December 14, 2018 - Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
The Niagara Peninsula is crowded with hockey teams. From the OHL, to Brock University, to the half-dozen GOJHL teams within 45 minutes of St. Catharines, hockey fans have a lot of choices. The new kids on the block are the Niagara-on-the-Lake Nationals, a team competing in the GMHL and playing out of the community arena in NOTL. With such a strong following for the GOJHL in the area the Nationals had a few obstacles to overcome, but have had a pretty successful first year. Meridian Credit Union Arena sits in a residential area and is attached to the town's older arena, know as Centennial Arena. The 2 arenas share the same lobby, and are essentially one complex. Although Centennial Arena has been active since the mid 1960's, the addition of the second ice pad now known as Meridian Credit Union Arena took place in 2003. The focal point of the exterior for patrons approaching the building is the center lobby area, complete with a round skylight roof similar to a lighthouse. The newer arena has gray metal walls and looks rather sterile, whereas the arching roof of the older ice pad is clearly visible. The rinks are laid out perpendicular to each other and the lobby connects the 2 buildings. Niagara-on-the-Lake is known for its wine production, and vineyards can been seen everywhere in the vicinity of the arena. This Friday night contest between the visiting Windsor Aces and the Nationals was lightly attended, although it was Christmas shopping season so many locals were likely busy with the holidays. The GMHL has done rather well since taking over in nearby Port Colborne after the GOJHL left town so we hope that this opportunity for NOTL to have a team of its own takes off and is well supported. With a location less than 20 minutes from Niagara Falls and St. Catharines there is a large population base to draw from, but the crowded hockey scene finds it tough for a new team to take hold. We arrived about an hour before game time and secured a ticket from the ticket table in the lobby for $8. There was a great promotion taking place where fans could donate a canned good and pay only $3 for admission. Although the overall design of the facility at Meridian Credit Union Arena is a mismatched mix of old with the Centennial Arena section, and new, with the current addition and newer ice pad, the lobby ties things together and the arena serves as a more than adequate place for local hockey players and skaters to participate in their sport.
Fans attending a Nationals game on game night enter into the main lobby of the arena, which is large and open, and features the arena's food concession stand to the right, and trophy cases and plaques on the walls honoring local residents and athletes. There is a large display listing the names of donors to the renovations and additions to the arena on the far wall, and the ceiling has the round woodwork and skylights above which can been seen from the outside when approaching the building. A green, skate-friendly floor runs throughout the lobby as well. The main arena is off to the left, and a simple table is set up to sell tickets and chuck-a-pucks. Entry into the arena itself is through a door at the corner of the rink, which enters at ice level and leads to a stairway to the top of the elevated grandstand. The design is similar to many mid-2000's arenas in Ontario, with the stands elevated above ice level and the dressing rooms under the stands. The sight lines from the seats are good, and seating is comprised of a scant 5 rows of wooden benches on a concrete base. The overall capacity is likely under 300 here, but the seats offer a good view and are unobstructed by any netting, which is something becoming more and more rare in Ontario. There is a wide upper concourse and a standing rail above the seats which many fans chose to view the game from. The interior of the rink is rather bland looking, with the high metal ceiling held in place by large white metal beams. The walls are covered in gray metal siding and the lower walls are green cinder blocks. There is a single scoreboard in the arena, attached to the far wall away from the lobby. The lobby area at the end of the rink also features table seating which offers a view of the rink and is much warmer than inside the rink itself. Behind the table seating is a nicely-done Niagara-on-the-Lake Sports Wall of Fame featuring a couple of former NHLers including Zenon Konopka and Willie Plett. The lighting is bright, and the PA system is loud and clear as it played music during the game. Meridian Credit Union Arena is clearly more of a local arena designed for recreational use than it is a large event venue. It is however a suitable venue to house a team at the GMHL level.
The game day atmosphere at Meridian Credit Union Arena for this Friday evening Nationals game can be labeled as quiet and laid back. The crowd numbered in the dozens rather than hundreds, and the fans were focused on the game. The presentation is also very basic as there was no PA announcer announcing goals or penalties, although there was music played over the PA during stoppages. The arena is also devoid of any signage for the Nationals, and there is no logo at center ice or any other indication that the team plays here, not even temporary signage at the ticket table or in the lobby, except for a small printed schedule hung on the wall near the concession stand. The set up makes it feel very much like the team is a tenant rather than the arena being the home of the Nationals. There are also no rosters or team merchandise available for fans on hand. There is chuck-a-puck contest at intermission for young fans, but overall the presentation is as basic as you would find at any level of hockey. The arena itself does have a sense of history, and there are banners honoring local minor hockey teams, and even a banner honoring the Niagara-on-the-Lake Warriors Junior B Canadian National Championship in box lacrosse from 1973, and the arena still hosts Junior B box lacrosse in the summer with a team known as the Niagara Thunderhawks. There are also a few other neat touches including a Willie Plett Calgary Flames jersey above the main entryway from the rink to the lobby, and in the adjacent Centennial Arena there are more tributes to the past, and something modern we have never seen - a library book vending machine, where patrons can swipe their library card and the book of their choice spits out a slot at the bottom. The game itself was very entertaining with some solid plays and the Windsor Aces taking a 7-6 wins over the Nats. The Nationals had a rough start to their existence as they were originally slated to play in the CPJHL, but switched to the GMJL shortly before the season started, but have been a middle of the pack team, which is good for a first year operation. With so many teams in the region Niagara-on-the-Lake has the opportunity to have a junior hockey team of their own, and time will tell if the fans will come out and support the team. Meridian Credit Union Arena will likely never be the main hockey destination in the the area, but provides a decent place for locals to skate and play hockey and is certainly suitable to support the crowds and fans that the lower level junior hockey leagues typically attract.