December 5, 2019 - Knoxville, Tennessee
Knoxville, Tennessee may not sound like the kind of place with a longstanding hockey history, but, in fact, since the opening of the Knoxville Civic Coliseum in 1961 hockey has been a staple here ever since. Despite Knoxville being best known as a college town, and home of the Tennessee Vols, minor league hockey has drawn well here, and, although the arena has seen its share of teams and leagues come through over the years, the Ice Bears have been Knoxville's team since 2002. The Coliseum sits near downtown, and has nearby parking lots and garages. The building is rather long and skinny, with the Civic Auditorium at one end of the building and the arena at the other. Each end of the building has a vaulted roof and tan brick exterior. A center section of the building features a squarish tower of sorts that extends above the vaulted roof of the 2 end sections of the complex. A digital sign sits at the corner of the property announcing upcoming events, and there is a grassy courtyard with small trees on each side of the building. The arena has that old school look that you can almost picture in the movie Slap Shot, and the architectural style appears to have undergone very few upgrades or renovations over the years, but the look of the place it attractive in a retro sort of way. We purchased tickets for this Thursday night contest against Birmingham earlier in the day and an upper level seat cost $18, a bit high for the level of play in our opinion. Overall Knoxville Civic Coliseum has the classic look of an old school mid-sized hockey barn that was prevalent across North America from the 1960's to the 1980's, and we are always glad to see arenas of this era still going strong.
Fans arriving at the Coliseum on game night will face their first, and most daunting challenge as they approach the venue, as all bags larger than a wallet are banned, so a trip back to the parking garage may be required. At that point fans are herded into an area where they must empty their pockets, and then pass through a fixed metal detector. Should there be a belt buckle, or even a metal surgical implant you will be subjected to a further wanding and a physical pat-down, all to experience the privilege of watching low level minor hockey. Had we not purchased our tickets earlier in the day, despite the fact we were 13 hours from home, we would have walked away right then and decided to spend our entertainment dollars elsewhere. In the nearly 250 venues where we have watched hockey Knoxville takes the number one prize for least fan friendly entry policy we have ever experienced. Not a good first impression at all. Once entering the building, fans will find themselves in the main lobby, which runs between the auditorium and coliseum, and features the main food concession stand, and a nicely stocked Ice Bears merchandise stand which stayed quite busy as this game was 3 weeks before Christmas. Once inside the arena itself you will find a pair of large grandstands on the sides of the ice surface each 17 rows high, with the front rows elevated and some VIP table seating down near the glass. A pair of concourse hallways run under the grandstand, and connect to the center lobby area. Hockey capacity is listed at 5500, and a concourse aisle splits the seats into a lower and upper level on the sides. Seats are classic wooden seats, which we love and add to the throwback vibe of the arena. The upper level ends features balcony type seating which hangs above the ice, but also makes seeing the net closest to you almost impossible. Additional lower level seating on the ends is comprised of folding aluminum chairs on aluminum risers, and an older video board hangs from the high ceiling above center ice. The arched ceiling features black beams, and SPHL Championship banners hang from the ceiling. The wooden seats give the Knoxville Civic Coliseum a classic feel, and with good sight lines on the sides of the arena fans can get a great view of the action.
Despite the old fashioned look and design of Knoxville Civic Coliseum, the game day presentation at the Ice Bears game is 100% modern day minor league. Lots of sponsor announcements and ads take place before and during the game. Ice Bears cheerleaders roam the seats and concourse, and the ice girls skate around the ice during media timeouts and stoppages advertising the chuck-a-puck contest and the jersey auction. The jerseys the teams were wearing honored the cartoon Peanuts, and there is a lot of folks on hand to drink a few beers, which were discounted on this Thirsty Thursday, and just generally there to have a good time, with hockey being the secondary attraction. A pump up video is played on the video board before the game and the presentation is kept up-beat. The PA announcer has a give and take with the crowd as for each goal scored he says "He shoots", and the crowd chants "He scores" as the goal announcement is made. The fans seem to be split between diehards who are on hand wearing their Ice Bears jerseys and following the game closely, and the casual crowd on hand to socialize. A couple fights and a 7-0 win for the Ice Bears kept the fans happy, and most of the crowd, which filled about half of the stands, seemed to enjoy themselves. Oddly, despite the ice Bears being in town for nearly 30 years and hockey being played here for nearly 6 decades, there is very little memorabilia or hockey displays honoring teams of the past. We would expect such an old school venue to have a bunch of displays honoring the team's history. The SPHL has a strong following and provides fans with an alternative to the NHL influenced modern game. Knoxville is one of the better supported SPHL markets, but we wonder how many fans get turned off by the intrusive shakedown from security that is needed just to enter the building. Nonetheless, hockey in Knoxville will likely continue to be strong, and this old school arena will continue to provide a throwback experience for hockey fans in Tennessee.