Friday, October 09, 2015

A Preview Look at UNO Hockey's New Baxter Arena

As a UNO alum (class of 1988), I got the chance tonight to take a look at UNO's new Baxter Arena for my very own eyes. I've long been a critic of the facility for several reasons: primarily, it's been built smaller than many UNO hockey crowds, plus the Omaha area really doesn't need four arenas.  (Especially when you consider the financial difficulties being faced by the Mid-America Center in Council Bluffs and the Ralston Arena.)

But UNO built it anyway - and to be sure, there were good reasons why.  It's nice for UNO to not get bumped for other events (except, of course, the Aksarben Coronation this year) and it's closer to campus than the CenturyLink Center. (Please don't call it "on campus" when it's nearly a mile away from the Pacific Street campus and about three miles from the main campus.)

Probably the biggest reason UNO needed to build SOMETHING was the lack of practice ice. For the first 18 years of UNO hockey, the Mavs have bounced from rink to rink in search of a place to practice when the home rink wasn't available. A practice facility has been talked about for over ten years, but nothing was ever done - mostly because of the desire for the holy grail of a practice rink adjacent to the arena. And that UNO has done; literally, the "community ice" rink is across the hall from the arena.  The only thing separating the two is the Zamboni garage, which means that UNO will now keep all their stuff full time at the arena.  When basketball or a concert makes the arena unavailable, they just walk over to the other rink.

For fans, the arena reminds me of a larger Ralston Arena, with mostly open concourses and simply designed fan amenities. It's not nearly as grand as the CenturyLink Center - but it doesn't need to be either. Take the suites, which are relatively spartan compared to the suites downtown at the Clink or TD Ameritrade Park.
For most UNO hockey fans, that doesn't really matter because it's all about the game at UNO hockey games, and sightlines are pretty good wherever you go. I saw a  picture in the World-Herald that made it appear that there were blind spots, but that was a false alarm. I checked my seats in the upper deck and was pleased to see that I could see the dasherboards over the railing.  So the views should be excellent, and yes, a little closer than at the CenturyLink Center.
The seating, on the other hand, might be a bit of a concern. They look like they should be really comfortable, but I quickly discovered that they have much less of a recline than the seats downtown.  Is that a problem? Actually no. For sporting events, you don't want particularly comfortable seats; you want fans jumping up and being active. That's why it's great that UNO used my idea of using benches for the student section. I have no problem with the seating for hockey games.  If I attend a concert there, that might be a different matter entirely.
The pitch of the upper deck is somewhere between the CenturyLink Center and the old Civic, which was really vertical. Overall, it makes the building wider than the old Civic - but maybe not as tall.

Tonight was an open house and chance for skaters to try out the ice, and the rest of my family had a blast. I don't skate, so that left me free to wander the building. (On our backyard rink in the wintertime, I'm limited to being the human Zamboni.)  But for the most part, real impressions will have to wait two weeks for the opening game. There's no way to really gauge what the place will feel like during a game.  They did blow the train horn a few times, but it didn't sound any louder than it did at the CenturyLink Center.
One thing that was great during the open house was UNO's first honest hockey pep band. In the past, UNO has occasionally sent a jazz band with guitars and clarinets - which wasn't very good. A good college pep band does wonders for the ambiance, and this has been a sorely lacking feature at UNO games. I'd love to see them back in two weeks.

Bottom line to me is that whether I like it or not, this is going to be UNO's new home for hockey and despite being undersized for the Omaha area, it's what UNO has and where UNO is going to play. There are no opportunities to expand this building without major renovations; I did see a few spots where a seat or two could be added, but this building is going to be forever capped at under 8,000 fans.  For some UNO fans, that's more than enough, but for people like me that have dreamed of UNO being something even bigger, well, that dream is over. What UNO has is what UNO will have.


giggity said...

The Gophers play in an arena that is slightly larger than Baxter. If a big rivalry shows up and they can sell 19000, like back in the day when Wisconsin actually had a good hockey team, they will play in a bigger arena. I'm sure NO can do the same thing. Good luck.

Husker Mike said...

Unless someone coughs up $100 million or so, UNO isn't moving out of Baxter.