January 23, 2016 - Rochester, New York
Rochester is a busy hockey market. The AHL's Americans play downtown at Blue Cross Arena, RIT has an excellent following at the Gene Polisseni Center, and the NA3EHL has made inroads on the north side of town at Lakeshore Hockey Arena. Despite all of those hockey options in the area the busiest hockey facility in the region is Bill Gray's Iceplex. Located on the campus of Monroe Community College, the arena opened in 1998 and features 4 ice pads, one of which is a large event venue with a capacity of 3000 spectators. The arena is home of the USPHL's Junior Americans, as well as Nazareth College's NCAA Division 3 program. Originally known as the ESL Center, local hamburger mogul Bill Gray snagged the arena naming rights in 2013, and the arena features a full service location of the burger chain which includes a bar. The very large building is essentially a blue-sided steel barn. The main entrance to the arena sits in the corner of the structure, and features a glassed-in lobby and gray brick patio area. Still, the building looks rather boxy and utilitarian. Arriving in the early afternoon on a Saturday to take in both the USPHL Elite and Premier level games which were held back to back, you couldn't help but think that the place was busier than a mall on Black Friday as the large parking lot was nearly full, and the whole property was bustling. Once inside the entrance you find yourself in a large open lobby with an information desk straight ahead. There was a large Bantam AAA tournament going on here taking up ice time on the 3 smaller ice pads, so the lobby was packed with hockey moms and dads and players carrying their gear bags. The 3 alternate rinks are set up perpendicular to the main arena, which is also known as Solid State Arena as the concrete design company has naming rights to the larger arena. On game day that arena has a separate entrance from the lobby and a Junior Americans ticket table was set up at this entrance. Tickets were $5, and a free roster was provided, with program books featuring player photos and profiles available for a fee. Bill Gray's Regional Iceplex combines a large event arena with a number of community ice pads and the facility certainly gets a lot of use.
Once inside the main arena at Bill Gray's Regional Iceplex you find yourself on a concourse above the 8 rows of aluminum benches that make up the seating area. The seats extend around both sides and one end in a u-shaped design. We are never a fan of the aluminum bench seating as it just does not give off a hockey vibe, and is often cold and uninviting. There is a center ice scoreclock and the ceiling is rather high, with a white metal ceiling and rafters. In a attempt add a bit of a sense of history to the arena there are painted portraits of past Rochester hockey greats spread out on the concourse walls. Those with images on the portraits include Al Arbour, Mike Keenan, and of course Don Cherry, who played and coached the Amerks. The arena is still used as the Americans practice facility as well. Overall the arena feel very sterile and cold, with aluminum risers, chain link fencing at the edge of sections where there is stairways to the locker rooms, and the aluminum seating itself. The capacity is large enough to host various events, and the Amerks often play AHL preseason games here, and the venue even hosted World Junior Preliminary action when the tournament was in Buffalo in 2011. The slope of the seating is rather gradual so the sight lines are not that great here, but there are plenty of open seats so you can certainly find a vantage point that will provide a good view. The temperature inside the rink is kept quite cold, but that is not a problem if you ask us. The Bill Gray's location overlooks the ice on one side, and fans can sit at a table and dine on one of the "world greatest cheeseburgers" as they are billed while watching the action. Oddly, the benches and penalty boxes feature clear boards in front of them if you are interested in checking out the players' knees during the games. In the lobby there is a lot of activity going on, as there are benches and tables for folks to sit at, a good sized and well stocked pro shop, a coffee shop, and the Bill Gray's location which stays constantly busy. For a community arena the amenities are quite nice and offer a bit of comfort and variety. When comparing the Iceplex to other 3000 seat arenas which host big events the layout falls a bit short and feels like it was put together "on the cheap". The combination of community arena and event arena seems to work though, and folks in the Rochester area seem glad to have this facility.
The gameday presentation and atmosphere at Bill Gray's Iceplex for a Rochester Junior Americans game is all business and features no frills and little in the way of added fan attractions. Less than 100 fans were in attendance, and in a building that holds 3000 that is pretty empty. The crowd was clearly made up of family and friends, save a few fans sporting Americans and Sabres jerseys who seemed to like the option of taking in some afternoon hockey here before heading elsewhere in the evening. There was music during stoppages, and that was about it. There were no announcements for goals or penalties. Nothing happens at intermission except for the ice being resurfaced, and nearly everyone heads to the lobby or restaurant during that time to warm up as it is cold in the rink. This was our first time seeing the USPHL Premier League, and there is a ton of skill on the rosters, with both teams having players already committed to NCAA Division 1 schools in the stronger conferences like Hockey East. We are not a fan of players playing with a full cage, but this league is set up to develop players for college hockey. As you would expect with the cage the game was chippy, stick-work prevalent, and some of the play was on the dirty side, but the game was full of emotion and grit, and saw the Boston Junior Bruins take a 6-5 overtime win. The action was intense and the hockey good, it just seems like with the league operating on a tuition-based model that attracting fans is an afterthought. The cages also seem to detract from the identity of the league as being big-time hockey as quite a few parents and bantam players strolled in after or before their tournament games in the adjacent rinks, with many asking "what's this, the U-17 team?". Junior hockey is meant to be played with just a visor, but that is all we will say from our soapbox. There is a ton of skill on the ice for a USPHL game, and if you are a hardcore fan who is not worried about contests at intermission, mascots, or heat in the rink you will likely enjoy a game here. With several other hockey options in the Rochester area fans can choose which teams they want to follow and which games to attend, and Bill Gray's Regional Iceplex gives fans another option for that, but it also serves the hockey and skating community in the area, and does so in a facility that is above par when it is compared to other community arenas. You even have a chance so enjoy an excellent cheeseburger while you are there.
A box score of the game can be found Here
Other information about the Rochester Junior Americans can be found at: Junior Americans Home
Other information about Bill Gray's Regional Iceplex can be found at: Arena Home
More photos of Bill Gray's Regional Iceplex can be found Here