First Visit: November 20, 1987
CHL Arena: 1
OHL Arena: 1
I grew up in the White Oaks subdivision of London. In the 1980's, White Oaks was the southern edge of the city, and both of my childhood homes were within a few blocks of the London Gardens, home of the Knights. My Dad took me to my first game on Nov. 20, 1987 against the Guelph Platers. It ended in a 3-3 tie, and I can still remember to this day seeing adults shouting and making noise - something I'd never seen before - as well as the dazzling white and green of the Knights' uniforms and the menacing black and red of the visitors. I loved it so much that we started going regularly, and by the time I started working part-time as a teenager, one of the first purchases I made with my newly-found disposable income was a Knights' season ticket ($181 for student pricing in 1999!). Between 1999 and 2002, I barely missed a game, watching from section 17, row E, seat 1 - a place that no longer exists in the current building.
The last game ever played at the London Gardens was a preseason game in September of 2002, and appropriately-enough, it was against the Platers/Attack franchise and ended in a tie. The Gardens still stands today in a slightly run-down plaza in south London, easily visible from the 401. New ownership converted it to a cycling velodrome a few years after it closed, and while I haven't been in the building since 2012, the last time I visited felt like seeing a beloved grandparent in slow, sad decline. Waterproof tarps guarded against multiple roof leaks damaging the wooden velodrome surface, and paint was peeling off the walls everywhere you looked. Most of the seats have been removed - the plastic 1994-vintage seats from the sides were sold to Windsor Arena and presumably are still there, where the old wooden benches were mostly sold off at auction. What remains has been moved to the "centre ice" section for a view of the velodrome.
You wouldn't know it to look at it now, but there was a time when the London Gardens was the most important sporting building in London. London is not and never has been a great sports town, but we've always been a great Knights town, and the team was supported through thick and (mostly) thin for its 37-year tenure in south London. Personally, I miss the place more than I can tell you. It smelled of ammonia and sweat and stale popcorn. And it had fans who had been sitting in the same seats for thirty years and knew each other intimately, terrific hecklers, an 80-year-old man making announcements over the garbled sound system, and among the best hockey atmospheres in Canada. It was old-time hockey personified, and I feel grateful that I got to watch hockey there for fifteen years while growing up.
As an arena, the Gardens was nothing special. It was a cinder-block box attached to a strip mall, with a massive gravel parking lot behind it. It had an understated 1960's homeyness to it, but it wasn't by any means a beautiful building. The building had a "U" shaped concourse area under the seats where the washrooms and concessions were located, while the seating area was designed with the "4-corners" scheme popular in the 1960's. The entry to the seats was from the top concourse. The Gardens was painted in gaudy colours - back in the 1980's everything was in the tasteful team colours of bright green and yellow, but after the Knights' ill-advised colour change in the mid-90's, some things were changed to purple and teal, and the former green was repainted in blue in support of a proposed Colonial Hockey League team that never actually materialized. The end result was you had a building with fluorescent yellow walls, blue, yellow and white seats, and purple and teal accents everywhere. The seating area had newer plastic seats on the sides and older two-man benches in the ends. There were about 15 rows of seats, and the angle was steep. Longtime Knights' trainer Don Brankley made his home in the Gardens under the seats in a small apartment next to the Knights' dressing room. For years as well, the Knights had a retro Zamboni - they owned one model from the 1950's and another from the early 1970's, both of which had the old chain sweeping system. As a child, I thought they were the coolest things I had ever seen.
I saw over 250 games at the London Gardens and I felt like I knew the place as well as my own home. It was raucous, loud, and had the atmosphere of a madhouse. The paint was peeling, the toilets were few and far between, the seats were uncomfortable and the lighting was terrible, but it was a fantastic place to watch a game, with an atmosphere that new buildings could never duplicate. You sat right on top of the action and the players could practically hear whispers coming from the crowd.
The Gardens has been a velodrome for over a decade now, and a large part of me is very glad that the old building is being used productively as the rest of the former Superstore Mall declines into irrelevance around it. The arena's future seems secure and it's in no danger of being demolished any time soon. But again, I miss the ritual of going to games there. From my childhood home we could drive to the rink in five minutes on game nights, and I miss seeing the same faces in the parking lot, in the cramped concourse, and in the seats. I miss the days when the team was unfashionable and had 3,500 diehards attending every game because they loved hockey, not because it was the trendy thing to do. Most of all, I miss the atmosphere. I travel now to experience what it's like watching junior hockey from a terrific seat hanging over the ice while thousands of fans scream and cheer and sing, because in my hometown, that's become a thing of the past.
No Londoner would ever begrudge the building of the Budweiser Gardens downtown - the revitalization of Downtown London is a direct result of the arena's construction, and we get major concerts now - but it came at a price, and that price was the ability to watch hockey the way it was meant to be watched. I have absolutely no issue with the fact that my team is now successful, and London, the fourth-largest independent city in Ontario, needed a bigger and more centrally-located arena. But we lost something irreplaceable in 2002, and I miss it more than I can tell you.