One hockey fan's journey to the arenas of North America
USA Hockey Arena - Home of Team USA
January 25, 2019 - Plymouth, Michigan
The story of the opening of USA Hockey Arena in an interesting one, and one that has nothing at all to do with USA Hockey. Peter Karmanos, owner of Compuware Corporation attempted to buy the Detroit Red Wings in the 1990's, and was not able to secure the team. He did end up purchasing the Hartford Whalers, (who then moved and became the Carolina Hurricanes). Along the way he acquired started a junior team in Detroit, which became known as the Detroit Jr. Red Wings, who played in the undersized Oak Park Ice Arena, as well as the mammoth Palace of Auburn Hills. Karmanos built successful midget programs under the Compuware banner, then the Detroit Jr. Red Wings, which were forced to change names to the Whalers after the Red Wings sale fell through. In 1996 plans were set to build an arena in Plymouth, and the arena was hastily constructed in this area about a half hour west of Detroit in time for the OHL opener in 1996. Having opened as Compuware Sports Arena the building sprung up quickly in a rather industrial area, and has a huge parking lot outside. The twin pad facility has a low rise look similar to a corporate building or warehouse,was seemingly built rather cheaply and has a rather unappealing exterior of brick and fluted concrete. The area is pretty quiet around the arena, save a coupe chain restaurants, one of which is out of business, and a hotel. After the Plymouth Whalers were sold and moved to Flint USA Hockey purchased the facility, moving their US National Team Development Program over from the modest confines of the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, which is about 20 minutes to the west. A pedestrian bridge extends over a marshy area from the parking lot to the arena, and the drab look of the place is spruced up a bit by some blue metal trim and murals featuring scenes of USA Hockey. With the building being built into a hill it looks rather small from the outside and access is through an upper lobby on the second level. A side entrance features a large blue awning and an illuminated USA Hockey Arena sign overhead. Subtle touches were added when USA hockey assumed ownership of the arena in 2015, including engraved concrete at the entrance with the USA Hockey logo. This arena was one of the mid-1990's arenas that were built in that era that have a rather sterile and generic look, and with its quick construction time frame, function was clearly more important that aesthetics. Nonetheless, folks in the western Detroit suburbs have had 2 of the premier leagues in North America, the OHL and USHL, at their doorstep for a couple of decades now, and the level of play in the USHL is outstanding. With the National Development Team on hand fans can also watch future NHL'ers compete in this more intimate environment at a reasonable price.
Fans approaching USA Hockey Arena on game day will find the parking lot manned by staff taking the $5 parking fee, which seemed a bit odd for this level. The arena sits far back off of the road. This Friday evening game against the Central Illinois Flying Aces was part of a $5 Friday promotion where fans can gets seats in one end of the arena for 5 bucks. Normal tickets are in the $10-$12 range so a night at the Team USA game is affordable, even with the parking charge. With temperatures in the single digits and wind chills well below zero many people chose to stay home, but a decent crowd was assembling to take in the night's action. Tickets can be purchased in the lobby, which has the box office area as well as trophies and displays honoring past USNTDP players who went on the the NHL, and also a display showing USHL teams and U-18 world tournaments won by the team. A large and busy brew pub sits at the main entrance and is accessible to the public, and also can be accessed from the outer lobby. The second ice pad has a small grandstand and a Olympic sized ice surface, and the lobby outside the main arena was nicely renovated when USA Hockey took over, complete with displays honoring past USA teams, and quotes from legendary coaches Herb Brooks and Bob Johnson. Once inside the arena you find yourself on the main concourse which runs above the seating bowl. The corner where fans enter is busy, with tables set up for kids activities, a concession stand, and program kiosk. The team mascot hangs out here before the game greeting kids as they enter. The seating bowl circles the entire ice surface, and capacity is listed at 4000 with standees. The wide open upper concourse runs all the way around the top of the arena, and many fans choose to stand and watch the game from there. Suite type seating is along the concourse at center ice on one side, and a modern press box above center ice is on the other. The ceiling is flat, and rather low, and the metal support beams and duct work are exposed. A simple scoreclock hangs above center ice, and there are a pair of video screens in corners of the rink. The seating is comprised of 13 rows of blue plastic chairback seats, and a single aluminum benches above the seats which seems to have been placed in as an afterthought to raise the capacity a bit. Although the layout and design feels very cookie-cutter like, and the confines spartan, it is a huge improvement over the Ann arbor Ice Cube, which was little more than a community arena. Compared to other OHL rinks this arena falls behind, but is certainly a suitable facility for a USHL team, and the modern touches added when USA Hockey took over seem to have spruced the place up a bit. A nicely stocked pro shop has all of the top end equipment the national team and local players would need, as well as a full line of Team USA fan merchandise. The team store is located off the upper concourse on one end of the arena. With over 3000 permanent seats and a capacity of over 4000 USA Hockey Arena truly feels like a big event venue rather than a community arena, and is more than adequate home for the USA's top hockey program.
The game day presentation at USA Hockey Arena for a Team USA game is polished and professional, not unlike you would find in the minor leagues. The team mascot eagle is active throughout the night. and there is a fairly large amount of kids at the games. Intermission features a chuck-a-puck contest as well as other on-ice activity. It is clear that this is a knowledgeable crowd as well, as there was quite a bit of buzz among fans before the game that Team USA star, and potential number 1 pick in the NHL draft Jack Hughes was a scratch for this game. The talent level is high however, and with both the U18 and U17 teams competing against other USHL teams this arena offers nearly double the number of home games as other markets in the league. The arena's design is certainly decent, but there is little to make it stand out. The lighting is kept dim, kind of like Wal-Mart at 1AM. The upper concourse is rather drab, although there are some displays of former players who have gone on to the NHL. There are also displays of the prominent countries that compete is international junior hockey competition. The arena has an open feel, and sight lines are generally good, although the high railings between sections and plexiglass dividers at the center ice sections do obstruct the view a bit. For this game, despite the brutally cold weather, the arena was about 1/3 full. Fans that chose to brave the weather were treated to an offensive exhibition that saw Team USA score highlight reel goal after highlight reel goal, taking a 11-4 win over Central Illinois. When Peter Karmanos decided to build this arena on the western edge of suburban Detroit it was to house a team playing in a Canadian league, the OHL. Little did he know that this modest mid-sized arena would become home of the USA's most elite amateur hockey players. So despite the loss of the OHL in the area fans in Plymouth and surrounding towns made out OK as Team USA and the USNTDP provide an excellent and entertaining brand of hockey which fans can enjoy, and it also gives locals a sense of national pride, knowing that the college hockey, and often times, the NHL stars of tomorrow can hone their craft in Plymouth.