One hockey fan's journey to the arenas of North America
Essroc Arena - Home of the Wellington Dukes
January 21, 2018 - Wellington, Ontario
Small town junior hockey is the lifeblood of Canada, and markets don't get much smaller than Wellington, Ontario. How small is it you ask? Wellington is often not even listed in many road atlases. Located in Prince Edward County on the north shore of Lake Ontario, this tiny town of less than 2000 folks has been supporting junior hockey for decades, and is one of the smallest junior hockey markets in Canada. The Wellington Dukes have been a mainstay here since 1977, and have had on ice success, garnering several championships, in addition to drawing decent crowds despite the small population in the area. In 2010 the town opened the Wellington & District Community Centre, of which Erroc Arena is a part, giving the Dukes a modern and more spacious place to play as their old home, affectionately known as the "Duke Dome", was much smaller and often very crowded and sometimes sold out. This modern yet utilitarian arena sits less than a half mile from the Bay of Quinte, which was frozen over during our visit. The arena consists of a rectangular metal barn with white metal walls and has a modern brick and stucco lobby and banquet hall attached near the end of the building. The bricks are brown and tan, and a simple raised-letter sign sits above the small awning that signifies the main entrance to the arena. A green metal roof sits atop the structure, and some green trim sits above the brick walls. A curved window is above the main entrance, and with a single ice pad the building has a rather small footprint but looks sharp and modern from the outside. A fairly large parking lot sits outside of the arena, and the venue itself is not far from the main business district in town. In this small town you would be hard pressed to find much road traffic, and life seems quiet and simple here. The Dukes attract much of the attention in the community, and are clearly a center of community pride in Wellington. A OJHL championship and RBC Cup appearance in the first year of Essroc Arena's existence set the bar high, but recent championships have helped keep local fans happy, and it appears that big time hockey is here to stay in Wellington for the foreseeable future.
Fans entering Essroc Arena on game day will find a box office window to the left as they enter, and will immediately see lots of Dukes signage as there is a ticket and program table in the lobby. The arena itself is past the food concession area, which also has tables at ice level that overlook the end of the rink. Dukes tickets are $12, inline with other teams in the OJHL and a bit less expensive than some. Once in the rink itself you will find a pair of grandstands, one on each side of the ice. Seating is made up of 8 rows of seats on each side of the ice, and the seats are all plastic seats, with the lower seats being red and the upper seats being blue. The front row is elevated to where the aisle in front of the seats is even with the top of the dasher boards. There is a upper walking track which runs all the way around the rink and also serves as an upper concourse. A restaurant known as the Task Force Lounge sits above the ice on one end, and a simple center ice scoreclock is suspended from the ceiling. Unlike in most of the rest of Ontario netting does not cover the entire seating area, as the neutral zones are not covered by the netting. The vaulted ceiling is held up by large white metal beams, and the entire arena has a spotless look about it. With the red and blue seats Essroc Arena truly feels like a home of the Dukes, and the color scheme is kept consistent throughout the venue. A standing rail is above the grandstands, and serves as a popular place from which to watch the action. The seating is pitched rather steeply and sight lines are good here. The interior walls are tan colored cinder blocks on the lower level, and gray metal siding on the upper area. For a newer arena there is a lot to look at for fans. The Prince Edward County Sports Hall of Fame sits on the outside wall of the restaurant and inside the running track, and honors local athletes in many sports. A large number of Dukes banners sit along the concourse at one end of the arena. There is a Dukes merchandise stand set up on the upper concourse as well, and various displays on the outer walls of the concourse showcase local history related to hockey, as well as the town itself, with one display case explaining the connection to this lakeside town to the Duke of Wellington. With a capacity of 1600 Essroc Arena is still a venue with a small feel to it. The layout and features of the arena make it feel very much like a large event venue, as it is comfortable and well equipped, yet the arena seems to maintain its small town charm.
When the Wellington Dukes have a game Essroc Arena is the place to be for folks in Wellington and nearby areas. The game day experience here is very professional and polished. The team enjoys great support from sponsors and the community. Fans are vocal, and many are on hand decked out in Dukes gear and ready to shake their noisemakers at the slightest indication that the game will turn in the Dukes favor. The games here also feel like an event. Intermission features contests, including an on-ice race for garden tractors which took place during intermission at this game. This Sunday afternoon game against Stouffvile featured a relatively modest crowd listed at 400, but come playoff time Wellington fans turn out in force, making for an intimidating environment for opponents. The arena itself does its part to add to the fan experience and the overall atmosphere. Despite being less than a decade old, the arena feels full of history and tradition, from the banners, to the Dukes colors prevailing everywhere in the venue, to the small town vibe that the arena gives off. The layout of the arena provides for good views of the action, and the configuration with the team benches on opposite sides of the ice is always a fun feature we enjoy. We certainly wouldn't call the Dukes fans overly loud, as they seem to be the typical Ontario crowd, meaning reserved, knowledgeable, and not easily impressed, but they definitely support the team, as evidence by the organization's success in one of the smallest sports markets in North America, and are prepared to make noise if the situation call for it. The local fans went home happy as the Dukes dominated enroute to a 5-0 win over the Spirit. The setting of the arena in a quiet town not far from the lake is an enjoyable one, and it is the type of place that you can ask anyone at the gas station or restaurant how the Dukes are doing and you will get an accurate and well thought out answer. Essroc Arena and the Wellington & District Community Center were designed to be a place that locals can congregate and enjoy sports and other activities, and with a team like the Dukes in town the whole town of Wellington seems to gain much of its identity from the success and attention received by team. The players who take to the ice here play for town pride in Wellington regardless of where they call home themselves, and Essroc Arena in Wellington just feels like the type of place that junior hockey is supposed to be played at end enjoyed in.