January 27, 2019 - Mentor, Ohio
Mentor is a small city just east of Cleveland that was not on the pro hockey radar until last summer, when a hastily announced Federal League team took shape and was slated to play at the Mentor Ice Arena, aka Mentor Civic Arena, as signage for the building falls under both names. The venue is officially listed as the Mentor Civic Ice Arena on the city's website, so we will go by that name. Having opened in 1982 the arena has a retro 80's look, and serves as home of youth and high school hockey as well as hosting the FHL's Ice Breakers. The building features tan metal walls and some brickwork, as well as an entrance that is at the lower level of the building, as the structure is built into a small hillside. The arena has 2 ice pads, and the Ice Breakers play in the pad which is at the rear of the facility, known as the West Rink, which has a plain looking brown metal exterior and a sloping roof line. The setting of the arena is in a park like area know as the Mentor Civic Center, which also includes offices for city departments and some walking trails, The building looks unchanged from the 1980's, and although the rink was expanded in 1998 to include a second ice pad, the look is dated, and the building is clearly more of a community rink than a big event arena, but the FHL has played in worse places and the town seems to have taken to the team rather nicely. This game was a Sunday afternoon contest against the Carolina Thunderbirds. The 2 teams had also played the night before, although those games were in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The FHL certainly has a expansive footprint for a 6 team league, and you have to admire the dedication of the players who are willing to endure that type of travel to live their pro hockey dream. Northeast Ohio is not thought of as a hockey hotbed, and, save the Cleveland Monsters, there are not a lot of options for hockey fans to enjoy the sport, which may explain the warm response from the community to this team. The FHL experience is certainly a unique one, as the league has been able to enable fans from small cities to watch pro hockey in surroundings which would otherwise be unattractive and too small for higher leagues.
Fans entering Mentor Civic Ice Arena on game days will pass through the lower lobby, where they will obtain a ticket at the Ice Breakers ticket table next to the information desk. Some team signage is present and there is a pro shop in the lower lobby as well. The arena itself features a large fold out wooden grandstand on one side of the ice, with 13 rows in the main grandstand. There is an additional, smaller upper grandstand which features 9 rows of fold out bleachers. The upper bleachers are situated behind some support beams but provide a decent view of the ice for the most part. The rink has a flat roof with open metal beams, and there is a community room above the ice on one end which is set up as a VIP seating area complete with a buffet for fans who choose to upgrade to that section. General admission tickets are reasonable at $13, and the place feel homey and welcoming, and gives the vibe you would get at a high school hockey game. There is a well-stocked Ice Breakers merchandise stand located at the base of the main grandstand, and the snack bar is simple, and sits in a small room just off of the aisle that leads from the lobby to the grandstand. With signs in the arena listing the capacity at 1350, but a listed capacity by the team of 1600, this is an intimate venue, and some makeshift seating has been added at the end of the rink, and there is even a couple small sets of bleachers in the far corner of the arena. There is a single scoreboard on one end of the rink, and the other end, which features the upper level community room, bears the red and white town colors and the name of the city listed in large block letters. Mentor Civic Ice Arena is certainly a modest place to watch pro hockey, and is basic in its layout, but has a quirky feel that makes you think you are not supposed to be watching even the lowest level of pro hockey here, so the arena adds an intriguing factor when attending a game here. The Ice Breakers have certainly done the best they can with what they have to work with and seem to be keeping the local crowds happy and satisfied.
Despite the modest surroundings, the Ice Breakers do their best to bring the full minor league hockey presentation to the fans of Mentor. A full scale team intro complete with a light show, smoke machine, and shark graphics on the ice takes place before the game. The on ice action is typical of the Federal League, with lots of physical play, which certainly seems to sell well in places like Mentor which do not have much of a hockey culture or history. Intermissions are long at 20 minutes, and there are activities on the ice including a chuck-a-puck contest, and synchronized skating. The shark mascot seems engaged throughout the game. Although the arena's seating configuration is far from ideal the sight lines are decent and fans are close to the action, including when the Ice Breakers enter the ice before each period and walk across the narrow aisle separating the dressing room from the ice as young fans line up for high fives, and the fact that the visiting team has to exit through the center of the grandstand to get to their dressing rooms. A good crowd was on hand on this frigid Sunday afternoon, as the arena was about 80% full, and many fans chose to stand around the rink in nearly every spot except in front of the grandstand. With both teams playing the evening before nearly 500 miles away in North Carolina we anticipated a low energy affair, but the action on the ice was passion filled, and spirited, and each team put forth a solid effort.. Carolina took a 6-3 win, but the game featured a few fights and some good action and the fans went home entertained, although with all the penalties and long intermissions it took 3 hours to complete the game. Fans here are enthusiastic, cheering for every positive thing from a shot on goal to a hit, and many fans are wearing team merchandise, which seems to have caught on nicely with the Ice Breakers shark logo. Places like Mentor Civic Ice Arena are a long shot to have and keep a pro hockey franchise, but despite the obstacle of playing in a small community arena the Ice Breakers approach things with professionalism and a big time presentation. Catching a game here is a unique and memorable experience as it seems almost surreal to be watching pro hockey in a setting such as this.