November 3, 2018 - Toledo, Ohio
There was a time that minor league hockey was huge in the rust belt cities of the Midwest. One city that thrived in the era of the IHL was Toledo. The city had a constant minor league hockey presence since the opening of Toledo Sports Arena in 1947, (an arena we sadly missed out on) to the venue's closure in 2007. Hockey was absent in Toledo for a couple seasons, but returned in a big way with the opening of the Huntington Center in downtown Toledo in 2009. Located a block away from the baseball stadium which houses the Toledo Mud Hens, this arena has frequently been filled with large crowds to watch the city's latest incarnation of hockey, the Walleye. The building has a modern look with a mixture of tan block and red brick and metal accents along with green signage bearing the arena's name. The arena looks large from the outside, and has some interesting touches on the exterior, including a large puck protruding from the exterior wall and Walleye signage in many places. The arena still looks state of the art despite being 10 years old, and has been highly acclaimed by traveling sports fans as one of the best in minor league hockey. Despite a sizeable capacity of 7389 seats sellouts are frequent here and the consecutive streak once reached 80 games, and fans seem to have taken to the Walleye with enthusiastic support. A number of parking garages and surface lots are within a couple blocks of the arena, and downtown is a busy place on game nights. A pedestrian bridge crosses the road in front of the arena connecting the Huntington Center to the nearby SeaGate Convention Center. We secured a ticket online for $17 for this Saturday night game against the Idaho Steelheads, which is inline with pricing in other ECHL cities. The modern look and architecture make it clear that this is a departure from the 1940's era Toledo Sports Arena, and along with that comes somewhat of a sterile and corporate feel. It is hard to argue with the venue's success however as the Walleye are consistently at the top of the attendance charts for the ECHL. It is great to see a city get new hockey life, and fans here have embraced the team as their own, even though the modern day game of hockey, and the modern day arena, is very different from the hockey traditions that the city has built for over 70 years.
Fans arrive early for Walleye games, and the first task is to get through the extensive airport style security screening. Nothing says welcome like having to empty your pockets and walk through a metal detector just to enjoy a minor league sporting event. We understand that this is a common practice in the NHL and AHL, but would never even consider attending games on a regular basis at a venue where the security shakedown is employed all in the name of "safety". Once passing through the security corridor you find yourself on the expansive main concourse which runs above the lower seating bowl. Concessions are abundant and there are a couple of Walleye merchandise shops, including the main team store known as the Tackle Box. The fish theme continues as concession stands are named in similar style including the "Bait Shack" and the booster club table is for the "Finatics" booster club. The theme is kitschy but seems to have taken hold here and is enjoyed by the fans. The concourse runs all the way around the arena and has high ceilings and polished concrete floors. A nice touch is the Toledo Hockey Hall of Fame honoring greats who have skated in Toledo in the past including former Toledo Goaldigger Mike Eruzione. Once inside the arena itself you find an upper and lower seating bowl and a high ceiling. The lower bowl has gray seating along most of the bowl, and black plastic seats on the end which does not have an upper deck. The upper level features a large number of suites and a section of seating in a horseshoe shape which features dark blue seats. Open ductwork and blue metal ceiling beams can be readily seen, and center ice is devoid of a scoreclock. There is a large video board on the open end of the ice, and the arena has a big time feel to it. The Hungtington Center is certainly comfortable and well appointed, and there are a large number of concessions for fans to choose from for dining options. The arena looks like it is certainly up to the level of the AHL or higher, but fans seem happy with the AA level ECHL product and the fan support has been phenomenal since the team started in 2009. What the arena gains with its modern and big time feel it loses a bit in developing a homey and welcoming feel which many older venues have. Often the price of convenience and comfort comes with a corporate pricetag, and the Hungtington Center certainly has that corporate feel, although it is a bit less cookie-cutter feeling than other arenas built during the late 2000's. Walleye fans are certainly happy with the place and that is what matters.
The game day presentation at the Huntington Center for a Walleye game is where you become sure that this is the modern incarnation of Toledo hockey and not one of the prior franchises. Entertainment is the focus here, as there are activities going on all the time, from the "Fanboni" ride which takes a dozen or so fans onto the ice every chance it gets, to the Walleye shaped blimp which flies over the crowd during intermission. The fans are entertained while they are in the building. The team skates onto the ice for pregame introductions through a giant Walleye head, and the first goal that the Walleye score is followed by fans throwing fish onto the ice. The crowd seems to be a mix of longtime hockey diehards who know the game well and take their team seriously and casual fans who seem more interested in a night out and the multiple team mascots and ancillary entertainment that is provided here. There seem top be some longstanding traditions and chants here, and the PA announcer, who is on the dramatic side, has a fun give an take with the fans promoting the free chili from Wendy's if the Walleye score a powerplay goal, which sees the crowd yell "Free Chili" in unison. We were glad to see that there are some tributes to teams of the past, not only through the Hall of Fame display on the concourse, but with banners honoring past teams including Goaldiggers Turner Cup championships. There is a display honoring the Walleye's rather short history as well listing all time team leaders in goals, assists, and points. There are some things that go with the modern presentation in today's minor league hockey landscape that are annoying to longtime fans. Today's game was one of the special Marvel Superhero Nights which saw the 2 teams wear jerseys from the Black Panther movie instead of their usual logos and colors. The ECHL is happy to jump on the corporate profit train any way that it can. Also with the design of the arena having 1 video board on an end wall the only scoreboard there is to look at at times is the ribbon board which runs above the lower seating bowl. One can't argue with the support and success of the Walleye during their tenure at the Huntington Center, and the arena and experience here is a mix of everything that is right and everything that is wrong with minor league hockey all rolled into one. The game of hockey is no longer the main attraction when attending a game at this level, as the ancillary activities, fan contests, and promotions seemingly take center stage. The crowds are good here though, and the place seemingly gives the modern fan what they want, leaving hockey purists behind in a wake of metal detectors and mascots. The game itself was quite entertaining, and had the score tied with 6 minutes left before the Walleye scored to take a 3-2 win and send the crowd home happy. There were also a couple of fights during the game and the action was good for the ECHL. We just left the game a bit somber wondering what has happened to minor league hockey and how did it get so corporate and sterile? A trip to the Huntington Center for a Walleye game is worthwhile for fans looking for entertainment and a new school hockey experience. Enthusiastic fans and good crowd support help offset the inconvenience of the airport style security shakedown and the corporate feel of the arena. Just don't expect an experience similar to the IHL of the 1970's and 1980's. It is a new hockey era in Toledo for sure.