March 10, 2018 - Tillsonburg, Ontario
Small town Canada is full of historic community arenas, many of which remain nearly unchanged for decades. One such arena that we have been hoping to see a game at for a few years is Kinsmen Memorial Arena in Tillsonburg, Ontario. The arena is part of the sprawling Tillsonburg Community Centre complex which includes the town's athletic facilities including a swimming pool, outdoor park and fairgrounds, BMX pump track and a second ice rink as well as community meeting rooms. The exterior of Kinsmen Memorial Arena features a small brick lobby area and entryway next to a sidewalk courtyard complete with a flagpole and Canadian flag. The arena structure itself is as close to a barn as you can get as tan metal walls and a tan arching roof cover the outside of this classic arena, which opened in 1949. There are several entrances which fans can use to enter the arena, some of which wind through the halls of the Community Centre's other buildings which are all connected. For this game there was signage near the rear parking lot entrance advertising this Thunder playoff game against the Clinton Radars, as well as the town's other team, the GMHL's Tillsonburg Hurricanes. For a small town fans here have lots of hockey options as they can choose to watch the senior semi-pro games, or junior hockey with the Hurricanes. Kinsmen Memorial Arena had undergone a renovation in 2004 which saw the ice expanded to regulation size and the seating upgraded to plastic individual chair seating. The Western Ontario Athletic Association has put together a solid and entertaining league that has flown below the radar as it is not sanctioned by Hockey Canada. The league is well supported by fans and provides a solid level of play and a relatively small geographic footprint. A sizeable crowd was on hand for this Saturday night game, and tickets could be purchased in the upper arena lobby for $10. It is great to see an arena this old being maintained and used to its full potential by local players and skaters as well as a pair of high level teams. Kinsmen Memorial Arena exudes thoughts and memories of hockey in the by-gone era and is a refreshing break from many of the cookie-cutter community arenas that have popped up across Ontario in the last decade.
Fans entering Kinsmen Memorial Arena on game night will make their way to the main arena lobby, where a ticket table is set up. The lobby also includes trophy cases honoring local teams and features a large Colin Campbell display as the former NHL player and GM, and current league bigwig, is a native of Tillsonburg. The arena itself sits behind a couple of glass doors from the lobby, and once inside is a sight to behold. The most prominent and noticeable feature is the high arching wooden ceiling. The vaulted look of the ceiling is grand, and features a Hipel truss design which was not often used in places other than Ontario. Seating spreads across both ends of the ice and one side, and the far side of the ice features the team benches. An older but immaculate looking scoreclock hangs above center ice. As with all good Ontario arenas a portrait of the queen sits on the wall above one goal, and a Canadian flag sits on the soffit above the seats on the other end. A narrow concourse runs behind all of the seats, and also has a standing rail which fills up quickly on game nights. The seating configuration is comprised of 5 rows of maroon plastic seats, all of which are rather steeply pitched. Seats at the center ice area are not covered by protective netting, allowing for a clear view of the action. The walls of the arena as made of cinder blocks and painted tan, and when walking around the dimly lit concourse you can get a good look at the large wooden ceiling beams which are painted gray and held together by metal plates. The zamboni door of the arena sits along the side of the ice and the concourse aisle slopes upward to accommodate the entry of the ice resurfacer. Seating on the end of the ice opposite the lobby area finds wooden beams in front of the seats in a few spots, providing for a somewhat obstructed view in some areas, but also serving as a reminder of the charm of 1940's construction. The Community Centre's second ice pad can be seen through a set of windows from the main upper concourse aisle and sits adjacent to the main rink. With a seating capacity listed at 700 the arena is a rather tiny place for big time hockey, and the steeply pitched seating and fans standing above the seats certainly makes for an intimidating place for opponents to visit as the fans are right on top of the action. A food concession window is accessible from the main concourse in one corner. A large lounge area doubles as a meeting room during the week and has an additional food concession stand, beer stand and tables, and also contained a 50/50 table as well as a very lightly stocked Thunder merchandise table, although we suspect as this was a late round playoff game the season supply of Thunder gear had dwindled. Kinsmen Memorial Area is the kind of place you picture in a 1970's hockey movie, with an old fashioned look and amazing architecture to check out when your eyes are not focused on the action on the ice.
The game day presentation at Kinsmen Memorial Arena for a Tillsonburg Thunder game is traditional and focused on the on-ice action. Intermission is devoid of any ancillary activities and most fans choose to wander into the lobby to warm up. The intermission is not even timed, it simply lasts as long as it takes to resurface the ice. There are announcements during stoppages for lucky program numbers and 50/50 winners, and the fans on hand seem to enjoy the small town atmosphere of the place. With this being the WOAA semifinal series a large contingent of fans made the trek from Clinton to support the visiting Radars, and fans on hand from both sides were vocal and supportive of their teams, with cow bells and noisemakers, and the Radars fans bringing their own hand siren. The game had all the intensity you would expect in a late round playoff game, and with the Thunder trailing 3-2 in the best of seven series their season was on the line. The play was intense and the crowd into the game. Clinton shut down Tillsonburg's attack however, claiming a 5-0 win. The experience of watching a game here felt like a pure hockey experience. Skilled players playing for pride as the league gets little media attention made this a joy to watch. The setting of the arena itself exudes its own atmosphere, as the wooden ceiling clearly contains memories from years gone by, and the close quarters and small footprint of the barn-like building make this place a whole lot of fun. The intensity level of the game had fans on the edge of their seats with each rush up the ice, at least until late in the game when it was clear that the Radars lead would not be overcome. As the game ended and the teams shook hands and the Thunder players tapped their sticks to salute the fans you could feel a sense of sadness that another season had come to an end. In a place as historic as Kinsmen Memorial Arena similar scenarios have played out here nearly 70 times as the hockey tradition here is a vital part of the community. The Tillsonburg Community Centre is a gathering place for all sorts on activity in the town year round, but when it is hockey season, this corner of the Community Centre complex known as Kinsmen Memorial Arena is the heartbeat of the area and the pride of local fans. Thankfully it appears that the arena will continue to be used, and enjoyed for years to come so fans can still get a taste of the way hockey was played over a half century ago under the glorious wooden roof of this great barn.