December 17, 2017 - St. Thomas, Ontario
St. Thomas is a blue collar town located about 20 minutes south of London, Ontario. St. Thomas and Elgin County have a rich hockey tradition, and the center of the area's hockey attention was the St. Thomas-Elgin Memorial Centre for many decades. Having opened in 1954, this venue features art deco styling, and is still serving the community, although a newer venue has become the main arena in town. NHL veteran and future Hall of Famer Joe Thornton grew up here in St. Thomas, and is revered by the locals. The other arena in town is set to be renamed the Joe Thornton Community Centre, but it is here on this ice that Jumbo Joe learned to ply his hockey trade. The arena was home of pro hockey in the 1990's as the Colonial Hockey League's St. Thomas Wildcats drew quite well here, and had quite a lot on on-ice success. The Memorial Centre also was home of the St. Thomas Stars Junior B team for decades as well. Currently the arena is used for community purposes, but hosts about 5 Port Stanley Sailors games per season as well as a couple of Stars games, so fans can still have the chance to watch junior hockey at this iconic and historic arena. The large gray building has concrete walls, and a slightly arched roof. At one time the main entrance had a more elaborate facade. Although the building looks rather plain, the raised letter signage has an art deco look, and the building looks straight out of the 1950's. The gray walls and roof make the place look rather drab, especially on a cloudy December day. This Sunday afternoon game drew a decent number of Port Stanley fans from the town along Lake Erie that the Sailors normally call home. In many towns across Canada once the old barn is replaced with a newer venue the older one is no longer used for competitive hockey. Thankfully, folks in St. Thomas can still get a taste old time hockey with these occasional junior level games at the St. Thomas-Elgin Memorial Centre.
On game day fans enter the St. Thomas-Elgin Memorial Centre through the main entryway on the corner of the building. A small lobby is just inside the door featuring a ticket and Sailors merchandise table, as well as some interesting photos and displays on the wall paying tribute to not only the hockey history of St. Thomas, but also this arena itself with a timeline of construction and renovations and interesting facts. There is also a display showing the other arenas in the city, past and present. Tickets are a reasonable $7, and after purchasing a ticket you can access the seating area via the stairway that leads to the top of the seating bowl. Inside the arena there are lots of details to notice, including the art deco accents on the metal railings on the stairway. Once inside the arena itself you find seating that circles the ice completely, and is comprised of 7 rows of plastic seats on the side of the arena closest to the lobby, and 6 rows of seats the other side of the arena. The seats on the side of the ice are red and the seats on the ends are blue. Sight lines are good, and the current capacity is listed at 2200. We learned from the display in the lobby that the arena at one time held 2600, but the smaller original wooden seats were removed in 2004 and the current larger seats were installed. A small 8 bulb scoreclock sits above center ice and has an inscription stating "Memorial Arena circa 1954". This place looks like a classic old barn, and features the Ontario staple of the portrait of the queen on the wall above one goal. The upper concourse aisle allows you to walk around the entire rink, and the walkway is sloped downward toward the side of the ice with the lower seating. Giant white metal ceiling beams hold up the ceilng which is comprised of white wooden planks. Like most arenas in Ontario netting sits in front of the entire seating area. A small press box is suspended above the concourse on one side of the ice as well. A standing rail runs around the entire ice, and on the ends there is a second lower standing row below the one at concourse level. One of the more unique things about the arena is the size of the ice pad, which is significantly smaller than regulation at 180'x80', making for a physical style of play here and not a lot of room for teams to operate. The lower concourse hallways are also full of history here, with displays of jerseys of former teams in the area as well as tributes to Joe Thornton and other area players. There is even a display honoring the St. Thomas Barons, who claimed the 1966-67 World Junior B Championship. History runs deep here, and even if a game was not going on hockey fans would enjoy a stroll around St. Thomas-Elgin Memorial Centre just to soak in the atmosphere and history its walls contain.
When the Port Stanley Sailors take to the ice at St. Thomas-Elgin Memorial Centre for one of their handful of games here each season the atmosphere is laid back and nostalgic. A good number of fans made the trek the 15 minutes or so from Port Stanley to support their team, but even with 300-400 fans on hand the arena looks empty as it would be a large venue even for a Junior A team. Nonetheless, watching a game here is a great experience, from the quirks of the arena itself to the throwback feeling of the sense of history you feel inside the building. We always love watching games on a small ice surface, and the layout has the 2 team benches across from each other. Benches are elevated from the ice a good amount, making for a rather large step down to the ice when players come on for their shift. Oddly, the penalty boxes are located next to the visitors bench here, something that is rather uncommon. The game day presentation is fun but subdued. There is a chuck-a-puck contest, but the Sailors players are actually the ones who chuck the pucks for the contestants in an interesting twist. Music and announcements are made over the robust and clear PA system, and the arena has a big time feel to it rather than one of a community arena. The goal horn is loud and sounds like a ship's horn which works well with the Sailors theme. This Sunday afternoon game found the food concession closed for the entire game, leaving unsuspecting fans hungry. We are not sure if that is a regular situation, or just a one time glitch. Watching a game here is truly fun, and with the wooden ceiling, old school scoreclock, portrait of the queen at the end of the ice and the various memorabilia from past St. Thomas teams this arena has quite the sense of history. We are glad that junior hockey is still active here, even on a part time basis, and the Sailors do a good job making the arena feel like home when they are here. The game itself was entertaining, but found the visiting North Middlesex Stars taking a 5-3 win over the Sailors on what would be the last weekend of games before a short Christmas break. St. Thomas-Elgin Memorial Centre may not be as polished and sparkling as it was in the 1950's, but it is still a very enjoyable place to watch hockey in an old fashioned setting. Hopefully the Sailors and St. Thomas Stars will keep the tradition of having a few games each season here alive for years to come.