November 2, 2019 - Waterloo, Ontario
Columbia Icefield Arena sits on the University of Waterloo's campus, and is part of the school's fitness complex. Approaching the building it is hard to distinguish which area of the structure is the ice arena, and which is the fitness portion as there is no real facade or entrance to the rink. A central entrance to the facility has a series of entry doors and a small metal overhang which looks straight out of the 1980's. When approaching the arena from the front entrance the small peak of the arena's roof is visible. The Waterloo Warriors compete in the Ontario University Athletics hockey conference, and university hockey flies under the radar in most of Ontario, so crowds are generally small. The Columbia Icefield complex is sprawling and features a gym, basketball and squash courts, etc, and the narrow hallway which leads to the ice arena has black and gold trim in the school's colors and the main lobby has some displays of Warriors sports history, including the football team's past successes. From the exterior it is hard to get a sense of the layout of this tiny arena, but when walking around the side and back of the arena the brick walls and shingled roof give the exterior a grand, but old-school look, one which appears much older than its opening year of 1983. Tickets for Waterloo hockey are a reasonable $10, and this matchup against the Western Mustangs found quite a few fans making the trip from London with their purple and white Mustangs gear. A table is set up at the entrance to the small arena lobby, which can't be any bigger than 25 feet by 25 feet, and free programs can be obtained at the ticket table as well. The experience of approaching the arena, entering into the Columbia Icefield Athletic Complex, and making your way to the hockey arena portion of the building all seem very average and unimpressive, until you step through the arena lobby into the tight confines of the arena itself. It is at that point that things get very interesting for arena lovers.
Once your ticket is secured you will be in the tiny lobby, which is lined with photos from past Warriors players who went on to successful hockey careers. There is also a small food concession stand in the lobby selling basic arena fare, and a skate rental window. Through a small door you enter into the corner of the arena. At that point your breath will likely be taken away by the look of what is the true definition of a hockey bandbox. The most noticeable feature is the wooden arching ceiling, which gives the place the ultimate old-school look. It is amazing to think that this style of architecture was chosen for a building which opened in the 1980's, but it is a great throwback to the way hockey should be. The wooden ceiling arches down to where the trusses are built into the walls. Seating is limited to a 3 row grandstand with black plastic benches at ice level that runs along the far side of the ice from the team benches. There are also a couple of other small aluminum bleachers built into one corner of the arena, but many fans choose to stand along the glass on the end of the arena. With a listed capacity of 680, but so few seats, it seems obvious that the arena is relying on standees to make up that capacity. The end wall near the lobby features team photos from past Warrior teams, and seemingly everywhere you look there is wood, from the ceiling to the walls. The way the trusses come together is an architectural marvel as the ends of the arena feature curved wooden beams which support the roof. A tiny press box hangs from the rafters above the team benches and those who occupy the perch for media purposes have to duck down to keep from hitting their heads. There is no center ice scoreclock, only a couple small scoreboards mounted in the corners. To think that hockey at this high of a level is played in such a tiny, old style arena is rather surreal. Columbia Icefield Arena may not be the most comfortable arena in which to watch a game, as the sight lines are rather poor, and netting covers the entire spectator area, but experiencing a game here is a true hockey experience, where the fans are on top of the action and about as close as you can get to the on-ice action.
The gameday experience at Columbia Icefield for a Waterloo Warriors game, just like the arena itself, is a throwback to simpler times. The presentation is rather basic, with nothing happening at intermission. Music and announcements are broadcast over a clear and robust PA and speaker system. As mentioned above, all seats or standing areas are close to the ice. This means you will be right on top of the action, but also will be watching the game through the glass no matter where you choose to watch from. A crowd of 200 or so was on hand for this Saturday night contest, and every fan in the house can hear nearly every word and chirp from the ice, and also hear the carves of skates as the play takes place on the ice. The crowd on hand is your typical Ontario crowd, meaning extremely knowledgeable of the game, but also reserved and hard to impress. Cheers only happen when there is a goal or very big play, and there are hardly any Waterloo students on hand to catch the action, and there is no designated student section or cheering section. Waterloo fell to Western 3-2 in what was a very exciting and entertaining game. The experience of watching a game here is driven by the building itself, with its tiny footprint and amazing architecture. Banners for the Warriors, signage, and photos in the common areas make this place feel like home of the Warriors, and the black and gold trim everywhere reinforces that point. The experience here is full of unexpected contrasts, and the amazing architecture and woodwork is nearly hidden from the outside and unexpected until you step inside what appears to be a rather drab 1980's era sport complex. The fact that such a high level of hockey is played here is also hard to fathom, as it feels like you should be in at least a 2500 seat arena watching the skill level on the ice, but are actually in a tiny building that has a smaller footprint that 90% of community ice rinks in North America. Columbia Icefield Arena is definitely a must-see for arena purists or those who want to experience hockey in a way that is a throwback to the way things were decades ago.