stand in the building, which was closed for this game as the county owned facility had the stand closed for the Thanksgiving weekend. The ice rink is accessed through a simple door off of the lobby,. or via a stairway to the upstairs lobby which also leads to the grandstand. Seating is elevated and is comprised of 7 rows of wooden benches on a concrete base and runs the full length of the ice. A good estimate of the seating capacity would be 600-700 and additional fans can watch from the upper concourse which runs behind the grandstand and features a standing rail and drink shelf. For a building built in the 1980's the arena has a strong sense of history and banners paying tribute to past Sailors teams, as well as to the Clippers, who were an earlier incarnation of junior hockey in Port Dover, are on display in the building. A single scoreclock sits above the goal on the end wall opposite the lobby. Metal rafters are in plain sight under the low, flat ceiling of the building. Additional viewing is in the upper lobby which also serves as a community meeting room during the week, and the arena bar during game days. This room overlooks the ice through a set of windows. The arena's most noticeable feature is the wall above the goal near the lobby, which is painted a bright white and displays the phrase "Home of Stanley Cup Champions" along with the team logos and names of Rick Wamsley, Red Kelly, and Jassen Cullimore who are all locals who have hoisted the Cup. The entire facility is kept spotless and well maintained, and the level of pride held by local residents is evident to those in attendance. A press box sits in one corner of the arena and amenities are rather stark, but more than suitable to house a team at this level. The night before we were at Ricoh Coliseum watching AHL hockey, but experiencing a game here has a more pure and traditional feel when compared to the corporate feel of the highest levels of hockey one finds today.
The game day experience for fans at a Sailors game at Port Dover Area Arena is fun and familiar. The presentation is not flashy or overdone, and the local fans arrive seemingly all at once just as the game is about to start on a Sunday afternoon. Inexpensive tickets make this a great place for the family to watch hockey. The sight lines from the stands are good for the most part, aside from the small blind spots along the near boards that you get with seating that is elevated like this. Still, the center sections of the grandstand are devoid of the annoying protective netting that permeates Ontario, so that is a plus. Fans get involved in a quiet way here, although program giveaways from local businesses, and a chuck-a-puck contest are part of the presentation. An interesting twist on an intermission fan shot contest takes place here as a lucky fan wins a prize if a chosen member of the Sailors is able to hit a small target with the puck at intermission. The nautical theme and team name is put to good use here and not overlooked, as the PA announcer welcomes fans to The Shipyard before the game, and the goal horn is that of a ship horn, with its deep rumbling tone sounding every time the Sailors score. Pink jerseys were worn by the team for this special benefit game. The building is small, with its low ceiling and small capacity making a couple hundred fans feel like the place is a bit crowded, but like most Ontario crowds the fans are rather quiet and reserved. The game itself was as entertaining as any you would find, complete with lots of hitting, a penalty shot, and the Sailors coming from behind to claim a 9-4 victory in a game that was much closer than the score indicates. The sense of history in the building can be felt, and the Red Kelly banner that hangs here was relocated from the Air Canada Centre to a more suitable and appreciative home for this historical marker paying tribute to a hometown legend. It is clear that Port Dover residents love their hockey, and their town's waterfront charm makes taking a walk around the downtown area and over to the lighthouse and pier a fun pregame must-do. It is unlikely that Port Dover will become a targeted destination for out of town hockey fans to watch hockey in this modest arena, but for those looking to experience hockey in a more simple way, in a place overflowing with pride, then catching a Sailors game on a Sunday afternoon at The Shipyard would be a memorable experience.