November 12, 2016 - Toronto, Ontario
Times were simpler in Toronto when Varsity Arena opened in 1926, and although this arena has flown under the mainstream radar a bit, and not garnered nearly the amount of attention that the other 1920's era arena across town has received (Maple Leaf Gardens), fans have been enjoying hockey here for nearly a century. Varsity Arena is a simple brick building which sits almost out of view as it is tucked behind the large grandstand of Varsity Stadium, the field which many of the University of Toronto sports teams call home. The brown metal-clad peaked roof of the building is hard to see, and with the current layout of the venue there is no formal main entrance as fans are funneled into a side entrance underneath the stadium grandstand. One can get a look at the building itself by walking around the side of the arena, where the red brick walls and numerous opaque windows are more easily seen as you look at them from the wooded field on campus which sits next to the arena. Still, unless you know this is a hockey arena, it could easily be confused for one of the other nearby campus buildings as the arena's simple nondescript exterior blends in with its surroundings. The back end of the arena has a simple sign indicating this is home of the Varsity Blues. High-rise buildings sit as the backdrop to this arena, and folks walking by may not know the role this simple venue has played in hockey history. Although primarily known as the home of the University teams this venue was called into service as the home of the WHA's Toronto Toros for the 1973-74 season. Fans attending a hockey game at Varsity Arena purchase tickets at the free standing box office at the entrance to the stadium and then work their way down the hallway under the grandstand to the arena entrance. A simple raised-letter sign indicates that this is the entrance to the arena itself. It is an odd layout similar to TD Place in Ottawa, although on a smaller scale. A ticket for this afternoon contest against Nipissing costs $12. You can feel a sense of history when walking up to the stadium and arena, and the quirky setting of the arena being tucked away on campus and nearly out of sight make this a unique surrounding to take in a hockey game. Fans have been making the trek here for decades, although CIS hockey seems to get lost in the big city limelight in Toronto.
After entering Varsity Arena via the main entrance under the stadium grandstand you find yourself on the main arena concourse which runs underneath the seating. The hallway is worn and uneven, and the light blue pale brick walls have windows at the top letting light into the building. Photos of past Varisty Blues teams are hung on the concourse, and you get the sense that you are attending a hockey game in a century old venue even before setting your eyes on the ice surface and seating bowl. The arena is one of the oldest venues in the word without support poles blocking the views from the seating area, and the aged, giant metal rafters jut out from the side walls to support the peaked ceiling. The seating circles the ice and is comprised of 12 rows of seats which are steeply pitched and made up of ancient, yet charming wooden 2 person benches. The seats on the sides of the rink are painted red, and the seats in the corners and on the end are red on the bottom few rows then blue toward the top. A press box hangs from the rafters on one side of the ice, and currently the sections above the visitors bench are blocked off by a very large Varsity Blues banner. Like many older arenas, the team benches are on opposite sides of the ice. An older center ice scoreclock hangs from the rafters. The arena has a clean and simple look, and has a big time feel with a seating capacity of 4116. Sight lines are excellent, as the seating is steep and only the areas directly behind the goals have protective netting covering the stands. The arena is rather dimly lit, and the seating configuration provides for almost no legroom, but the classic feel of the venue more than makes up for those minor shortcomings. The concourse is not crowded with vendors, and has a simple concession stand offering a small menu of food tucked away on the end of the concourse, and a couple of racks of U. of Toronto clothing and gear. A program and chuck-a-puck table sits just inside the main entrance, and the concourse has a utilitarian look about it. University hockey thrives on tradition and is slow to change, and experiencing hockey at Varsity Arena is like a step back in time to simpler days. You can almost smell the history and tradition here, and the old fashioned amenities such as the ancient hardware on the seats and 2 person benches and unlevel floor on the concourse add the the throwback feeling you get when attending a game here.
Attending a Toronto Varsity Blues game at Varsity Arena is a glimpse into how the game used to be decades ago. With the classic wooden seats and weathered structures inside the arena you imagine attending a game before helmets were worn and when the game was simpler. The PA announcements echo inside the arena, and just sitting and enjoying a game enables you to take in the history of the arena. Banners dating back to the 1920's hang from the rafters, including a pair of Allan Cup banners. Despite the old fashioned setting the game day staff does a good job providing a rather modern presentation for the fans. Cheerleaders are in attendance, and intermissions offer on ice entertainment such as a fan shootout and a chuck-a-puck contest. All of this takes place in a setting that is hardly modern, yet delightfully enjoyable. The team benches are so short that the backup goalies take a seat in the stands. With the banners blocking the center ice seating on one side 90% of the fans in attendance sit on the same side of the ice. As is the case with many CIS teams in larger cities, attendance is rather small, and the crowd of a couple hundred on hand looked tiny in a building that holds 4000 fans. Although the arena is older it has better sightlines than most modern arenas, and it is enjoyable to sit in seats that have been in place for at least half a century and watch hockey be played in such a setting. Unfortunately for the Toronto fans on hand the Blues fell by a 5-3 score to the Nipissing Lakers. With a small crowd on hand there was not a lot of fan atmosphere or noise when there was action on the ice. The historic setting of the arena does seem to build its own atmosphere, and the tradition of the building can almost be tangibly felt. Great players have taken to the ice at Varsity Arena over the years, from the Allan Cup teams of the 1920's to WHA players including Gordie Howe. Not much has changed here since those earlier times. Most folks choose to travel to Toronto for different reasons than simply attending a hockey game at Varsity Arena, but that in itself would be a worthy reason to come to town for a hockey fan.