December 16, 2018 - Norwich, Ontario
For over half a century Merchants hockey has been a mainstay in the one-stoplight town of Norwich, Ontario. The Merchants were formed in 1968, and have had much on-ice success, winning a few championships along the way and taking their place as a perennial playoff contender. Nor-Del Arena, more commonly known to most as Township of Norwich Community Centre, is a typical smalltown hockey barn that you would find all across the landscape of Canada, but community pride in their team is evident here. The arena sits next to the community park, and also has an auditorium attached. The tan cinder block exterior looks rather typical of arenas of this era, and modern looking black vertical metal siding sits above the main entry to the facility, which sits at the end of the building. Gray metal siding covers the side walls of the exterior as well. A digital marquee sign sits near the road and announces upcoming games as well as upcoming community events. The small parking lot is sufficient for the crowds drawn at the Junior C level during most regular season games. This Sunday afternoon contest featured a matchup between the Merchants and divisional rival the Wellesley Apple Jacks. The Nor-Del Arena name comes from Nor-Del Cable, a local cable company whose presence is noted on signage on the arena's exterior as well as inside the building, and on the ice surface itself. The exterior of the complex makes the building look rather large, but the rink only takes up about half of the building, with the auditorium and meeting facilities taking up much of the space as well. The Merchants are among the most well known Junior C teams in Ontario, and the town takes their hockey seriously, with fan and sponsor support clearly evident. Winning is important here, and the fans expect a solid performance on the ice. Nor-Del Arena is not remarkable in its design or appearance, but it is one of the places that just seems fitting to house a team at the Junior C level, and the Merchants' tradition is one that extends beyond just this level of hockey.
Fans entering Nor-Del Arena on game day find a Merchants ticket table and signage in the main lobby of the arena. Tickets for the games are a reasonable $8. The lobby also holds the main food concession stand as well as a few trophy cases and displays. The lower lobby is rather small, and gets crowded, both before game time and at intermission. The rink itself is through a doorway from the lobby, and is laid out with an unconventional seating setup. There is seating on both sides of the rink, with 3 rows of blue plastic chairback seats on the side where the home bench is. The opposite side of the ice finds the visitors bench and a meager 2 rows of seats on that side. The most noticeable feature of the arena is the large end grandstand, which towers above the side seating and holds 8 rows of seats which are red in color. Above the seating are standing rails where many fans choose to watch from. The concourse on the sides which runs above the seating is very narrow, and fans making their way to the large end grandstand will squeeze past standees on the sides to make their way to their seats. There is no seating on the lobby end of the rink at ice level, but the upper lobby is a busy place, and features a bar area and 2 rows of seating overlooking the ice from behind the glass in the large open room, which doubles as a catering hall. The layout is quirky, and the end seats provide the best view of the action, but the area near the Merchants bench seems to fill up the fastest. The seating capacity is listed at 700, but with room for at least 300 more when accounting for the upper lobby bar area seating and standees. We imagine this place gets rocking during the playoffs when big crowds are on hand. The end grandstand extends up very close to the ceiling, and gray metal beams hold the ceiling, which is covered with insulation, in place. Interior walls are cinder block, but painted up in red, blue, and white colors. Another interesting quirk of Nor-Del Arena is the location of the scoreboards. There are a pair of small scoreboards, one over each bench on the upper side wall. Only one of the 2 scoreclocks has space for penalty time, the other only displays the time remaining and the score. The ice surface is also smaller than regulation, with dimensions of 185'x85', making for a more physical game and fast moving action. There is no netting on the sides of the rink, but the glass around the entire ice surface is very tall. Nor-Del Arena is one of those interesting arenas that from the exterior looks like nothing special, but has some odd features with its design that make for a unique spectating experience.
The game day presentation at Nor-Del Arena is simple, yet very well done. Fans have a chance to compete in the Shoot-A-Rama contest at intermission which is drawn from a lucky program winner, and lots of other prizes are awarded to fans throughout the game. The arena also does a great job paying tribute to the tradition the Merchants have built up over the years, with signage and team logos displayed in the arena, as well as banners honoring past teams. There is a Merchants Hall of Fame display on the wall below the upper lobby in plain view for all to enjoy. The crowd is very knowledgeable and rather reserved, but they are very supportive of the team, and many fans come to the games decked out in Merchants gear and team colors With a unique seating layout and small ice surface, watching a game here is a fun and unique experience. The seating options give you a choice of being right on top of the action in the side sections, even when standing along the concourse, or the option to get more of a big arena view from the end and corners in the high rise grandstand. We also want to remark how noticeable it was that the arena was kept is spotless condition for an older venue, and it is evident that the township takes great pride in its facility, and the team as well. For $8, fans can get a great experience watching some hardworking hockey players here in an interesting setting. The crowd for this Sunday afternoon game was not that large, although a Sunday afternoon contest a week and a half before Christmas is generally not a big draw. Norwich fans went home a bit disappointed as the Apple Jacks took a 4-1 win. We enjoyed our visit to Nor-Del Arena, and always enjoy hockey in smalltown settings, but many smaller arenas are rather similar and generic in their design. Nor-Del Arena has enough quirks to keep fans interested, and the tradition of the Merchants is something that seems very easy for local fans to get behind and support.