December 17, 2011 - Kalamazoo, Michigan
When I think of minor league hockey I think of places like Kalamazoo. Fortunately I was able to not only see a game here, but a game that featured my Elmira Jackals taking on the K-Wings. To do that after catching a USHL game in Ann Arbor earlier in the day made this a day to remember. Wings Stadium opened in 1974, and has hosted the K-Wings continuously ever since, although they have played in a number of leagues including the old IHL, the UHL, the new IHL and currently the ECHL. The complex sits on the East side of Kalamazoo and is surrounded by parking lots. The exterior of the building has an odd appearance, and the sloping brown metal roof is the dominant architectural feature that is noticed immediately. There is a main entrance on the end of the building, which houses the box office lobby and has a prominent K-Wings sign attached to the roof. There is a grassy lawn and flag pole area in front of the entrance. The walls of the building are only one story high and made of a grayish cinder block. The arena itself is actually dug into the ground, thus the low profile of the building from an exterior perspective. The Wings Stadium Complex houses 2 additional ice pads, once called the Annex which also has a fair amount of seating, and the other named the Cube. The facility serves as both a community rink for youth and local hockey, and a big time arena which hosts the K-Wings and concerts and other events. Everything is connected by hallways so the buildings are connected. The feature I like the most is the neon sign which is large and easily visible. It adds to the 70's feel of the building. Parking is $5, although local fans are a little ticked as prior to this year parking for games was free. The box office lobby is nicely maintained and my ticket for the game cost $13.90. Unlike in the 1970's when the arena opened, they now have a loud recorded message playing outside the building advising that no outside food and drink can be brought in and things like that. It is kind of annoying, and if you park far away you will here "welcome to Wings Stadium" followed by this message at least a dozen times before you get to the arena entrance.
Once inside you are treated to a classic example of a 1970's era hockey arena. The arena holds a little over 5,100 seats, and is all business as there is no video board, no luxury suites, but just a good old fashioned hockey barn. It is great that things have been kept that way. The seating goes all the way around the ice, with older plastic seats, which are brown in color in the first few rows, and K-Wings orange everywhere else. The entry from the concourse comes out near the middle of the seating bowl, as the lower seats are actually sunk below ground level. There is a small center ice scoreclock, and the ceiling is pretty low. Evidence of the K-Wings success over the years include Turner Cup banners from the 1970's, as well as the UHL title in 2006. The benches for the teams are on opposite sides of the ice, and the place has a classic feel to it. Sight lines are good, although the main complaint would be that the walls which surround the concourse entrances protrude unusually high, thus blocking some views if you sit next to those walls. They could have lowered them down a foot or so and improved things. It is better to sit low if you are not directly in the center or on the end as those walls make it a little hard to see. There are also blind spots on the end as you may not be able to see the area behind the goal due to the angle of the seats. That's OK though as quirks like this remind you that you are in an old school arena. The concourse circles below the seats and you can go all the way around the arena. They had a good selection of team merchandise, although it is available only at small merchandise stands on the main concourse. There is a large pro shop and team store in the hallway leading to the annex as well. The concourse adds to the 1970's feel, although it is well maintained. Overall if you like older arenas you will love Wings Stadium.
The game experience at Wings Stadium was among the best I have experienced in a while. I was amazed at the small crowd size of only 1,900 who showed up, but they do things right in Kalamazoo. I enjoyed the photo collages from each season's team which are on the concourse. It's neat to see a photo from a 1970's or 80's team, framed with newspaper articles listing current events and popular songs from that same era. They really have a sense of history here. The few fans on hand were loud when they needed to be, and they seemed to understand the game. The ancillary stuff at intermission was actually enjoyable here. They had great entertainment at both intermissions featuring a trampoline team. The guys were jumping so high they were almost touching the rafters. There were also zamboni rides including a lady who celebrated her 80th birthday by circling the ice and waving to the fans. The goal horn is very loud, and the fans like their hockey to be played with a rough edge. In fact the locals seem distressed over the team's lack of toughness, openly heckling their own players for skating away from challenges to fight, even when they were challenged by smaller guys. Perhaps this in one of the reasons for such a small crowd, but the Michigan economy can't help things either. The game itself was fantastic, and not just because the Jackals scored late to take a 4-3 win. There was a line brawl, some good play and good goaltending. I got to hear a really loud goal horn, inside a 1970's arena with a neon sign out front to complete my second hockey game of the day. How could that not make for a good day? A visit to Wings Stadium is a step back in time, and it is great that so much remains unchanged. I guess now that I have been to Kalamazoo I know why I pictured it as the typical minor league town and arena. You don't need a video board to enjoy minor league hockey, and you won't find too many places with the history of Wings Stadium.
Other information about the Kalamazoo Wings is available at: K-Wings Home
Other information about Wings Stadium is available at: Arena Home
More photos of Wings Stadium are available Here