December 22, 2019 - Pelham, Ontario
Pelham is a growing community just west of Niagara Falls that has housed Junior B hockey since 2014 when the Port Colborne Pirates relocated to this town, and played their games at Pelham Arena, and simple venue which opened in 1975 and has recently been demolished. As a casual follower of the GOJHL (living 3.5 hours from the nearest team and in a different country) we were not aware that the Panthers moved into the new Meridian Community Centre in 2018, shortly after its opening. In fact, when typing in directions to Pelham Arena (the destination we thought we were headed to) it brought us to this modern looking facility which is now home of the Panthers. Meridian Community Centre is a sprawling multi-use recreation facility, which has a square exterior and a flat roof. The twin pad complex also houses basketball courts, a gym, and other workout facilities. The brown brick is accented by a glass facade near the main entrance, and brown metal siding on sections of the building, as well as large signage bearing the banking sponsor name near each entrance. The entire place has a modern look, and is surely an upgrade over the old Pelham Arena, which was a tiny, modestly equipped, community barn. The Panthers have had limited success since coming to Pelham, and with at least a half dozen junior hockey teams within a half hour it is easy for the Panthers to get lost in the shuffle and fall under the radar. Meridian Community Centre is, however, an excellent venue for Junior B hockey and has all of the creature comforts and facilities that a franchise, and its fanbase, could want.
Fans entering Meridian Community Centre on game day will enter through one of the entrances on the lower level. The center of the lower level features a lobby and sitting area near the information desk. The lower lobby also features a small food concession stand as well as an interesting tribute to the old Pelham Arena, complete with a section of dasher board, newspaper clippings from the old arena, and some Panthers memorabilia as, although the GOJHL has only been in town for a half dozen years, the town's minor hockey teams have been known as the Panthers for quite some time. The modern design of the building is evident in the lobby as the ceiling height is tall and the floorplan is rather open. To enter the ice pad on which Panthers games are held, known as Accipiter Arena, you go to the upper lobby, where a Panthers ticket and 50/50 table is situated. Tickets for this Sunday afternoon contest against the Niagara Falls Canucks were $10. The upper lobby also features a bar, and a Panthers merchandise table. The arena itself is accessed from the upper lobby which leads to the upper concourse. The arena is modern, with a high, flat ceiling, and opaque windows around the top of the concourse which let in light. Seating is comprised of 7 rows of steeply pitched gray and white plastic chairback seats, which have railings in front of each row due to the steepness of the seats. An older style scoreclock hangs above center ice, and one corner of the concourse features table seating. The upper concourse doubles as a walking track for area residents. The Panthers logo is displayed at center ice, and the walls and ceiling beams are all rather plain looking giving the place a rather sterile look. Seating capacity is listed at 1002, but with standees above the seats and at ice level 1500 fans could easily squeeze in here. Still, with an average attendance of 250, the confines of Meridian Community Centre are more than sufficient for the crowds drawn by the Panthers. The building design is a simple one, but much more appealing than the most common modern design in Ontario, which features elevated seating on one side of the ice. Meridian Community Centre is certainly a place that prospects would want to play in, and the facility puts Pelham on the map at the Junior B level.
The game day experience at Meridian Community Centre for a Pelham Panthers game is inline with most other arenas in the GOJHL, (read basic and centered on the play). There was no music played at all during warmups or stoppages on this day, although the PA announcer did apologize for technical difficulties which resulted in the absence of music, so that is not the norm apparently. Attendance was sparse, but this was the Sunday before Christmas so many families were making holiday preparations. The Panthers staff does a good job making the game seem like an event, and there is a chuck-a-puck contest at intermission. As with most of the GOJHL, the fact that there are so many local rivalries seems to lead to the intensity level in play and allows for visiting fans to attend many road games. Niagara Falls made the 20 minute trek to Pelham to battle the Panthers, and the game was everything you could ask for as it went to a second overtime and saw Pelham knock off the Canucks 8 seconds into the second overtime session. If you are looking for lots of hype and between period entertainment Pelham, and most of the GOJHL, may not be for you, but if you are looking to attend a game with a solid level of play and great local rivalries in a professionally run league then a stop at a Pelham Panthers game would be a good one. The fan experience is also improved here by the fact that there is no protective netting in front of the seats near center ice. When the town of Pelham decided to build a new recreation complex they could have gone the route of many other communities in Ontario and built a basic arena, but, with seating on both sides, chairback seats, and a place that has a big time feel for a small community arena the choice was made to help set Pelham apart, and hopefully build the franchise, and their recruiting opportunities for the future. .