One hockey fan's journey to the arenas of North America
Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex - Home of the Carolina Thunderbirds
January 2, 2022 - Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Winston-Salem is a blue collar city in the Triad region of North Carolina. Sports like NASCAR and pro wrestling are so popular in the area that they have become cultural, but hockey has roots here as well, which includes no less than 8 franchises occupying the Fairgrounds Annex since its opening in 1989. Those 8 franchises represent 7 different leagues, and include 3 of the 8 franchises known as the Thunderbirds or T-Birds. Hockey's tenure here also includes several years with no active franchise. The FPHL's Thunderbirds seem to be doing rather well, however, and have been in place since 2017. The Annex is part of the Carolina Classic Fairgrounds, one of the larger fairgrounds in the state, and one that is in the city itself, rather than the typical rural fairgrounds. The complex is nestled amongst football and baseball stadiums used by Wake Forest University, and the Wake Forest ACHA hockey team also plays at the Annex. The non-descript building has a barn like exterior, and a peaked metal roof. A large group of parking lots is outside the arena, and quite a few folks were actually tailgating before the game. The building looks older than a late 1980's building from the outside. The exterior walls feature white and tan metal siding, and red stripes adorn the exterior as an accent. The exterior is rather unappealing, but the building is more than functional for hockey at the Federal League level. As this Sunday afternoon game was still in what the city had determined to be under Covid restrictions the arena had the policy that a mask must be worn to enter and then can be removed. Our visit was nearly stopped before it started as I refused to play that game and the security at the door tried 3 times to prevent me from entering while breathing freely, at which point a stern notice that I am exerting my rights was answered with "enjoy the game". A ticket was then secured for $14 at the box office just inside the security checkpoint. The Fairgrounds Annex is neither a welcoming nor a modern building, but it seems to fit in with the area and the Federal League and actually provides a decent old school experience.
Fans entering the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex on game day will enter onto the main concourse which runs under the grandstand. The main concourse lobby overlooks the end of the ice as there is no seating on that end. There is a small Thunderbirds merchandise window in the corner of the lobby, and a couple of food concession stands on that end as well. The most appealing feature for arena fans is the nicely done timeline mural listing all of the prior hokey teams that called the venue home, including the team logos, leagues, and years. There are hallways running all the way around the arena. The seating is comprised of 3 separate grandstands, including 16 rows of gray plastic seats on each side. There is also seating on the far end of the arena, with an additional 14 row grandstand as well as a beer garden and ice level table seating on that end. The walls are a rather drab white with blue stripes. The peaked ceiling is gray with open metal beams. There is no center ice scoreclock here despite plenty of space to install one. The sight lines are decent and there are scoreboards on each end wall. The PA system is loud and clear here. The Annex has the feel of a small college hockey arena rather than a low level pro arena, and has a decent capacity, which is listed at 4000. There is nothing remarkable about the Annex, and no real feature that sets this arena apart. At the same time, it is also a completely adequate arena for hockey at this level.
The game day presentation at A Thunderbirds game is typical of the Federal League. The team skates out through a Thunderbird shaped tunnel. There are contests at intermission such as the fan shot contest and chuck-a-puck. The music during stoppages is an odd mix of oldies and classic rock. The PA announcer come across as a DJ rather than a hockey guy and shouts random comments over the mic during play. The fans here do stand out a bit however, as, for a nontraditional hockey market, they are enthusiastic and loud. There are cowbells. Lots of cowbells. The fans cheer for the Birds and stand up at any sign of 2 players pushing, shoving, chirping each other, or any other action that could remotely lead to a fight. Props to the arena staff as well, as ushers have stop signs at each section entrance holding fans from walking up the aisles until a stoppage in play. This is something we can appreciate, but also something you would not even need in a more traditional hockey market. A decent Sunday crowd filled about 2/3 of the seats, and the game was entertaining, although it lacked physicality. The Thunderbirds looked to have the game locked up, but the visiting Danbury Hat Tricks scored with 30 seconds left with the goalie pulled to tie the contest, and then scored in overtime to take the win and make the long bus ride back to Connecticut a little more tolerable. The Winston-Salem Fairgrounds Annex is not a destination in itself, but it is a decent place to see a game, with a vocal fan base which supports their team. This is the kind of place that you may forget the specifics of a year or 2 after your visit, but will come to the conclusion that you were glad that you went.