First Visit: October 18, 2023
CHL Arena: 74
OHL Arena: 33
I launched this arena website in the fall of 2003 to chronicle my travels throughout the OHL, but even from the beginning, I also had interest in seeing the places where the OHL was no longer played. I started attempting to visit all the former OHL rinks I could get to during this time, and sometime in 2004 I made a stop into Brantford to see the Civic Centre, home of the Alexanders between 1978-84.
I had driven through Brantford on the 403 countless times back then, but I had never stopped. What I found was a city that was basically the sick man of southern Ontario. Countless storefronts in the downtown were boarded up and vacant, transients were everywhere, and the city was a run-down shell of what it once had been. The Civic Centre, at that time only 35 years old or so, had also seen better days. I don't remember a huge amount about that visit nineteen years ago, but what I do remember is that in the arena lobby, every single suspended acoustic ceiling tile was either missing or badly stained water damage brown, and no one seemed to care. The arena was essentially a smaller clone of the London Gardens, and in just as poor a condition. I took a walk around, snapped some pictures, and left. Never once did I even begin to imagine that someday I'd watch an OHL game here.
Fast-forward to 2023. The Hamilton Bulldogs are unceremoniously evicted from Copps Coliseum and need a place to play; meanwhile Brantford has had the most stunning transformation of any place in Ontario over the past twenty years. The legislation that created the Greenbelt was passed in 2004, and Brantford, coincidentally, is the closest major city to the Greenbelt area without actually being subject to its land-use restrictions. As a result, the city has had a major influx of industry move in, and the Garden Ave exit off the 403, home only to a forlorn Tim Horton's and a gas station in my living memory, now looks like areas of Mississauga. Brantford's population increased by 15,000 in that time, and the city suddenly looked like a viable OHL market when the Bulldogs needed a new home.
The Brantford and District Civic Centre opened as a Centennial project in 1967, on low-lying parkland adjacent to the city's downtown. For decades its exterior was a bland goldenrod colour over yellow brick, but in anticipation of the Bulldogs' arrival the entire exterior was repainted black and grey. It looks stunning. There's a small parking lot on site, and a larger city garage next door, but for my game I parked on adjacent city streets and made the quick walk over.
The arena's main entrance is still the one used on gameday. There's a small lobby that's been whitewashed with a few concession stands, a small souvenir booth, and stairs at either end leading up into the seating bowl. If you turn left and follow the hallway underneath, you'll find access to a larger team store as well as a newly-built lounge area. It appears that reservations are required in the lounge for pregame, but it's open during the game as there's no view of the ice from there.
The Civic Centre is a clone of current or former CHL arenas in London, Oshawa and Sherbrooke. The 1960's four-corner design was laid out with a U-shaped concourse under the seats, stairs to the top in all four corners, and then a top concourse with standing room space at the top of the seating area. The system worked well in all four of those arenas, but in Brantford as in Sherbrooke, the two rinks of this design still open, the bottom concourse has been cannibalized by expanded team dressing rooms and other accoutrements demanded by your modern teenage hockey players. Brantford also has a moat concourse down at the glass, but for reasons unknown this is also restricted access during the game. What this means is that the single, narrow concourse at the top of the seating area is the only way to get around the arena. It is incredibly difficult to move around during the game, which means that for most of the time I spent at the game in Brantford, I remained in my seat.
The seats were all replaced in a 2015 renovation, and they are excellent - ample leg room and wide enough to accommodate all but the fattest ass. The views of the ice are tremendous. The pitch of the seats is steep, and the low ceiling and capacity means the atmosphere in the building is terrific. As a long-time veteran of the former London Gardens, watching a game in Brantford most of all felt like returning home. London had 1500 more seats than Brantford does, but the buildings are similar enough to be brothers, and man, I enjoyed seeing a green and gold Knights team playing in an arena that felt like I belonged there. I imagine long-time Oshawa Generals fans will feel the same - the Civic Centre is even closer in design and capacity to the old Civic Auditorium there.
And sure, Brantford's small, temporary rink has small, temporary rink problems. Needing a bathroom during the game is not recommended, given apocalyptic lineups and difficulty moving around. The team has added small snack bars in the four corners of the concourse just like London used to have, and they were all constantly lined up. The souvenir booth had massive lines all game long. The ice is ten feet shorter than regulation. But I can deal with minor inconveniences. The bones of the rink are all upgraded - no more missing ceiling tiles - and there's new seats, a new press box and scouts level, a new scoreboard, and the interior has been repainted in team colours. Most rewardingly, the game was sold out, and the team's graphics package on the scoreboard emphasized Brantford throughout the game. Make no mistake about it - the Bulldogs are Brantford's team, at least for now.
Brantford Civic Centre is a small, intimate OHL rink; the smallest currently in the league, and one that everyone knows will not be used forever. Either the Bulldogs will move back to Hamilton, or the city of Brantford will build a modern clone rink for them with 5,000 maroon seats and blandness. I'd love to see them succeed here, though, and Brantford has proven they have a place back in the OHL. When the Copps Coliseum renovations are finished, one hopes both cities get a team - the rivalry, if nothing else, would be amazing. In 2004, I wrote about the Civic Centre that "with a few renovations, it could be brought up to code again in the unlikely event that demand should ever warrant it." I'm extremely happy that unlikely event came to pass, and with Brantford a mere 80 km from London, I'd like to go back again and again while I still have the chance to see the OHL in another of Ontario's bandbox arenas.