September 23, 2017 - London, Ontario
University hockey in Canada, much like college hockey in the U.S., is full of arenas that have been around for decades, and the CIS as a whole is a monument of stability, with little changing from year to year from a venue or team standpoint. One of the long-standing arenas in the CIS is Thompson Arena, located on the campus of the University of Western Ontario. Situated on the north side of London, the campus takes up a large area and is a bustling place. Thompson Arena sits at the corner of a main intersection, and the large building sits on a slope with trees and grass lining the road frontage. A simple concrete sign sits in front of the arena, and the exterior walls have photo murals showing Mustangs athletes from various sports. Having opened in 1975 this older venue features gray cinder block walls and a rather uncommon exterior cable suspended roof. The architecture is interesting, and provides a unique, albeit rather plain look to the building. The windowless gray exterior is reflective of the 1970's stylings of the arena. The main entrance is underneath the center masts that support the roof suspension cables, and is the area where the original Thompson Recreation and Athletic Centre meets the new Student Recreation Centre. A 2009 addition saw a massive increase in the size of the building, with the hockey arena side's exterior staying virtually unchanged, and a newer, modern athletic center being added to include a pool, multiple gyms, and other exercise facilities. The contrast in styles is clearly noticeable, but, essentially, the older part of the building is just as it was in the 1970's. The Western Mustangs host a small 4 team tournament early in the season, and we were able to attend the neutral site matchup between the Carleton Ravens and Waterloo Warriors which was the matinee game starting at 4pm, as the Mustangs would take the ice in the evening. Once inside the entry doors to the facility there is a Booster Juice location to the right, and a information and ticket desk to the left which is in the newer part of the building and features a modern open floor plan. We waited in line for nearly 20 minutes as the folks in front of us tried to purchase tickets to the football game going on on campus in the evening, and, despite there only being 3 customers in front of us had to endure each person giving their full name and address and other information in order to get a football ticket. With the small line at a standstill, and the fact we were not sure if there was an admission charge to the game since the Mustangs were not playing, I simply headed for the small entry door to Thompson Arena and entered to find a small crowd on hand and warmups underway. It turns out the 20 minute wait was unneeded for this game as others entered directly into the arena as well. It is hard to imagine how slow the line would be with a game day crowd looking for tickets shortly before the football game. Although we were not on site to experience the home crowd at a Mustangs game, we were able to see some quality hockey and get a good feel for this 1970's era venue.
Once you get a look inside Thompson Arena you realize that this is not a hockey specific arena at all, but is rather a venue for indoor track with an ice rink plunked down in the middle. Although designed that way, the arena has a cavernous feel and the high ceiling makes the place feel big. A running track runs around the ice, and seating is made up of a permanent grandstand which is elevated, and made up of 630 steeply pitched purple plastic chairs which offer a decent view. Additional seating is below the elevated grandstand and is comprised of slide out bleachers. More bleachers sit on the far side of the ice but stay folded up most of the time. When extended the bleachers cover the track surface and extend up near the dasher boards. A listed capacity of 3615 likely includes temporary seating on the ends, and in the configuration we saw there was only seating in the permanent grandstand, which was more than ample for the couple hundred fans on site for this 4pm game. While the place is among the oddest we have seen, there is a lot of charm and history to be felt here, with large trophy cases paying tribute to Mustang players and teams of the past in both hockey and track & field. The place is rather dimly lit, and the main concourse behind the seating is made up of white and purple cinder block walls and a large Mustang logo mural. OUA banners hang from the rafters, as does a CIS national championship banner from 2002. The roof slopes toward the stands, and a press box hangs from the rafters. There is also standing room at the very top of the seating area along the narrow concrete hallway that runs behind the seats. The ancient 8 bulb scoreclock that hangs above center ice may be original to the arena's opening and is awesome to see. The ceiling is covered with silver insulation panels and the building is showing its age a bit, but the place has a uniqueness about it that makes it appealing.
Although we normally try to see the top tenant at every arena we attend we could not pass up the chance to get to another arena in the evening, so the afternoon portion of the East-West Tournament would have to do. With weather outside approaching 90 degrees it did not feel like a normal hockey day, and a small crowd of a couple hundred fans, mainly supporters of Waterloo, were on hand. We suspect that the game day atmosphere is more exciting when the Mustangs take to their home ice, and for this game the concession stand remained closed aside form the Booster Juice location in the lobby. Free roster sheets were available, and otherwise the presentation was very low key, with no starting lineup announcements, and only goal and penalty announcements made over the rather muffled PA system after the National Anthem was played. Music was played during stoppages and intermission. The building itself does have enough quirks and odd features to make the place memorable. The old scoreclock is a classic. The sight lines are good despite the ice being pretty far away from the seating. It is odd to see the zamboni drive over the track to enter the ice to resurface it at intermission. Also, as Windsor and the Mustangs were facing off at 7pm the 2 teams were doing their pregame warmups on the track, kicking the soccer ball and doing sprints between the stands and the game that was taking place on the ice, making for a rather odd, and somewhat distracting dynamic. We definitely like the fact that Thompson Arena feels like a home for the Mustangs, with the purple accents and seating, the banners and trophy cases, and the commitment to preserving memories of the past. As the venue is just over 40 years old there was also a neat sign banner on the concourse wall showing a photo of Thompson Arena still under construction and paying tribute to the arena itself. With the cavernous feel to the building and the odd layout with the ice feeling rather far away in the middle of the track we doubt that the arena feels that raucous or intimidating to opposing teams, but it is certainly unique and one of the oddest configurations that we have encountered in our arena travels that are now approaching 200 venues. CIS hockey is very entertaining and high quality, and we consider it one of the best kept secrets in hockey. The game itself found Waterloo easing to a 4-0 victory over Carleton. The visit was about the venue however, and the unique layout, although not one we would want to see replicated too often, is certainly worthy of a visit by hockey fans. The interesting architecture and cable suspended roof are also something different and worth noting. As the game ended we headed to our evening hockey destination with temperatures still in the 90's, having felt satisfied that we got a good feel for Thompson Arena and what it has to offer even if the Mustangs were not on the ice.