Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Charlotte Checkers 2 at Belleville Senators 1 (AHL) - November 4, 2017

At the end of the 2015 season, the Belleville Bulls of the OHL pulled up stakes and moved to Hamilton to replace the AHL's Bulldogs, who then moved to St. John's to become the IceCaps. That left Belleville without quality hockey for the first time since the Bulls began back in 1981. But the hockey franchise merry-go-round that seems to turn every year soon brought another club back to the Friendly City, and this time it would be a pro team. In September 2016, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk bought the AHL's Binghamton Senators with the intention of moving them to Belleville, which is just a couple of hours south of Ottawa. The move would take place in time for the 2017-18 season, predicated on significant improvements to the main venue, known as Yardmen Arena. Once the team agreed to an eight-year lease, the city approved $20 million in upgrades.

As my parents live in the Belleville area, I was excited about this development and made plans to visit them as soon as the schedule was announced. The Senators spent the first month of the season on the road to allow more time for the renovations to be completed, and finally returned to Belleville to open the home portion of their campaign on November 1st. Two days later, the Charlotte Checkers came to town for a back-to-back series, and I dutifully made my way north to check out one of the games (and visit my parents, of course).

Yardmen Arena was opened in 1978 and is named for a small group of railroaders who raised over $3 million towards its construction. It is now part of the Quinte Health and Wellness Centre complex that has three community rinks, a running track, swimming pool, and other fitness facilities. As the Senators are just one of several reasons to visit the complex, parking is free, but the lots are very crowded as many locals are there to actually get in shape. We arrived an hour before the game and had to park in an overflow lot atop a small hill, while others were parking along roadways and on the lawn. The team does offer a park and ride from nearby Quinte Mall ($2.50 return) which might be useful if you are driving from the west as the mall is right next to Highway 401.

There are main entrances on the east and west sides that lead to the box office. If you order will call from TicketMaster, you can get your tickets printed out there, but if you already have your tickets in hand, you can enter via smaller gates at the northeast and northwest corners of the building.

If you enter from the box office (note the sign commemorating the twin city of Gumpo, South Korea), you will eventually enter a door and find yourself behind one of the nets (above).

Inside the rink proper, the east and west sides are as before, with small balconies atop. These are great seats, especially from the first row, with an obstructed view almost directly above the ice (below). This also means that the last few rows in the lower bowl are covered by the overhang.

The renovations are in the north and south ends - the north is now a large seating section that stretches back and has a small concession stand above. Capacity is now 4,400, an increase of about 1,200 from the OHL days. Other renovations including a new scoreboard above center ice and a smaller rink that matches NHL standards rather than the larger European rinks.

The view from the north end is below.

More interesting is the south side, which includes a special section called the Mezzanine just a few feet from the ice (the longer section in the photo below). At $160 for a table of four, this is a pretty good deal, though only available as a season ticket. Above this is the Fan Zone, which is $120 for a table of four. Given that regular tickets range from $22.50 to $26.25, this is also worth looking into, though again only available for season tickets right now. To get to the upper deck, you will walk up a set of stairs. At one landing, a corner extends toward the ice, and this is used as a standing area by many fans - you can see it on the right in the below photo.

Behind these sections are the main concession stands, which offer limited variety right now. Food is rather expensive even with the exchange rate, with hot dogs going for $5 and popcorn $6 as examples. Nachos are also available. A new carvery is advertised and that will add to the variety. Beer, wine, and liquor stands are scattered around the venue.

The most important attraction here is the Belleville Sports Hall of Fame on the upper level above the East Entrance to the Wellness Centre.

Better to pay a visit here after the game and let the parking lot clear out. There are several dozen inductees, each honoured with a picture along the wall and a brief description of their accomplishments.

Most notable are Bobby and Dennis Hull, who were born in nearby Point Anne (now a ghost town) and played minor hockey in Belleville. I always enjoy these local displays and this is one of the better ones around.

Overall, Yardmen Arena is an excellent addition to the rinks of the AHL. The parking problem is minor, while concessions should improve. I'd like to see some of those special sections behind the net made available on game day if they don't sell out as season tickets. Given that I attended only the third home game for the Senators, I think the team has done a good job in getting the venue ready and I look forward to a return visit next year to see how the final product shapes up.

The Game

Andrew (The Hamburglar) Hammond (above during a break) started in net for Belleville while Charlotte (Carolina's affiliate) had Jeremy Smith between the pipes.

The Checkers had won the previous night's game 6-1 but Belleville notched the only goal of the first period when Ethan Werek (#29 below) was able to chip home a pass from the slot. After a scoreless second period, Charlotte tied things up on a power play when Phil Di Giuseppe completed a pretty passing play, taking the puck at the blue line, zooming down the left wing, and beating Hammond high over the shoulder.

Overtime was looming, but with less than five minutes left, Charlotte's Valentin Zykov broke in and slid a backhand shot past Hammond, who ended up in the net as well. Belleville could not find the tying goal and Charlotte won 2-1 to complete the sweep.


Binghamton still has AHL hockey as the Albany Devils moved there (so no need to revisit), while poor St. John's lost their IceCaps, who are now the Laval Rocket. They are one of the four AHL teams I still need to visit, with the other three being Iowa, Manitoba, and Tucson.

Hammond played well stopping 33 of 35 and I guess some Colorado scouts were on hand as he was traded to the Avalanche the next day. Interestingly, he will remain with Belleville on loan for now.

Next Up

I'm completing the Club 123 requirements this weekend with a quick trip to Detroit to see the Red Wings on Saturday and the Pistons on Sunday. In addition, Oakland University has a women's hoops contest Saturday afternoon, and Wayne State University is hosting a Division II tournament on Sunday afternoon (in a gym built for the 1968 Detroit Olympics), so I'll be adding four new venues to the total. Check back next week for recaps.



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