Periodic thoughts and musings from the desk of...
The best arena, ton-for-ton, in the NHL is the Xcel Energy Center in Minnesota and the most vibrant is the new Forum in Montreal, but my favorite is a little off the charts if not quite off the map - the new Aud in Buffalo.
(Quick digression. Yes, I know that the pleasure palace in Montreal is now the Bell Centre after starting life as the Molson Centre, and my pet in Buffalo takes its name from some bank's initials -- but that's just it: when the new arena opened there, it was named after a different bank, Marine Midland. I am as flexible as the next guy in his 50s who is hopelessly set in his ways, but I do have a firm rule: One name change, I'm good. I embraced, for example, the FleetCenter after the Boston Garden was razed. No problem. But once that name morphed into something else, I reverted to a variation of the original. So major corporations, save those rights' fees. They're wasted on me.)
Now, where were we? Buffalo. The arena in Buffalo has all the attributes I prize in a rink: comfortable without being cavernous (like the United Center in Chicago), downtown (which eliminates Anaheim's Duck Pond and Philadelphia's new Spectrum) and is peopled with smart, involved fans. There are several swell rinks that fit the criteria, including GM Place in Vancouver and the Air Canada Centre in Toronto (and I'm giving a break here to the ACC patrons in the platinum seats in the lower bowl who can't be bothered showing up until five minutes into the second or third period). But those places don't have one thing that the new Aud has:
My view of arena architecture is forever colored by the Madison Square Garden of my youth, when the Garden was on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th St. in Manhattan. There was a movie-style marquee outside that advertised the evening's event and, after passing under it, there was a lobby where the energy swirled, a Con Edison of the spirit where voices were raised in excitement and anticipation. If the Rangers or the Knicks were often disappointments on those nights, the crowded entrance never was.
The new Aud lobby is neither crowded nor dim, but it offers the same kind of frisson of pleasure. There is a sense of community, of a shared experience, long before the puck drops for Sabres games. And really, is there any other reason to go to a professional sporting event in 2007 other than the feeling of community these games offer? The prices are often outlandish. The games are almost all available on television, many now in high definition. The only thing that HD can't replicate is the feeling of a common experience that binds 18,000 strangers for three hours. Not even the segregation of luxury suites can tear apart the unity of the arena experience, even if these suites try their damndest.
With New Jersey opening its new place in Newark later this month - I haven't seen it - Pittsburgh is the next NHL city with the opportunity to really get this right. (The New York Islanders, a team in far more dire need of a new arena than the Penguins, are merely going to refurbish their dowdy Coliseum, but that work is unlikely to start until 2009.) The new Pittsburgh arena should be an Air Canada Center-size of 18,500 and crammed with the appropriate bells and whistles, of course, but it also needs a large common area, a grand lobby to kick off the experience. There is, after all, only one chance every night to make a first impression.