September 23, 2017 - Strathroy, Ontario
After catching some early season afternoon University hockey in London we headed a half hour west to the small town of Strathroy. The West Middlesex Memorial Centre sits just off the main drag, and is next to the town pool and park. This small, low, square building is about the smallest venue we have ever attended. Having opened in 1954, the arena has seen some renovations over the years, but remains a tiny, character filled band box of a joint that hockey fans can appreciate. The exterior corners feature the venue name in large white lettering, and the gray and tan cinder block walls are topped with dark gray vertical metal siding. A sign along the main street displays the Rockets logo and announces that they are a community owned team. It is hard to imagine that the Memorial Centre was once even smaller than it is now, but a modern entryway with black siding and a overhang which extends over the lower level entrance was added a few years ago. A small patio area with some shrubbery and a flagpole sits between the parking lot and the main entrance itself. The Rockets have been a staple in Strathroy since the 1960's, although the teams were known as the Falcons and the Blades from the 1970's until 1994, when the Rockets name returned and has been in place ever since. You can sense the community pride for the Rockets driving through town, as a large team banner sits attached to a grain silo at a local feed mill in town. The overall feel of the town is very midwestern, and this just seems like the kind of place that junior hockey belongs. With its tiny footprint you would be hard pressed to believe a GOJHL team thrives here, but the Rockets are well supported and their legacy dates back decades. You can also tell that the town takes pride in this modest venue as the exterior, grounds, and parking lot are kept spotless and in good shape despite being half a century old.
Once inside the West Middlesex Memorial Centre there is a Rockets ticket table set up at the end of the small main lobby on game night. Fans enter into the arena at ice level, or can take the modern stairway up to the upper level of the lobby, where the bar and concession area are. Tickets for the Rockets games are $10, and this Saturday night game against St. Marys was the home opener for the Rockets. When you first get a glimpse of the rink your immediate reaction is "wow that is tiny". The ice is way below regulation size at 180'x75', and everything else about the arena feels equally small. Seating is made up of 4 rows of blue wooden benches on each side, with the lower couple rows barely allowing a normal sized person to see over the boards. The narrow walkway behind the seating is also made of old wooden planks as are the aisles. The glass on the sides of the rink is extremely low, and the ceiling is low, with exposed metal rafters supporting the flat ceiling. A low profile center ice scoreclock is in place attached to the ceiling beams, and an old fashioned press box also hangs from the rafters on one side of the ice. Additional viewing can be found along a standing rail at the upper end of the ice, much of which is reserved for season ticket holders, as well as along the wall on each side behind the bleachers. The far end of the ice features a walkway which can be used to navigate around the rink which is elevated to provide space for the zamboni. You can tell some makeshift alterations were made in the seating layout over the years as one corner of the rink also has 3 rows of chairback seating shoehorned into a small area. There is a single luxury box on the end concourse as well. Many fans choose to watch from the modern upper lobby, which has seating overlooking the ice and a bar area, along with the arena's food concession stand. The lobby has a modern look and is apparently the result of an addition to the original structure of the building. The walls are painted a pale white, and the entire place looks much like it did in the 1950's we suspect, complete with the portrait of the Queen on the side wall above the penalty box. If you are looking for a comfortable place to watch a game, this ain't it, but the arena is filled with character, and exudes a sense of history. Fans looking to warm up between periods head to either the small lower end lobby where the washrooms are along with a very well stocked merchandise stand and 50/50 table, or head to the upper lobby to grab a drink or a snack. Capacity is listed at 1,000, and we supposed you could cram that many people in here if you had to, but even with 300-400 fans on hand for a Rockets game this place feels a bit crowded. Experiencing a Rockets game in this environment takes you back to visions of old time hockey, players playing without helmets, and the glory days of old.
The game day experience at West Middlesex Memorial Centre for a Strathroy Rockets game can best be described by the phrase "old time hockey". Yes, the phrase is over-used in hockey circles, but the layout of the arena, and the tiny size of the rink give the Rockets a decided home ice advantage. The game is physical when played in the close quarters, and the fans are vocal and close to the action. Fans come wearing Rockets apparel, and come to the games ready to make noise. Cowbells can be heard when there is a goal, a big hit, or even a blocked shot on the penalty kill. This is a knowledgeable crowd, and one that is willing to watch the game through sight lines that are far from optimal, in order to cheer on their hometown team. The PA announcements are muffled and echo throughout the building, and the netting in front of the seating, although typical in most of Ontario, seems to block the view a bit more here as the seating is closer to the netting than at most venues. None of that takes away from the charm of seeing a game here however, as a step through the arena doors is like a step back in time. The team does a good job with the game presentation, as a mascot, which is a racoon with a Rockets jersey, roams the crowd and greets younger fans. There is also a fan shootout contest at intermission for kids only as well. The building is full of quirks and old school features including team benches on opposite sides of the ice, and a visiting penalty box that has a plexiglass roof on top which is a throwback to the times when crowds got a little more rowdy. The best viewing can be found by standing behind the top row of seating along the sides, or along the standing rail on the far end, although most of those spots are reserved for season ticket holders. The game itself was an exciting one, as the Rockets claimed a 4-3 win over the St. Marys Lincolns, in a game that ended in a line brawl after the final buzzer. After the fight the cowbells rang and the fans rose to their feet to salute the Rockets on a strong performance. Although West Middlesex Memorial Centre is old, outdated, uncomfortable, and too small it is a fantastic place to experience for hockey fans and is one of the few remaining relics from a bygone era in Southern Ontario as many modern community arenas continue to sprout up across the landscape. We enjoyed our visit here to see the Rockets play, likely in much the same way fans enjoyed junior hockey in Strathroy decades ago.