December 15, 2018 - Sarnia, Ontario
Junior hockey is the lifeblood of Canada, and many towns have hosted teams with traditions dating back a half century or more. Sarnia is now best known in the hockey world as the home of the OHL's Sting, but in downtown, a couple miles away from where the OHL team plays, Sarnia Arena is going strong and fan support for the GOJHL's Legionnaires continues to produce attendance numbers at the top of the league. This arena located 2 blocks from the St. Clair River and within the shadow of the Blue Water Bridge that connects Sarnia to Port Huron, Michigan. This venerable, yet simple, building opened in 1948, and has hosted various incarnations of Sarnia junior teams including the original Legionnaires, the Bees, the Blast, and the Jr. Sailors. The Sting even played here at their inception in the mid-1990's while their arena was being built. The franchise reverted to the Legionnaires name in 2008, and has been going strong ever since. One would think the Junior B team would be overshadowed with the OHL in town, but Legionnaires games draw quite a crowd. The arena has a classic look, simple gray cinder block walls. and gray siding above, and the peaked roof is covered with gray shingles. The lobby and facade features tan bricks and stone work, and the Canadian and Ontario flags fly above the entrance. The mid-December matchup was on a Saturday night, but the team is know for playing on most Thursday evenings. Puck drop for the Legionnaires games is listed as 7:10, and tickets are $10. Fans can park in the small parking lot on the side of the arena, or across the street in the parking lot for other city buildings. In winter the wind kicks up off of the river and Sarnia can get rather cold. Sarnia Arena is a great example of an arena built during the post World War 2 construction boom, and has served the city well over the decades. It certainly has more of a big event arena feel than that of a small community rink, and the building itself exudes character and a sense of history. When the new arena opened across town in the late 1990's this old barn was kept in use, and continues to be a great place to experience hockey.
Fans arriving at Sarnia Arena on game night will pass by the box office after securing their ticket and find themselves in the lower lobby on the end of the arena. The lower lobby is busy with activity as the food concession stand is located here. A large menu is available for arena patrons. There are also tables for programs and 50/50 tickets in the lobby. A hallway off the side of the lobby leads to a large meeting room which is set up on game night as a bar area and also features a well stocked Legionnaires merchandise table known as "The Bunker", which offers a wide variety of team gear. The lobby is at ice level, but fans access the seating area by going upstairs to the top of the seating bowl. The layout of the arena features seating all the way around the rink, with 7 rows of blue plastic chairback seats. The high ceiling is held in place with blue metal beams and the ceiling is largely covered with insulation panels, but if you look closely you will see that the ceiling is made of wooden planks which are also painted blue. A narrow concourse runs above the seating and a pair of large press boxes hang from the rafters. An older 8-bulb scoreclock sits above center ice, and the arena has the look of an older classic building from when hockey was a much simpler game. The end wall above the lobby features an older raised letter sign bearing the arena's name as well as flags, but there is no portrait of the queen unlike many other Ontario venues. The interior walls are made of white cinder blocks and there is no netting except on the ends, so the sight lines are good here. With a capacity of 2200 Sarnia is larger than many other GOJHL arenas, and you can clearly see how the OHL survived in this building for a short time. Despite the large capacity the arena feels intimate enough to provide a great atmosphere and the Sarnia fans do their part by attending the games in large numbers and providing great support for the Legionnaires. Just walking around Sarnia Arena before game time and soaking in the history and character that the building holds will get fans excited to see hockey in an old-school setting.
The game day presentation at Sarnia Arena for a Legionnaires game is active and features many activities you would be more likely to find at a minor pro game than at a Junior B contest. The overall setting and historic bones of the building come through however making for a great overall experience for fans who enjoy the way the game used to be, but also enjoy a few of the more entertainment-based and commercial aspects of modern hockey. The Legionnaires skate in warmups with black and orange jerseys thanks to a team sponsor. There are a number of contests in addition to the usual 50-50 and the fan shootout contest is called the "Shoot-Er-Roo" and is highly promoted over the PA system throughout the night. The puck toss is a staple at this level, but the pucks are sold by members of the Royal Canadian Army Cadet Corps to benefit this military youth organization and the puck toss booth on the upper concourse is manned by these young cadets. The crowd is a typical Ontario crowd, meaning they are knowledgeable of every fine point of the game and rather reserved, although there were quite a few cowbells and even a few horns on hand as fans were ready to bring the noise to support their team. The arena itself adds to the experience of watching a game here, from the older scoreclock and visually appealing ceiling and beams to the layout featuring the team benches across from each other. The penalty box is even on the visitors bench side, providing a bit of an advantage to the away team with this layout. There are plenty of banners honoring past successful Sarnia teams, and with crowds frequently near or above 1000 fans the atmosphere here is among the best in the GOJHL. The game itself was also very entertaining and close, as the Legionnaires beat the Leamington Flyers by a score of 3-1, but the game included an empty-netter at the end so it was essentially a 1 goal game. Although the OHL team across town may be what most outsiders think of when you mention hockey in Sarnia, the Legionnaires have a great thing going in downtown, and it is great to see this 70 year old venue still going strong and pleasing local hockey fans. We always enjoy an opportunity to see hockey presented in an environment that reminds us of how the game used to be played, and Sarnia Arena is a great place to get that throwback experience. .