The face and image of hockey in Manitoba can best be personified by the old Winnipeg
Arena - the WHA Avco Cup championships, the fan "white outs", the massive portrait of
Queen Elizabeth II hanging from the rafters, Bobby Hull and the Winnipeg Jets. But in
1996, their NHL team was brutally ripped from this city for the deserts of Arizona. The
minor league Manitoba Moose filled the void, but it just wasn't the same. The franchise
needed a buzz.
And now they got it ! The sparkling new MTS Centre is the downtown home of the AHL
Manitoba Moose. It opened with great fanfare in November of 2004, and hockey fans in
these parts are reconnecting with the sport they love and starting new traditions and
making new memories in the process.
Getting to the venue -
The arena is built on the site of the old Eaton's department store, on Portage Avenue,
which is the de facto main drag in this city. Winters here can be rough, so the city built
an elaborate and well laid out series of overhead covered skywalks throughout
downtown to take you from building to building, and the MTS Centre seems to be
geocentrically positioned. Plenty of surface lots and ramps within easy walking
distance to the arena, and traffic seems to flow well and disperse easily after the
We should mention here that downtown Winnipeg is typical of most Canadian cities
that we have visited - clean streets, little or no blight, safe to walk around. The Portage
Place shopping mall is a block away from the arena, and plenty of high rise hotels
also within easy walking distance. Their baseball stadium, CanWest Global Park is
about a half mile to the east along the river, and houses an independent league team,
although it is built to AAA standards.
Architecture and design -
The building has a really cool look, kind of a sweeping glass "wave" which marks the
roof line along Portage Avenue. A cylindrical shaped glass atrium serves as the main
entrance, and colorful banners hang inside and give this building a nice look. At night
the facade is floodlit in bright blues and greens, giving yet another colorful dimension
to the exterior.
Concourses and seating bowl -
This is actually a three level building, with upper and lower concourses, and a suite
concourse in between. Escalators in the main atrium take fans up and down, and also
double as part of the skywalk system, so one actually has to leave the interior
concourse and rescan your ticket to re-enter at a different level. Concourse section
signage is really nice here - murals of the area's "northern lights" in the sky are
photographed in wooded settings, the lights being so typical in this region. And the
murals are done in soft blues and greens, so the concourses have a sort of country
lodge feel to them. At the north end concourse is a display for the "Manitoba Sports
Hall of Fame", plaques of notables from this region.
The seating bowl here is two levels, with a ring of 50 suites at the top of the lower
bowl, but access to the suites is via a separate concourse. A four sided Daktonics
video board and companion LED stat boards, and a "power ring", what they call the
360 degree surround ribbon board around the balcony, serves as the state of the art
electronic set up here. Interestingly, the Moose did not bring all their old championship
banners from the old arena. Instead they commissioned three distinct banners titled
"Heritage Arenas" wherein they display lists of the former Winnipeg hockey venues, the
teams that played there and the championships they won. Very nicely done!
Premium seating -
In addition to the 50 suites, club seating can be found in the north end zone and
corners in the lower level. These seats are accessed via a private club area called the
"John Labatt Lounge" offering full bar service and drink rails with a great view of the
ice. Right below in the basement is a premium restaurant called "The Exchange
Restaurant and Beer Market".
A "Moxies Grill" casual dining restaurant is located on the street level along Portage,
open to fans inside and patrons from the outside. Concessions here tie into local
themes, with "Red River Grill", "Voyageur Smokehouse" and "Northern Lites Snacks"
among them. A couple unique items? The "Pickerel Fingers", a fish indigenous to this
area, or try the "Poutine", cheese curds dipped in gravy. But Andrew's favorite? Easily
the "Ukrainian Platter", potato pyrohy smothered in onions and sour cream, and served
with sliced kielbasa. Mmmmmm! But memo to MTS Centre - with all that's been going
on in Ukraine lately, shouldn't the Grillworks Ukrainian food stand canopy be redone in
Hat tricks, assists, penalties...
Assist... Gotta give props to Manitoba Moose staffers Scott Brown and Kevin Moore for
going out of their way to make this visit to Winnipeg truly extraordinary. Thanks guys
and we welcome you into the USRT Hall of Fame!
Penalty... In a unique marketing strategy, the Moose have cordoned off the upper level,
and sell only 8812 seats per game. They are doing so to build demand for their
product and eliminate the perception that a hockey ticket here is easy to get. While we
applaud their thinking, we didn't get the feel and panorama of what this building really
is like, because the entire balcony was shrouded with black curtains.
Hat trick... To Winnipeg hockey fans who are responding by buying tickets and
supporting the team. Granted, there will always be the curiosity factor with a new
venue, but 11 sellouts in the first two months since opening is still quite a feat!
Penalty and game misconduct... To Jetsgo Airlines, for lousing up our travel itinerary
on both legs of our flights. Outbound was cancelled, and we had to spend time and
energy seeking alternative plans. The return flight was not only delayed, but getting
luggage onto the carousel on arrival at Pearson took 45 minutes. Unacceptable!
We need to applaud this community for making their dream of a new arena a reality.
When the NHL Jets moved from here in 1996, there was a lot of despair and a
hangover which persists to this day, and perhaps a feeling that they are now a second
tier city. Not so! To begin with, as visitors we could feel a sense of vitality and
excitement here which is not unlike Canadian cities such as Toronto or Vancouver,
perhaps not as big sizewise but still there. Second, everything about the MTS Centre is
major league - the modern architecture and amenities, the superb location, and
everything the Moose do as far as game day presentation matches up with the show
you will see in most NHL arenas.
Can this be an NHL city once again? At first glance our answer would be "no",
because, despite all this building has to offer, it lacks the size and public spaces
which peer NHL venues have in this day and age. The premium amenities are way
insufficient in today's economics to raise the funds needed to sustain salaries at the
NHL level. And Winnipeg people seem to be a lot like Buffalo people - hard working,
blue collar types who understand the value of a buck, unlike the idiot lemmings in
Toronto who will gladly pony up C$195 for a lower level seat at a Leafs game, kids
dental work or mortgage payments be damned.
For now, not too many people here seem to care - they have a beautiful arena to
showcase their city to the world, and a competitive team to root for in the AHL. And if
out of the ashes of the NHL labor dispute comes some sanity and a new economic
structure, perhaps a return to the Bigs for Winnipeg isn't such a pipe dream after all.
R.I.P. - Winnipeg Arena - and yes, "Thanks For The Memories"
The old Winnipeg Arena saw its final hockey game in November, 2004. Seats are
being torn out as we speak, and the building will soon see the wrecking ball. But one
look around and we could still see in our minds the huge mural of Queen Elizabeth II
high in the rafters, looking down on a SRO crowd all decked out in white. We could
feel the jubilation of the fans who cheered on superstar Bobby Hull and the WHA Jets
as they hoisted their Avco Cup banners to the rafters. And then the merger and, for a
few shining years, this was an NHL city.
Time to turn the page... the MTS Centre is now the symbol and face of Manitoba
hockey. But for local fans here and for those who love the sport everywhere,
Winnipeg Arena will always hold a special place in many hearts. RIP Winnipeg
Arena, and "Thanks For The Memories."