First Visit: February 5, 2023 for WHL; October 19, 2018 for NHL
CHL Arena: 72
WHL Arena: 16
In this day and age of modern entertainment centres, the NHL now only has two remaining arenas that predate the 1990's construction boom. One, Madison Square Garden in New York, is old only on a technicality - while the architecture and layout still call to mind the late 1960's, the fact that arena ownership has put literally a billion dollars in upgrades into it makes it feel sparkling and new. And then there's the Saddledome. Opening in 1983 on Calgary's Stampede Grounds and built for both the NHL Flames and the 1988 Winter Olympics, it is the last remaining truly old-school NHL arena in the league. (And never mind that it's still younger than I am.)
The Saddledome's iconic Pringle-shaped roof is instantly recognizable to any hockey fan, and the first view is unmistakeable. There is nowhere else like it anywhere else in the world. Between the oddly-shaped roof, the silver metal cladding that makes up the bulk of the arena's exterior, and the red exterior stairwells leading up to the upper levels, the Saddledome looks quite an awful lot like a spaceship that landed in the middle of the Stampede Grounds. We don't build buildings anymore that would be described as "futuristic", but the Saddledome still looks futuristic even forty years later, like it would belong at Tommorowland at Disney World, or a late 1970's World's Fair. Parking is on site, and it's expensive, but alternate options are limited unless you take transit.
Despite the futuristic design, the bones of the Saddledome are those of a 70's and 80's coliseum. Access to the arena is gained from midway up the building, and entry takes you into a concrete brutalist concourse that serves as a single one for the arena. Along the sides the concourse is quite wide and makes maneuvering easy - it's easily three times wider than the one at Nassau Coliseum was - but in the arena ends it bottlenecks considerably as it narrows. From experience, at a Flames game it is quite difficult to transit between the two sides of the arena, but at a WHL game it's not too difficult given the smaller crowds.
The layout of the seating at the Saddledome is unique. The Flames have the smallest lower bowl in the NHL; one that, were you to put a roof on it above level one, would render the arena a normal modern CHL clone rink. The second deck, by comparison, is enormous, and the front row seats in the second deck are some of the best views of a hockey game that it's possible to get, given that high and close is the best view out there. And somehow, the Saddledome has a proper third deck as well on the sides, way up at the top of the roof. I can attest from NHL experience that the views up there are pretty good, but access is only gotten via climbing through the second tier, climbing an odd staircase that hangs over the seats, and then walking along a catwalk into press level. This also means people with aisle seats in the four corners would have a steady parade of people walking by all game long.
One of the nice things about attending junior games at NHL rinks is the fact that smaller crowds and security staff make exploring far easier. The club seats in Calgary have their own concourse under the main one, and while access is strictly controlled for NHL games, for junior games it was wide open to wander down there. I wound up watching the entire game from wide, comfortable club seats and never had anyone check my tickets.
So far this review has focused more on the NHL experience than the junior one, so let's talk about the Hitmen a little. For a Hitmen game the video board and sound system are put to full use, and apart from the fact that there were fewer concessions open than there would be for a Flames game, it was essentially a similar experience, at least from a facility perspective. But the atmosphere suffered as much as you'd expect from all the empty space. Historically, junior hockey hasn't worked well in NHL buildings, and even when Calgary is drawing in 4 or 5,000 people to a junior game, the Saddledome still feels empty. Is it a great junior hockey experience? Well... no, not really. But in comparison to the experience up the road in Edmonton, or seeing junior games at other NHL-sized rinks, Calgary definitely makes the best use possible of what they have.
It's a shame that Calgary didn't keep the Corral open as a junior rink. The Saddledome is too large for the Hitmen or the Wranglers, and with the Corral demolished, the second-largest arena in town is now Max Bell Centre, which only seats about 2,100. As long as the Hitmen remain at the Saddledome, it's worth going for arena aficionados as a chance to explore the most unique NHL rink left standing without 18,000 other people there. For native Calgarians, the Hitmen were always billed as the affordable, family-friendly alternative to the Flames, but the AHL Wranglers are now seeming to pose a threat to the Hitmen, and time will tell if the team survive and remain at the Saddledome.
Junior hockey works best in smaller arenas and smaller cities, but Calgary has made a go of it consistently for more than twenty-five years now, and of the NHL arenas currently or formerly used by junior teams, they do it the best overall. It's not exactly a glittering crown to wear, but it is something, and if nothing else, I enjoyed seeing the Hitmen as a chance to sit in NHL club seats for a reasonable price at the most unique building left in the league.