First Visit: February 4, 2023
CHL Arena: 71
WHL Arena: 15
I came of age right around the era where the truly old, pre-war rinks of the NHL were all being replaced. I missed out on the Montreal Forum, Chicago Stadium, and Boston Garden, but I saw games at Maple Leaf Gardens and the Quebec Colisée. As good as those experiences were, the one building that affected my love of hockey arenas more than any other, the one that indirectly led me to writing and maintaining this website all these years later, was 1939's Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. I attended a handful of Sabres games there between ages 9 and 13, and I remember vividly the close, intimate views of the ice, the ear-splitting crowd noise, the organ music, and the colour.
The Aud closed in 1996, and I went to my first Sabres game at the new arena in 1998. I was incomparably excited for it on the ride down to Buffalo, and that first game was a life-altering experience for me because of what it wasn't. The new arena in Buffalo was cavernous, full of ads, and quiet, apart from the too-loud volume of the sound system. The experience was nothing like what I remembered from only a few years previous, and it shattered me. That you are reading this website today directly descends from my trying to fathom at age 16 just how much the experience of going to a Sabres game had been ruined by moving across the street. Ever since then, what I've been seeking in attending games at over a hundred different hockey arenas across North America is a version of what it was like seeing the Sabres play in their old, lost Art Deco masterpiece.
This brings me to Medicine Hat. The Tigers were one of the first WHL teams I could name, and my first memory of watching a Memorial Cup on television was the Tigers' 1988 victory over Windsor. Even growing up in Ontario, I'd heard about the intimidating atmosphere at Medicine Hat's tiny and colourful old arena, the one with a decades-long sellout streak and a waiting list for season tickets. I walked through the old barn just before it closed in 2015, knowing that I'd never get to a game there, and then in the winter of 2023 I finally went to see a Tigers game at their new home, Co-Op Place.
Co-Op Place isn't really in Medicine Hat proper. It sits northwest of the city on empty prairie, adjacent to a fertilizer plant and a gasworks and very little else. Medicine Hat bills itself as "The Gas City", and you can really see why while standing outside Co-Op Place. There is apparently a long-term plan to surround the arena with commercial development, but as of eight years after its opening, the land is still pasture lands, to the point that cattle occasionally graze right up to the rink's front door. From the outside, it's an attractive building, built into a hillside with the main entrance at the top. The bulk of the arena is clad in white with grey accents, and two stairwells are painted bright red, which works nicely against the brown prairie that surrounds it.
The main entrance opens directly to a top concourse that rings the requisite blue seats that exist everywhere in the CHL. From the concourse level down, it's your standard CHL clone rink, and if that were it, there would be very little to write about. But what makes Medicine Hat unique is what lies above. A suite level and press box run down the sides, but then in one end only, there is a second upper deck of seating, full-sized, to the point that the capacity if it were extended fully around the building would easily be north of 12,000. The upper level remains closed for Tigers games except when it's necessary to open it, which is basically never. The high capacity and poor location means the team essentially never sells out, and I can't think of another arena in the CHL which is less suited in terms of capacity to the size of its market. A 7,000 seat arena in a city of 63,000 means that a sellout would require that 1/9 of the population of the town attend, which seems unlikely even for a team with the pedigree of the Tigers.
Worse, accommodating the second deck means that the ceiling of the arena is exceptionally high, which only contributes to the cavernous feeling. Above the suite level is empty walls clad in white spray insulation. There's no panelling or cladding up there or anything to either dampen or reflect noise or to make it look better, and it makes the arena feel a tad unfinished. The high ceiling and inability to sell out frequently also means that the atmosphere at Tigers games, once the class of the WHL, is pretty quiet.
Co-Op Place also suffers from the Kingston problem of an arena that doesn't feel like it belongs to anyone. The old Medicine Hat Arena was nicknamed "the Smartie Box" because of its rainbow-coloured seats, whereas the new one is just... bland. The walls are all white with pale green, blue and taupe accents, and the only black or orange anywhere in the building that I saw was in the team store. Arenas work best when they feel like they belong to the team that plays there, and a few gallons of orange and black paint would go a long way towards making the building feel like home.
I don't mean to only be critical of Co-Op Place. The wide concourse is easy to navigate. Views of the ice are all quite good, particularly from the upper level if you're allowed up there. The scoreboard is well-used by the team, and music volume is appropriate. The facilities are as good as you'd expect from a new arena. The arena staff were all knowledgeable, polite and friendly, from a security guard letting us up into the upper level to take photos to the building manager making a point of welcoming us to Medicine Hat. There are things to like about it, and it's not a bad arena, it's just too large, too empty, too quiet, and too generic.
Medicine Hat was my 71st CHL arena visited, and I've also got 32 NHL venues and a handful of minor league arenas under my belt. I've spent my adulthood chasing the best hockey experiences of my youth every time I visit somewhere new, but Medicine Hat was the first one that made me think of my personal Paradise Lost moment in 1998, visiting the Marine Midland Arena for the first time to watch a black and red (?) Sabres team play in a building with the charm and personality of an aircraft hangar. In Medicine Hat, as in Buffalo, something old and run-down but unique and wonderful was lost forever, and what's replaced it is a pale imitation. Most of the Tigers fans I spoke to at the game pined for the old rink, and I can empathize, as few fans would trade atmosphere and identity for clean bathrooms and ample parking.
Co-Op Place is a clean, nice, perfectly adequate facility that has no atmosphere or soul, and the only good news I have for old-school Tigers fans is that the noise eventually did come back in Buffalo, even as the new arena is still cavernous. One sincerely hopes for the sake of Tigers fans that the same will happen to them.