October 7, 2017 - Toronto, Ontario
Most people outside Toronto think of Canada's largest city as a hockey town. While that statement may be partially true, in reality it is a Maple Leafs town, with the NHL team garnering most of the attention from hockey fans in the area. With Ricoh Coliseum, on the grounds of Exhibition Place, being a single train stop away from the Air Canada Centre and Maple Leaf Square this seems to be the perfect location for the Leafs farm club. Ricoh Coliseum is one of the older venues to host hockey in all of North America - sort of. Having opened in 1921 this grand stone and brick building was actually not intended to be a hockey arena at all. The building was used mainly as a horse show and convention facility and for agricultural purposes up until the early 2000's. At that time plans were to bring pro hockey to Exhibition Place, and after a couple false starts including plans for an IHL team falling through, the AHL Toronto Roadrunners took to the newly installed ice in 2003. The Marlies became the venue's team in 2005 and have been going strong ever since. The Coliseum sits on the edge of the huge Exhibition Place complex, which also includes BMO Field, where a CFL Toronto Argos game was going on at the same time, and the sprawling EnerCare Centre Complex which is attached to Ricoh Coliseum and covers a large area which spreads across nearly 2 full city blocks. The grandeur of the buildings is impressive, and the old stone structure of the arena itself is a throwback to bygone times. The tan exterior is a bit weathered but has updated signage outside indicating it is home of the Marlies. The aged accents on the buildings exterior as well as its roof are green from years of existence, and the building has a historic look. Domed roof caps on the towers that are placed at the corner of the building give a distinctive look to the arena and are a focal point. For a Marlies game fans enter in the courtyard area which is busy on game day and attached to the modern EnerCare Centre entrance. In order to not compete for viewership for the parent club most Marlies games are in the afternoon, as was this Saturday contest which started at 4pm. The AHL ticket prices have gone up drastically in recent years, but the current ticket model for the Marlies find tickets as low as $10, which is quite reasonable. Everything looks a bit old at Ricoh Coliseum including the lobby and box office area, but that is not a bad thing as it preserves a sense of history and nostalgia to when times were simpler. Although Ricoh Coliseum really does not have a long history as a hockey arena, having had ice for only about 15 years, it has the feel of the grand old arenas at first glance. The architecture of the building is worth arriving early to take a walk around the entire structure and take in all of the details.
Whereas the exterior of Ricoh Coliseum is full of historic charm, once inside the doors on game day the experience is just like any other AHL venue, from the metal detectors to get in, to the numerous food and drink concession booths on the concourse, to the video board, which was actually handed down from the Air Canada Centre in 2015. The main concourse runs underneath the seating, and includes a variety of food options, all priced typical of other big city arenas. The seating bowl itself is open, with 18 rows of permanent padded seats all colored Maple Leafs blue. In addition to those seats there are 5 rows on temporary risers closer to the ice, and those seats are gray plastic. Suites make up the upper levels as luxury boxes run down both sides of the arena. A second concourse runs atop the seating bowl and provides standing room as well as a few additional food vendors including a Smoke's Poutine location. The interior walls are white cinder blocks, and open ductwork sits below the flat tin ceiling of the Coliseum. The ice surface is actually below ground level, and the lower concourse sits above the ice itself. The layout is a little unconventional, as the arena floor and seating bowl is larger than the size of the ice rink, so for Marlies games an entire end of seating is tarped off, which is the end with the seats set back from the ice. In what we thought was very odd, the Marlies shoot twice to the end with the tarped off seats. Sight lines throughout the arena are unobstructed and clear, and the seating capacity of 7851 is a good size for the AHL level. With the Leafs name attached, the Marlies draw quite well usually. Despite the fact that the building itself is closing in on 100 years of age when you are sitting inside Ricoh Coliseum watching a Marlies game it feels much more like a mid-2000's arena than an old fashioned one. Ricoh Coliseum has done a good job providing modern comforts to fans, although the lack of hockey history in the building is noticeable and it does not have the feel of a hallowed hockey arena that you would expect from a building dating back so far.
The game day experience at Ricoh Coliseum for a Toronto Marlies game is modern, and seemingly all about the Maple Leafs. Although the Marlies are the main tenant here it is as if they are an afterthought to the almighty Leafs. The presentation is typical of minor league hockey with crowd giveaways, t-shirt tosses and intermission entertainment. We thought it odd that the merchandise stand has almost all Maple Leafs items, and barely a Marlies item in sight. I had to ask if there were any Marlies pucks, at which point confused employees looked in the display case and pointed to the Leafs pucks. I clarified the Marlies not the Leafs, and they went in the back and found one for me to buy. Also, for the first time ever at an AHL game, there were no rosters or game day lineup sheets available, even to purchase. When inquiring about that at the fan assistance table I was told "all of the information is online". Perhaps this was an opening day snafu as this game against Utica was the home opener. The crowd on hand seemed to enjoy the action, and the "Let's Go Marlies" chant could be heard a few times. The fans are supportive, but when you mention the Maple Leafs they get incredibly excited. The loudest cheers of the day were when one fan was narrowed down to be chosen the winner of Leafs tickets for that evening's 7pm game. It is as if the Marlies are an afterthought. The overall viewing experience is enjoyable however, as the sight lines are good, use of the video board is relevant and well done, and the large crowd on hand, which was announced as a sellout, provided some vocal support and energy to the building. There are attempts to pay tribute to the history of the Marlies, a franchise which dates back decades in various forms, including a Maple Leafs logo sign with the name of all prior Marlies who had advanced to the NHL. These are displayed on the upper wall of the arena in plain view. During the games the younger fans seem to have a good time as well, as the dog mascot roams the crowd and does a good job interacting with fans. Intermission found peewee hockey being played as well as various contests including "Chuck-A-Pep" which was sponsored by Pizza Pizza and had fans throw foam pepperoni pieces at the target. The game itself was entertaining and close as the Marlies scored an empty-netter late to seal a 3-1 win. Overall, with the option of $10 tickets, an afternoon at a Marlies game can be quite enjoyable. History and arena buffs will surely enjoy the architecture of Ricoh Coliseum, and the crowd support is large enough to provide a fun atmosphere. The fact that there is so much focus on the parent club seems a bit disrespectful to the hardworking AHL players, but clearly helps the team from a marketing perspective. The overall feel is much more that of a commercialized pro sports presentation than that of a storied franchise which draws upon its own tradition and history. We certainly wouldn't skip an opportunity to see hockey at Ricoh Coliseum due to these shortcomings, but would love to see fans get excited about the Marlies rather than the Leafs when the Marlies are actually on the ice competing. The sheer grandeur of the Exhibition Place complex is something to be seen, and the fact that hockey was brought to life in a building where it was never intended to be played, and is prospering from an attendance standpoint, is great for the game of hockey indeed. The unique combination of a nearly century old structure and a fairly recently added ice surface make Ricoh Coliseum an interesting venue to visit.