When I penciled in a trip to Columbus to catch the Sabres-Blue Jackets game I had no idea the implications that night would hold.
At the time I decided to add Nationwide Arena as my next NHL road trip, the Sabres were wallowing through a franchise-record losing streak and April 10 looked like a great chance to see the Sabres in a new building in a cool arena district when the weather was nice. I figured any concerns about 30th place would have been locked up and the game would be easy to enjoy.
Obviously that wasn’t the case, as the Sabres put up a strong fight but ultimately succumbed to the Jackets in regulation, locking up a top two pick for June’s draft. That didn’t make Friday’s game less enjoyable, however. While the final period was nerve racking, I loved the arena district, arena and the atmosphere inside Nationwide Arena.
Our trip to Columbus was enjoyable. I took a road trip to Nashville last spring and took in the sights of the city along with a Predators game. I was very impressed by Bridgestone Arena, Preds fans and the overall atmosphere of the building. Nashville, as a city, is loads of fun and I can’t wait to return. Nationwide landed on my list for this season thanks to its proximity and the potential for a warm-weather game in a different locale than Buffalo. It certainly didn’t disappoint.
Nationwide is a very pretty arena. It broke ground two years after First Niagara Center opened, which certainly helps in terms of the design of the building. Like First Niagara Center, it has a proper front door and entry atrium, although Nationwide’s pales in comparison to FNC. In fact, the crush of fans entering the building makes the main atrium something of a nightmare to navigate whether you’re trying to get to the store or to an upper level prior to the game.
Beer was fairly priced and while I didn’t grab any additional concessions, the Delaware North staffed stands all had a very similar look and feel to that of First Niagara Center. I’d invite you to refer to the Ultimate Sports Road Trip for additional information on the amenities at Nationwide.
The atmosphere and attitude within the building was drastically different than that of FNC, however. First, the layout of the seating bowl – which is broken by two towers in the Blue Jackets’ end – is unique. It’s not a contiguous bowl in the lower and upper levels. That gives a different feel to things, as do the towers which are adorned with ribbon boards used for intro videos and other in-game media.
The Jackets’ ran a different intro video for each period which I thought was interesting if not slightly overkill. However, it was cool that they had multiple, energetic intro videos to choose from. It definitely made the Sabres recent intro videos, which have been fairly low key, look sleepy by comparison. I’m looking forward to next season in that department as the Sabres will have plenty of on-ice exploits to pump as opposed to civic pride.
Another thing that really stood out was the fans themselves. Maybe it’s the college atmosphere that you get in Buckeyes country, but, for the most part, the fans were very engaged and tied into what was happening on the ice. It certainly helps that the Jackets are enjoying a surge in success on the ice as they were a likely playoff team had their season not been torpedoed by injuries. That, coupled with their recent hot streak certainly helped in the fan department. However, when comparing to your typical fan at First Niagara Center, it was night and day. Maybe your typical Columbus fan doesn’t have a high #hockeyIQ, but they certainly weren’t shy about cheering their team on.
The Blue Jackets do a good job of massaging that atmosphere as they place a primary focus on selling the game itself. Whether you’re talking about in-game promos or videoboard content, it’s very much focused on the game. They still sell all sorts of time, but it almost always circles back to the game itself.
What stood out most in that regard was the lack of crowd shots. While the game wasn’t completely devoid of them, there were far more replays from the game and far fewer shots of fans waving at the videoboard. I really appreciated that as it was far better than throwing on a nondescript song from Kiss 98.5 and watching fans realize they’re on the screen, wave and try to take a picture of it. Instead, the Jackets keep a steady stream of in-game replays with the odd crowd shot filtered in. This made a big difference, in my opinion, as the fans focus during whistles wasn’t on an idiot in a Chinese knockoff jersey but on a recent play from the ice.
As it was fan appreciation night, the Jackets were doing their best to send people home happy. So every person who was put up on screen went home with all of the prizes available to them in addition to a jersey from one of the team’s scratches. This was made extra special as the team had the player walk out from the concourse to hand the jersey to the fan themselves. I thought that was a terrific addition to the promos and I’d love to see the Sabres steal that idea for future fan appreciation games.
Keeping your interest on the game was what I came away with the most appreciation for. There were still the type of contests you always expect to see during media breaks, but they weren’t monopolized by children. Instead, the team actually engaged the people whose expendable income is used at the arena. I appreciated this and never once rolled my eyes because Liam and his little brother Kenny had to fish through a bucket of pucks or something. I realize these promos and sold spots are a necessary evil, there was just a better feel to it than what you get at Sabres games, in my opinion.
My favorite feature of the night was the use of Stompin’ Tom Connors’ hit the Good Old Hockey Game in the final media break of the third period. They put the lyrics on the screen and make it just like a seventh inning stretch. It is brilliant. It’s a cheap ploy to get fans engaged but it sure as hell beats hearing Sweet Caroline or Pianoman on a Saturday evening game. It also blows the Twin Village thing out of the water.
I should point out that I’m not typically interested in music selections at Sabres games. I thought it was dumb to play a song Lorde recorded for Hunger Games after away goals but that was because the song was incredibly slow, boring and plain old bad. So long as they’re using high energy stuff I won’t care much. My beef has always been how the fans are engaged during the game.
So often I feel that a lot of what happens at FNC is sterilized to an extent. You have the National Grid Noise Meter which requires its own special intro. There’s nothing natural to it. The idiotic Twin Village Recycling cup game at least gets your attention but it’s just another sold sponsorship. There’s too much of that, in my opinion. Many of the contests strike me as something I’d see at a AAA or AA baseball game, not an NHL arena. It was a rare occurrence during last Friday’s game to see shot after shot of fans on the videoboard. Instead there were replays and other videos related to the team and the game. I loved it.
Ted Black and company are always talking about #hockeyIQ. If Buffalo has such a high hockey IQ maybe it’s time to start cashing in on that. Give us more replays, fewer crowd shots and maybe accept that there are fans in the arena above the age of 11.
Things ought to change next year as fans will have plenty of reasons to cheer thanks to the absence of the looming specter of the tank and the potential presence of either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel. The fans hold a major stake in turning FNC into an arena with a stronger atmosphere, but I’d like to see the team take some cues from other franchises in helping this along.
Stay tuned for part two of the recap as I take a deeper look at the city of Columbus and the lessons Buffalo should learn from them.
I’ve had the chance to get to 19 NHL arenas over the years. CBJ ranks up there with one of the most fun places to watch a game. I wished there were more fans at games, because they are very lively. A fun read, thanks.
The crowd was definitely late to arrive last week and there were a few pockets of empty seats. I have to imagine that a few playoff berths would solve that problem during the regular season.